Recently, my social media feeds were overwhelmed with posts about this CNN iReport story by Michaela Cross. The piece recounts her experiences with sexual harassment as a Western woman in India during her Study Abroad term. From inappropriate stares to uninvited physical approaches, most of what she describes I can relate to as a Western woman who recently returned from India after a year living in the City of Bangalore.
I, too, felt the eyes on my body every time I stepped out in India. I was approached by men I didn’t invite into my space, men who refused to leave, men who got uncomfortably close. I was groped and followed. I was the object of crude comments. Every time I wanted to go out, I felt restricted because of my sex. In India, the term ‘eve-teasing’ is used to describe public sexual harassment of women – and it happens all the time.
For every negative experience though, there were ten positive ones. My time in India was marked more by wonderful encounters than by negative ones – but sometimes, the negative experiences leave a deeper mark. Another University of Chicago student responded to Cross’ account from a different perspective. In a very powerful and important piece, she highlights not only another side of the Country, but also the danger of attributing this behavior exclusively to India.
Sexual violence isn’t India’s disease – it’s a global epidemic.
While in India, I was also aware that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to the harassment, violence, discrimination and danger that millions of Indian women and girls face every single day. I knew that should something happen, I had options. I could go to the police or to my embassy. I could leave, and never look back. But the Indian women who deal with this every day – what are their options? Many of them are poor and from lower castes, without any opportunities for escape or justice. Many endure violence at the hands of their husbands or other male family members daily. Many lose their lives to this violence – for no other reason than being born female. This happens today, tomorrow and beyond, to thousands of Indian women who never make the headlines of CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera – Women who don’t have the option of sharing their experiences through blogs.
Even though I had options, leaving India would not have solved the problem because this doesn’t happen only in India. I’ve experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in every country I’ve visited. While sexual violence takes different forms in different places, it is still a global phenomenon that no country is free from. Sexual violence is not an Indian issue, or a cultural issue, or a religious issue. This is a universal problem that every woman is exposed to in her life, regardless of where she is born, the color of her skin, where she lives, and where she travels. I’ve been groped in Finland, followed in America, sexually harassed in bars, on streets and in public spaces in Brazil, Kenya, Sweden and Estonia. No country gets to lift itself on a pedestal with regards to this issue. I believe Cross’ experiences were traumatizing, and I think she did the right thing by writing about her experiences – but I also think that we have to be careful not to demonize an entire country or culture.
We have to condemn the behavior itself, no matter where it happens, no matter who the target is. We have to send a message that no amount of sexual harassment is acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, and that there are no excuses. We have to work towards a world where every woman and girl has a voice and options – where no victim of sexual violence has to stay silent, or remain in a violent situation because they don’t have the same choices as others.
Many victims of sexual harassment or abuse never come forward, and it must have taken a lot of courage for Cross to share her story. I hope the discussion can now move beyond India and beyond focusing on one particular country. Sexual harassment happens in every single corner of the world, to every single type of women and girls – and we must never become blind to it, or accepting of it. Not in India, not in the United States, not in Finland – not anywhere.
- Take a look at this Buzzfeed article on domestic violence awareness ads from around the world, including Lebanon, The U.K., The United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Serbia and The United States. (Warning: graphic and violent images)
- Follow the story and responses to it on CNN