Top Menu

Orientalist Feminism Rears its Head in India

Bangla Rape Protests

Activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh protest against rape. Photograph: Rehman Asad/ Rehman Asad/Demotix/Corbis

Protests following the brutal rape and murder of a young Indian woman have spread to beyond India to other countries in the region, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Had this incident occurred in Muslim-majority Pakistan, it would have no doubt gone viral in the looniverse, where it would have been presented as evidence of Muslim depravity and an indictment of Islam. Since it happened in secular, Hindu-majority India, it can’t be used to vilify Muslims, and therefore is barely worth mentioning. Professional hatemongers masquerading as human rights activists save their crocodile tears for women whose misfortune can serve as props in their crusade against Islam.

Geller and her ilk rail against “Islamic Supremacists” (read: “all Muslims”), but have no interest in discussing Western Supremacists, who, along with their fawning “native informants,” have predictably seized the opportunity to trot out some well-worn orientalist tropes.

Orientalist Feminism Rears its Head in India

by Amith Gupta, Jadaliyya

The brutal rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi by a gang of young men, followed closely by the suicide of a Delhi rape victim who was pressured into marrying her rapist by police, has provoked international criticism of the Indian government and widespread protests across India by a diverse strata of Indian society. In the melee of protests with the government, the Indian state has used tear gas and live ammunition, killing a reporter. Next to the police’s horrible management of rape cases, as well as the protests themselves, Indian leaders have produced a litany of insensitive remarks about the case. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked, “Theek Hai?” [Is that enough?]), after giving a short and characteristically emotionless statement of concern about the rape. Many interpreted this comment as belittling of the widespread anger in India over the rape. His comment was followed by a statement by Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, dismissing the protesters as fake, or “dented and paintedâ€? (like a used car).

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  women’s right to safety in public and the right to demonstrate itself.

But you would not know it from some commentators, both Indian and “Western.â€? 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 one 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.â€? 

The process of reducing brown men to savages has been all too familiar in recent years. We have seen Egyptian men reduced to “animalsâ€? and “beastsâ€? 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,â€? from Mona Eltahawaly to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, tell us that Arab and Muslim men “hateâ€? women. In typical colonial fashion, gender dynamics, including real crimes and acts of brutality, are reduced to “culturalâ€? 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 Ayaan 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,â€? but sell because “tell us what we in the West already know–that there’s something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs.â€? One cannot, of course, deny the existence of discrimination and crimes like the assault of Lara Logan. However, to assume that Muslim or Arab “cultureâ€? 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.

In the aftermath of the rape scandals taking place in Delhi, we see the same orgy of racism and orientalism in blaming Indian culture, both by Western voices and Indian “native informants.â€? The angry and widespread demands of Indians, men and women alike, that the police make drastic reforms to protect women in public and to strictly punish–and even execute–rapists, do not seem to challenge these reductionist views when applied to India. Instead, commentators like Rashmee Roshan Lall provocatively suggest that “India has a woman problem,â€? writing inForeign Policy. While Lall’s account is certainly more nuanced and informative than any of those by Hirsi Ali or Mona Eltahawy, the piece nonetheless exhibits the same orientalist reductionism of blaming “Indiaâ€? as a culture or nation for these despicable crimes.

For one, which “Indiaâ€? is Lall blaming? Does it include the India of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, which has actively fought sexism from the local to national levels for over thirty years and claims millions of members? Does it include the “Indiaâ€? of the protesters, who are actively fighting and risking death from Kashmir to Delhi to challenge the police and demand justice? Does it include the “Indiaâ€? of the victim herself? Does it include the “Indiaâ€? of all of those who are disgusted by this horrible crime? Because that “Indiaâ€? does not seem to have a “womanâ€? problem–it seems to have a “governmentâ€? problem.

