On March 4, 2015, the BBC released the documentary “India’s Daughter,” which was based on the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape and death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, or “Nirbhaya,” an event that sparked international outrage. Upon the film’s release, I received many questions from my non-Indian friends on my thoughts on the film, and the “rape problem” in India. I criticized the Indian government’s decision to ban the film; I criticized the society that makes talking about sex taboo, the pervasive rape culture that on the one hand idolizes Bollywood “item girls” and on the other hand puts female virginity on a pedestal and sets a double standard for men and women. These are criticisms that I believe are warranted, and should be discussed openly by the Indian community.
However, after I gave my thoughts on the situation, one friend said to me, “I could never travel to India, it’s just too unsafe for women; I could never be in a country that treats women like that.”
I’ve gotten comments like this a lot, and each time it gives me pause. I understand where they are coming from—after all, I had just freely criticized Indian society and its rape culture. However, I always find myself feeling defensive when hearing generalizations about the way my culture treats its women, especially when these generalizations come from non-Indians. I find myself wanting to fight back, to shout, “That’s not the only thing about India!” or “We still have the same problems in the U.S.! Rape culture exists everywhere!” But often when I push back, I see their eyes glaze over—I see people unable to accept that their generalizations of India are far too simplistic, that when I criticize Indian culture it doesn’t mean I am condemning it; that when I defend Indian culture it doesn’t mean I am condoning it.
I traveled to India for the first time alone in December 2012, about a week after the Delhi gang rape occurred. I remember how fearful my friends were for my safety, how I was told over and over again to exercise extreme caution. I remember hearing those same pleas for my safety when I returned to India and lived in Delhi in the summer of 2014. I’ve heard many times, from many people in many different situations, people begging me to be careful because India is “so unsafe.”
And this concern is not totally unwarranted. I do make a point to not wear short-shorts or revealing clothes in India to avoid unwanted attention. I never go places alone in India—I’m always with a group of friends, or with a family member. My hand is always over my purse, and I’m always paying attention to my surroundings. But this is because I’m a visitor to the country. I’m unfamiliar with India, I was not born there; I don’t speak any Indian languages; I’m often not staying in very wealthy or tourist-y areas. My experiences in India are not equivalent to the 1.2 billion people living in the country. The few “inconveniences” or criticisms I have of India do not negate how much I love being there. I love visiting my family. I cherish my childhood memories of playing cricket and badminton on the roof of my cousin’s apartment building, of huddling into the neighbor’s flat when the power went out and playing rummy by the lantern light. I have fond memories of walking in my grandparents’ backyard and picking mangoes off of the trees, of drinking coconut water straight from the coconut while walking down Marina beach, of drinking filter coffee and real chai with Parle-G biscuits. I love visiting the historical monuments and temples, and taking the train and looking out the window to marvel at how beautiful the countryside is. I love how rich Indian culture is—the music, the dance, the food, the clothes, the architecture, the history. There is so much to love about India, and when I hear people say that they would never visit there because of their perception of women in India, it hurts because this is not the singular narrative of my heritage that I want the world to see.
Earlier this year, award-winning Indian journalist Barkha Dutt elucidated the problem with a single narrative when she spoke with Norah O’Donnell of “CBS This Morning” and Leslee Udwin, creator of “India’s Daughter,” on a panel to discuss the film. Brown said that after seeing the film, she was shocked to see how unsafe India is for women. Dutt responded:
“This is where I have a disagreement, and a fierce disagreement, with the narrative that has been built around my country…no less than Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has chronicled that statistically, the incidence of sexual violence is higher in the United States and in the United Kingdom than it is in India, so I do not like the generalizations about my country. And I want to make one more point – I have interviewed Hillary Clinton about five times, and every time I used to ask her, ‘Why is it so difficult for a woman to become the president of the United States of America?’…these are not conversations we have in India, we had a woman leading us as prime minister about four decades ago…we have paid maternity leave, we don’t have a debate about abortion or reproductive rights, so gender is more complex than that.”
Complex. That is the key word. Gender is more complex than that. Sexual violence is more complex than that. Sexuality is more complex than that. Race, ethnicity, culture, are all more complex than that. These complex factors continuously intersect with each other, and yet we still find ourselves unable to accept complex narratives of people, of cultures, of entire countries.
This is what happens when we are fed a single story. In her famous TEDTalk, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the single story of Africa that is fed to us by Western literature, and instances where she herself has bought into a single story in her own life. However, she notes that:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power…power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
Adichie gives a telling anecdote about speaking with a university student, who told her that “it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in [Adichie’s] novel.” Adichie replied that she had just read “American Psycho,” and it was a shame that all young Americans were serial killers.
Adichie continues, “But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.”
Ever since December 2012, the single story of women in India has become that of Nirbhaya. The stories of successful women, women breaking through glass ceilings and pushing back against misogyny and corruption, are drowned out by the media clamor over India as a cesspool of sexual violence. While it is necessary for us to criticize India’s rape culture and strict definition of gender roles, we should be able to do so freely without the fear of sacrificing a diverse, rich narrative of Indian heritage and culture overall.
When I criticize India to my non-Indian friends, my criticisms feed into the single story of India, the narrative the western media builds around my culture. When I talk about the bad parts of India, it builds upon the preconceived negative image of India that many non-Indians have. As an Indian-American woman, who has had the privilege to visit India numerous times in my lifetime and see a variety of experiences, I have never had a single story of India—but even then, my story of India is not complete or comprehensive. As American citizens, regardless of culture or background, we are privileged to have our stories be multifaceted and complex, while we continue to accept simplistic stories of other peoples or cultures.
When we talk about gender in India, when we criticize rape culture and misogyny, we do it out of concern for the basic human rights of women. However, if we are to truly respect and recognize those rights, if we are to truly create meaningful social change in this world, we must accept the complexity of the narratives surrounding gender and sexuality in India and in all other countries. We must accept that things are not easy, that they are not black and white. We must listen to people’s stories, and not accept them as the truth for everyone in their group. We must welcome diversity not just in race or gender, but in lived experiences. By embracing the complexities of our lives and stories, and learning from those complexities, we can move towards a society where we take ownership of our own stories, and where all voices are heard.