In Defence of Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross)

A white woman from the University of Chicago recently published an account of her unfortunate encounters in India. She was sexually harassed and assaulted on several occasions. The story received widespread attention, and Rose Chasm had many sympathizers, but as all cases of sexual assault stories go, she also had to face severe negative backlash.

One might say that is to be expected, seeing as how sexual assault victims haven’t exactly had the kindest audience. However, what was surprising about the Rose Chasm case was that she faced severe backlash from women, who know perfectly well what it’s like to be at the receiving end of such abuse.

Let me start with this article written by Polly Hwang which says “People who generalize are evil”, thereby making… a generalization. In her article, she says:

Not to chastise Rose Chasm in anyway but she should not have been dancing in the Ganesha street festival known for its hordes of extremely drunk young men. She should not have stayed in cheap shady hostels in Goa which I’m sure had no positive online reviews. She should not be flipping fingers at locals and most importantly, she should have left after her first incident of sexual harassment, instead of staying for over 90 days and developing PTSD. I’m not victim shaming in any way, the pigs who tormented Rose Chasm take 100% of the blame. However as foreigners, it’s our responsibility to be aware of how to behave and live in the local culture.

That’s a whole bunch of “She should not have…” statements followed by a cautionary “I’m not victim shaming.” Did the definition of victim shaming change while I slept in a cryogenic chamber for about one thousand years? I don’t understand how telling someone what they shouldn’t have done, and including a clause about leaving a place after experiencing one instance of sexual assault so as to not “develop PTSD” is not textbook victim blaming. I live in India, I’m a victim of sexual assault and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t appreciate this “advice”. It is patronising, misleading, and misogynistic. There is nothing victims can do to “prevent” sexual assault. If Rose had stayed in a not-shady hotel instead of a “shady” one, there would be no telling if she would be safe. Out of the 244,270 reported sexual assault cases in 2012 in India, 98% pointed to trusted friends, family or acquaintances as the perpetrators of the crime. That’s a staggering statistic. So, what should Rose have done? Should she have never visited India? On one hand, Polly’s article makes the case against generalizing Indian men, and says:

By implying that every man she met in India is a pervert and by not giving any examples of good decent Indian men, she is indirectly stereotyping Indian men in a very harmful way.

And then she implies that Rose should not have stuck around. Great, then we could all gang up on her again and say she generalised from one bad experience and decided to not stay. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Should she have been clairvoyant and known she’d get PTSD? Also, why should anyone suffering from that wretched trauma-inducing medical nightmare have to go out of her way to make commendable statements about Indian men? It makes no sense. If I were suffering from PTSD, while writing about my experiences and battling my trigger-prone brain and depression, the last thing on my mind would be appending a statutory line about the goodness of the hearts of the scores of Indian men who really are nice people. It is not Rose’s responsibility to include a clause so as to not save all the men in my country from coming under bad light.

Polly wasn’t the only one. Here’s another such seemingly empathetic post from another woman called Dilshad Master. Dilshad says:

Getting out alone, on foot, would be equivalent to…well let’s say, you and your friends dancing at the Ganesh Chathurthi festival on the streets of Pune. What in the world were you thinking? Oh, hang on, you weren’t thinking.

Life pro-tip:  To express your sympathy/empathy for someone who was tortured in your home country, do not adopt a sarcastic tone that is condescending towards the victim.

She then goes on to say:

I’m not quite sure which “lovely hotel in Goa” you stayed in. Did anyone recommend it to you on Trip Advisor or perhaps your friends on Facebook? Did you actually go through the comments on either or did you click on reservation, letting price and availability be your only guide? You see, we wouldn’t do that In India, not anywhere in the world. And if we did (like I did in Chicago), then we’d do it fully aware of the consequences.

More condescension and perfect 20/20 hindsight introspection for a sexual assault victim. This poster really is asking if Rose took enough precautions, implying that if she didn’t, she should have and that it would have made her life easier.

Then there was another article published on the same iReport section of CNN as a response to Rose Chasm, written by “twoseat”. In it, she says:

I want to address the consequences that arise from writing that lends itself to careless generalizations. The problem that this article has is that it ends up blaming an entire population for the actions of some.

The problem that ^that article has is that the article it references, does not, in fact, blame an entire population for the actions of some. Rose Chasm never insinuated or stressed that Indian men are all horrible, raging beasts. She only recounted her painful experiences and yet, twoseat thinks it is Rose’s responsibility to “articulate both sides”.

And then there have been those countless posts that are quick to point out that sexual assault also happens in the USA. Just read the comments section on any of the aforementioned articles. How is it okay for people to think Rose Chasm was playing the blame game here? She did not intend to demonise India, so why are people asking her to reflect upon the problems within her own country? Does the fact that there’s sexual assault in the USA negate Indian problems? Does it make people feel any better to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who rape and plunder!”? I can’t think of any other reason than derailment.

Although all these articles were written in good faith, they are perfect examples of how good faith can pave the road to hell. A sexual assault victim should not have to listen to multivarious accounts of what she should or should not have done. She shouldn’t have to listen to “advice” masked as apologia. She shouldn’t have to be told that she wasn’t prepared “enough”. She shouldn’t have to be coerced into acknowledging all the kindness and beauty in the world when she is trying to recuperate from acute trauma.

In a lot of ways, articles from these women are reminiscent of some statements made by Indian “leaders” that essentially place the onus of safety onto victims. Statements that dissect every action of the victim in hindsight and provide no comfort except obligatory platitudes.

Candle-light marches, prayers, and aggression don’t mean anything if we aren’t willing to admit that India has a problem (which is also prevalent in the rest of the world, no doubt, but that’s hardly the point) which can only be solved by a conscious, collective effort not make the women more liable in “preventing” something that really isn’t in their control. This is a nation where one rape is reported every 20 minutes, and that’s not counting the unreported cases, and other forms of sexual assault.

Considering the fact that science has actually associated demure behaviour to be what most sexual assault perpetrators look for in a victim, we should question whether we’re putting women at significant risk by advocating modest clothing and submissive behaviour. We should acknowledge that by contributing to an already enormous narrative of teaching women to not “get raped” rather than teaching men (and in some cases, women) to not rape, we’re tip-toeing on a dangerously thin rope. We’re promoting rape culture that makes rapists feel at home, while making the victims feel guilty. We’re completely neglecting a victim’s state of mind while we chide her choices without understanding the “neurobiology of sexual assault” (here’s a transcript of that video) and how “secondary victimization” can further a person’s trauma.

We owe it to our sisters to educate ourselves about a persistent, ugly social evil and really empathize with their struggles.

TL;DR: Do not blame the victim. Be brilliant like these men in Bangalore who wore skirts in solidarity for women, thereby making a bold statement about clothing (or anything else) never being an “invitation” for sexual assault.

Privilege, Helplessness, and Choice

In India, labour is cheap. A middle-class family like mine can afford domestic workers. Laxmi (name changed) has been coming home for over three years now, every day. She scrubs the floor, does the dishes and the laundry. She sometimes cleans the bathrooms, and tends the plants.

Laxmi is old and poor. She sits on the floor with some porridge my mother prepares for her every day, and tells her in broken Tamil, stories of how her drunk husband abuses her – the details of said abuse hidden in her descriptions but not in her scars. Of how her son is a “leech” and never contributes toward the family income or chores. Of how distraught she is because her oldest daughter married for love.

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