Wearing the Blame
In December 2012, Jyothi Singh, a 23 year-old female university student, was brutally raped on a bus in New Delhi as she tried to make her way home from the movies. There were six men involved, including the driver. They beat her male companion unconscious, after which they raped her, ripped apart her insides with a metal pole, pulled out her intestines and left her for dead on the side of the road.
Three years later, on death row, one of her perpetrators reflected on his actions – “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” said Ram Singh.
The rape shook India to its core. Outrage over the incident inspired the growth of a national movement against sexual violence and a fight for gender equality. Women and men rose up together, calling for the perpetrators to be severely punished, expressing national shame and crying out for a commitment to cultural change. Yet, reports of rape and child sexual abuse in India are still growing.
In India, it is illegal for the media to publicly reveal the names of rape victims. This is to protect the victims from the social shame they would be subject to if it were revealed they had been tainted by sexual contact. That’s right, the victim of the rape, not the perpetrator, would be shunned by society. However, after her death, Jyoti Singh’s parents made the decision to reveal her identity. Since then, she has become a uniting symbol, India’s daughter.
In the midst of a rapidly modernising economy, traditional values surrounding sexuality continue to dominate Indian culture. Outside the big cities, it’s frowned upon for unmarried men and women to touch each other in public, and the dowry ritual is still common. But, while it is a developing nation, India is also a world leader in technological development.
This means that many Indian men are forming an understanding of sexual expression through what they see on their screens, rather than learning through real contact on equal terms. Both Hollywood and the porn industry profit from the glamourisation of violence – and in Hollywood, where sex sells, most plotlines will see a white male protagonist bed a white female protagonist with relative ease.
Simultaneously, data shows some of the highest numbers of Google searches for porn are coming from Indian cities, with “rape porn” a commonly searched term. Alongside this, traditions that privilege men still permeate Indian society. These two ways of thinking have combined, creating a trend of violent misogyny.
As a traveller in India, I experienced a country rich in culture, history and diversity. As a female traveller in India, I also experienced this pervasive misogyny. I experienced it through a lustful, hate-filled gaze, a gaze which sapped my personhood. In the eyes of many men, I became an incarnation of the sexually permissive women they had seen on their screens. I experienced it as I was groped between my legs while walking down the street, when a man thrust his crotch in my face repeatedly while I waited for a train, as I was followed through dark streets back to my hotel.
But I recognise my good fortune as a temporary tourist. This pervasive hatred and power imbalance sees many Indian women and children subject to routine violence from which they have no escape.
When I returned home, I chatted to a male friend about what I had experienced over there and he asked me, “Okay, but like, what were you wearing?”
I hung up the phone.
I had made a conscious effort to respect and understand the culture while I was in India, but still found myself rummaging through the clothes I had packed in my memory, asking “Were those sleeves too short, that dress long enough, oh shit, had I been disrespectful?”
And then I heard, in the echoes of my friend’s voice, the words of Ram Singh – “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
When travelling, it’s important that we try to remove the lens of our cultural values from our judgements. But the discomfort I felt in India wasn’t to do with my inability to understand another culture; it was to do with my gender. I felt that same discomfort back in Australia when I realised my male friend was telling me I was responsible for the lust, and the hatred in the eyes of those men.
The idea that a woman is to blame for a man’s inability to control his sexual urges or violent behaviour is one that permeates most societies. In some places it stems from imbalances in the value society places on the lives of men by giving them power and control over the decisions and lives of women. In others, in places that pride themselves on the fact that they value equality and respect, it manifests itself more subtly – in the emphasis placed on women’s appearance, in the trend of slut shaming on social media, in the question, “Okay, but like, what were you wearing?”
If we respect the values of the country we are guests in, we can challenge ourselves, and by challenging ourselves we can learn a lot. But opening ourselves up to different cultures does not mean we should subject ourselves to the uglier manifestations of male privilege, namely violence and misogyny. When I arrived home from India and I threw on my favourite dress – short and sleeveless – I expected to feel relieved, but something still weighed heavy on my mind. I could wear what I wanted in Australia, but I wondered if there was anywhere in the world I could travel where I wouldn’t wear the blame.
* The perpetrator and the victim share the same last name, but are unrelated.