But Lall’s piece goes further. She gives us a series of statistics that indicate quite clearly how serious the rape and sexual assault problem in India is. One would have to be crazy to deny there are obvious problems that demand serious solutions as per the statistics Lall provides–solutions like the ones that the protesters are demanding, including stricter penalties for rapists. But nonetheless, the raw numbers are arranged together in a strange medley in order to castigate India in its entirety. I am not one to apologize for the Indian state or its variety of national problems. Indeed, the inability, incompetence, and active complicity of the Indian state in the rape crisis is yet another reason why India should not be held up as a democratic utopia. But in her account, Lall combines India’s rural child marriage problem, the increasing tolerance of premarital sex among Indians, sexually explicit advertising and porn, and patriarchal and sexist attitudes from men about violence against women in India to conclude that India as a whole has a “woman problem.â€? In addition, she quotes an analytical study that claims that India is the “worst country to be a womanâ€? out of twenty of the largest economies in the world, predictably being far below the United States. She (rightfully) points out that Indians should not point to India’s election of female politicians or the presence of women in the workplace as an excuse for patriarchy.

Of course, this is a distorted narrative. For one, the problems Lall describes are not “Indianâ€? ones. In the aftermath of the highly publicized celebrity beating of Rihanna, about half of Boston’s teenagers decided that the pop star, who was assaulted by her then-boyfriend, “deservedâ€? to be beaten.

Likewise, premarital sex in the United States is common, and the United States also has a history of sexual repression. And although child marriage is not a regular phenomenon in the United States, and the USA is far ahead of India in the ranking of women’s rights according to the study quoted, the study is misleading. It groups India, an incredibly impoverished country that happens to have a large economy, with some of the wealthiest and most highly developed countries in the world. If anything, the survey is evidence of how GDP does not translate into a higher quality of life–certainly, not for women. But this is a problem of development–not a “woman problemâ€? that is limited to India.

Likewise, depending on where we look in the United States – the military, college campuses, and different parts of the country – we can see rape culture and the blatant degradation of women. Rape statistics in the US military are particularly gruesome, showing that a female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed in battle. In general, one in five  American women report being sexually assaulted. Although Lall certainly did not mean to downplay sexual violence in other parts of the world, the danger of reducing incidents of sexual violence to a national or cultural problem is that it inevitably distracts us from sexual violence in other contexts.

Nonetheless, Lall is a serious commentator, and although her piece is problematic for sewing together various crimes against women in India into a “national� problem, it is still informative about various threats of sexual violence in India. But other accounts are far worse. Indian actress Leeza Mangaldas claims:

Should men not feel responsible then to prevent the occurrence of this crime? Shouldn’t men be disturbed that their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters constantly feel unsafe or feel they have to dress and behave in a particular way to avoid getting raped? Isn’t it time men educated other men about consent?

Somehow, Mangaldas’ technically accurate comment “rapists are men” has silently shifted to “Indian men are rapists.” Mangaldas does not stop at castigating men, but also claims her own unwillingness to address a difficult subject like rape in a film is on par with the “dented and painted” dismissal by Mukherjee (above), and a symptom of India’s cultural acceptance of rape. She also points to a Hindi phrase describing rape as a dishonor as more proof for her overall claim: that “We [Indians] are all guilty” of misogyny.â€?

But that is not the worst of it. In seeing how orientalist feminism works, it is sometimes helpful to see what people write from a point of anonymity.

On aggregate sites like Reddit, the so-called “front page of the Internet,â€? commentators “upvoteâ€? and “downvoteâ€? news stories and comments that they agree with. A quick survey of some of the anonymous comments–and the rest of the online community’s approval–reveals how deep some of these prejudices go. A self-labeled native informant, with the user name “IndianWoman_â€?–of course, removing any doubt that the user is actually an Indian woman–writes:

I am from India [the entire country, apparently] and I cannot even begin to count the number of times when I was groped, was subject to frotteurism, catcalls, lewd looks, and vulgar sexual taunts in public places – trains, buses, crowds, in a university library. I guess I was lucky I got away with only these. Fuck all those people.

