When sexual violence happens in the United States, not only do we have a habit of ignoring its root causes, we also reduce it to a “few rotten apples”. But in either case, we do not blame America’s “culture,” or the American nation as a whole. The inability to properly understand the sexual violence epidemic in India, and the resort to “cultural” or “national” explanations for these crimes, exhibits orientalism and reductionism. Moreover, it serves to undermine awareness of sexual violence in the West. And perhaps, most importantly, it does not give us meaningful solutions for how Indian society, as it demands justice for the victims of sexual violence, can move forward to protect the rights of women.
In contrast to the government’s abhorrent response to rape, the Indian public has been widely critical. Protests in solidarity with women and demanding justice for victims of sexual violence have erupted up all over India, from Delhi, where the horrible crimes were committed, to Kashmir. The upsurge of Indian anger has poured into the streets. Videos have not captured silence, but a swell of angry men, women, and youths willing to fight with police over both the right of women to safety in public and the right to demonstrate itself.
But you wouldn’t know it from some commentators, both Indian and “Western”. Instead, they have reduced India’s rape crisis to a cultural problem. Men, we are told – specifically, Indian men – are culturally lacking and barbaric. They have no concept of women’s rights or equality. They are born and bred to sexually assault and degrade women. This is a familiar phenomenon, and an outgrowth of colonialism. When horrible crimes happen, specifically to women, we reduce the culture, in this case, of about 1 billion people, to a gang-bang-enabling society of rapists. And of course, by blaming Indian culture specifically, Western sexism is brushed under the table. We arrive at Gayatri Spivak’s formula explaining the colonial exploitation of anti-woman violence in colonized societies: “white men saving brown women from brown men”.
The process of reducing brown men to savages has been all too familiar in recent years. We have seen Egyptian men reduced to “animals” and “beasts” by the New York Post because a mob high on a combination of stupidity and jubilation about Mubarak’s downfall brutally assaulted white reporter Lara Logan. We have seen a number of “native informants,” from Mona Eltahawaly to Hirsi Ali, tell us that Arab and Muslim men “hate” women. In typical colonial fashion, gender dynamics, including real crimes and acts of brutality, are reduced to “cultural” problems in which we can reduce entire societies to large gang-bang parties predicated on savage men who simply prey on women.
“Native informants” – people who can give us the illusion of authenticity in promoting these narratives by identifying as nationals from the countries and societies in question, such as Mona Eltahawy and Hirsi Ali, are key to this narrative. As Oxford doctoral candidate and Rhodes scholar Monica L. Marks notes, “Books by these “native voices” — including Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel,” Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita” in Tehran, and Irshad Mandji’s “Faith Without Fear” — have flown off the shelves in post-9/11 America despite being roundly rebuffed by leading feminist academics such as Columbia University’s Lila Abu-Lughod and Yale’s Leila Ahmed”. Indeed, many of their first-hand accounts are “largely inaccurate and guilty of extreme generalizations,” but sell because “tell us what we in the West already know — that there’s something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs”. One cannot, of course, deny the existence of discrimination and crimes like the assault of Lara Logan; but to assume that Muslim or Arab “culture” is intrinsically responsible – as opposed to context, and political and social factors such as an unequal distribution of power between men and women – is reductionist and narrow-minded.