1,745 net “upvotes.� She continues, “saying India is full of rapists and molesters is not a stereotype or generalization,� with three net upvotes, “Fuck India and Indians. And I am Indian,� with thirteen net upvotes, and to top it all off, to whitewash “the West,� she tells us, “I can seriously say that the United States has provided me with a much better living environment and I feel much safer and more at home here,� with nine net upvotes.

Not to be outdone, another supposed native informant, “sceptic_ali,� tells the community:

i [sic] strongly feel that we, south asian [pakistan, from what my cousins have told me, is no different] men, of all religions and sects, are a weak, insecure,treacherous and cowardly lot who, in most cases, are “brave” only when fighting the weak…how else can one explain a handful of english men ruling over half a billion indians with ease for two centuries. [boldface added]

Sceptic_ali explicitly relates Indian cultural “weaknessâ€? to colonialism. He continues, “…i would be remiss in not pointing out that north indians and pakistani men are particularly misogynous; rest are only relatively better, only relatively…oh, and, after the arabs, we are among the most racist people on the planet. and here, too, north indians and pakistanis take the leadâ€?.

Overall, the post receives an astonishing fifty-six net upvotes.

The commentary is not limited to “native informants.â€? User “Czerisâ€? writes, “I confess to being a western male. I cannot conceive of how Indian men can not be the first ones on the picket line, front and shoulder with their women. Do you not see how this reflects on you?â€? with twenty-two net upvotes. The user, like Mangaldas, strangely ignores the massive presence of men in the protest. Likewise, “DwarfJesusâ€? writes “Oh the culture is definitely to blame. Have you even seen the amount of rape cases in India?…This is not america…Rape is not as frowned upon in India as it is in the western culture,â€? receiving six net upvotes. The user continues, asking why nobody on the bus helped the woman (despite that it was a private charter bus and nobody else was present), and points out the police complicity in many of the rape incidents, something the user believed could not happen in America.

The running theme, both with native informants and ignorant Westerners, is that there is something inherently backward about Indian culture. Some users explicitly use colonial justifications to argue their worldview. Others explicitly contrast the United States, sometimes in ways that are false–such as by suggesting rape is not “as frowned upon� in the USA, or that police involvement in rape does not take place, both claims that are difficult to measure and/or outright false. Indeed, even Lall is guilty of these strange contradictions–she herself notes, for example, that US representative Todd Akin made some terrible comments suggesting pregnant women cannot truly be raped.

Overall, would we ever use the combination of rape-enabling comments by Todd Akin, the widespread reporting of sexual assault in the United States, the epidemic levels of rape in the US military, the rate of rapes and apologism for rape on US college campuses, the difficulties in properly prosecuting sexual assault in the United States, instances of mob violence against women, or instances of complete failures of the law to prosecute obvious gang rape in the United States, to reduce rape and violence against women to a part of American culture? Would such an explanation be helpful or meaningful in solving the issue of violence against women? Would it point out where reforms need to be made? Or would it simply be a vitriolic and intolerant justification for cultural hatred? The difference, is of course, quite obvious–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.â€? But in either case, we do not blame America’s “culture,â€? or the American nation as a whole. The inability to properly understand the sexual violence epidemic in India, and the resort to “culturalâ€? or “nationalâ€? 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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Leftwing_Muslim_Alliance
    Some statistics from the BBC
    One of the things I like about Islam is the banning of infantacide
    Sir David

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    What is defensive about this article? This article is criticizing Orientalist feminism. Don’t you think that should be open to criticism?

  • Pingback: Orientalist Feminism Rears its Head in India | "Can the West save brown women from brown men?" | Exploring Feminism |

  • Pingback: Orientalist Feminism Rears its Head in India | Islamophobia Today eNewspaper()

  • eslaporte

    And nobody seems to remember that in American Southern culture (not so long ago) husbands abusing wives was acceptable. In southern culture, still, there seems to be an anti-women mentality still present. It is not surprising that Todd Akins is from the South and that there is a new ban on Planned Parent funding out of Texas. The South and its political leaders are women abusers in the worst ways….

  • Ilisha

    The author never accuses the West for being at fault for what is happening in India. That isn’t the point at all.

  • anon

    Can the author explain the tens of millions of missing girls who are killed (usually before birth) because families don’t want girls? Sorry, but while there are plenty of things that can be blamed on the West, this is not one of them.

  • Reynardine

    Damn straight. This isn’t one damned bit about “east is east and west is west”. This is about a *global* culture of violent misogyny, an attitude certainly not shared by all men, but every man who has a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a sweetheart, must share in the fear of the threat it poses to her.

  • Ilisha

    Thats contradictory you start off saying they don’t care about the rape but now they’re exploiting it?

    No, that isn’t what I said at all. What I said is they do NOT care about rape unless it serves their agenda, which is demonizing Muslims. That’s true.

    Also the sentence is embarrassing hyperbole, talk of imaginary ‘western supremacists’ is meaningless. Islamic supremacy by contrast is very real…

    Nonsense, I’m not the least bit “embarrassed,” and you overuse the word “hyperbole.” The term “Western supremacists” is equally valid, and I don’t use it to make broad, sweeping generalizations. When I describe Western supremacists, that’s what I mean–not all Westerners, as I have made clear many times.

    ” I have yet to see any “western supremacists” setting up brutal dictatorships and hacking off hands…

    Really? Because the US and Europe install and prop up dictatorships all the time, and have for decades–often after overthrowing a fledgling democracy. The US-backed client regime in Saudi Arabia is a great example, speaking of lopping off heads and hands. As for the Western regimes themselves, who needs to hack off body parts when you can vaporize people with Hellfire missiles?

    The term “native informants” is a smear tactic…

    It’s “smear tactic” if it isn’t true. If it’s accurate, I have no problem using that term. I don’t care if others have used and abused the term. It’s irrelevant. The US uses and abuses the word “terrorist” daily basis, but that doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to use the word.

    …colonial authorities justified it by arguing that they had no place to interfere in Indian ways and the victims were willing, very similar to leftist cultural relativism

    Colonizers had no right to be there in first place. They were there to divide and rule, and to exploit people, so they were not entitled to lecture anyone about morality.

    I favor “cultural relativism.” Stay out of other people’s business and let them run their own affairs, and I’m not a leftist.

    On foreign policy, I am from the old right, paleocons and libertarians. These traditional anti-interventionalists were for far too long drowned out by vile neocons. Neocon warmongers defected from the left and so heavily infested the right, they managed to distort the political spectrum, at least for a time. Fortunately, authentic conservatives are reclaiming their legacy, especially through sites like

    …Danios defended Shahak…

    I don’t know what you’re talking about, or what that could possibly have to do with this article. If you have some grievance against Danios, take it up with him when he gets back.

    As for the rest of your comments, no one is defending infanticide and rape in India. No one is denying there are problems in India, and in fact, the article plainly acknowledges there are problems. As for child marriage, I’ve addressed that in the past:

    Is Child Marriage a Muslim Problem?

    In any case, I really don’t care what Westerners think so much as what they do. When the US wanted to launch wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we heard how the women there desperately needed our help. It was part of the justification for slaughter.

    I think the first right of women anywhere in the world is not to be bombed. This is just another version of “destroy the village to save the village.”

    Women outside the West love their fathers, uncles, brother, sons, etc. Why would they want them slaughtered? And it’s not as if women and girls are spared–90% of the victims in modern warfare are innocent civilians.

    How do you suppose Westerners would react if Muslims decide they weren’t treating their women right, and they needed to intervene, militarily if necessary, to get our society straightened up? Would we cheer and be grateful, as they bombed our cities back to the stone age? Of course not.

    We want to shape our own society, and so do others. Look at the people protesting in India–men and women. Why do they need Western intervention? They’re doing fine on their own, so you go and worry about your own problems, okay?

    I’m not going round and round with you, Henry. I think you are Riley’s sock puppet, and Riley is banned. It’s probably a matter of time before you get yourself banned again, for your verbose posts that whitewash Western crimes and your absurd accusations.

    Now I’m off to edit an article, so if you want to continue, you’ll have to take up with other Loonwatchers.

  • Henry Case

    You start off with a good point about the depraved way that so called counter-jihadists reacted to sexual abuse, the fact that most blogs are supporting/denying atrocities against the Rohingya (in which rape is prominent) is another example. But it goes downhill from there.

    “Geller and her ilk rail against “Islamic Supremacistsâ€? (read: “all Muslimsâ€?), but have no interest in discussing Western Supremacists, who, along with their fawning “native informants,â€? have predictably seized the opportunity to trot out some well-worn orientalist tropes.”

    Thats contradictory you start off saying they don’t care about the rape but now they’re exploiting it? Which is it? Besides Geller, Spencer and others generally support the very worst Hindu extremists due to a shared anti-Muslim stance. Also the sentence is embarrassing hyperbole, talk of imaginary ‘western supremacists’ is meaningless. Islamic supremacy by contrast is very real and I have yet to see any “western supremacists” setting up brutal dictatorships and hacking off hands. The term “native informants” is a smear tactic used by Dabashi in his attack on Azar Nafisi who he presented as an agent is a conspiracy to attack the IRI yet in reality Nafisi is opposed to the regime and intervention. Using that term doesn’t make you look good. This site condemns Mona for allegedly hating Arab males (lets assume its true) while arguing that its okay for Palestinians to hate their Israeli “oppressors” yet by that reasoning its also okay for Mona to hate Arab males since she was beaten and sexually assaulted by some, pain I doubt any of LW”s bloggers have experienced or can imagine.

    The author talks of a narrative of “men men saving brown women” and colonialism yet in the British raj the empire generally ignored sati and only banned in a few select locations and generally stopped trying to ban it after the 1857 mutiny. Unsurprisingly authorities who consider people inferior really don’t care about their women and many colonial authorities justified it by arguing that they had no place to interfere in Indian ways and the victims were willing, very similar to leftist cultural relativism.

    Next the author goes on to label Ayan, Manj and Nafisi as “native informants” while I’m critical of Ayan to describe the others as such is character assassination, if Irshad Manj’s books are selling well its because she probably presents info on Islam in an accessible way. Its also irrelevant their books do not address Hindu India (which is supported by Islamophobes). Such smear tactics are hypocritical since loonwatch uses Israel shahak as a source on Judaism, Shahak is an anti-Semite whose work has been repeatedly disproven, who thinks the blood libel is true and David Duke dedicated a book to him. Yet loonwatch defends Shahak despite that a simple google search reveals his anti-Semitism, Danios defended Shahak as a “victim of… the charge of “Self-Hating Jewâ€? and “Anti-Semitismâ€? against all who would point out similar radicalism in the Israeli/Jewish community,” So. an anti-Semite is just a critic of Judaism to you guys yet you defame people like Manj and Nafisi how hilariously hypocritical.

    The author moves on to Lall’s piece taking issue with her claim that India has a “woman problem” yet India was recently named the world’s worst place for women in the g20. Actual Indian feminist activists have drawn attention to how female infanticide in India has lead to “fifty million missing.”

    Predictably she moves on to Western rapes, yet no one has claimed that the US or other similar countries are utopias far from it. When it comes to the issue of rape in India other rapes have no relevance to the subject and do not somehow cancel out Indian rapes. Just as India’s oppression of Kashmiris does not cancel out Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. If you have to point to red herrings in other countries then you’ve already lost.

    Besides the US and related countries were not named the worst for women in the g20, infanticide has no lead to a gender gap of fifty million in the US and India uses the “two finger test” in rape cases unlike any western country. That test is when “doctor inserts two fingers into a women’s vagina to determine its laxity and whether the hymen is broken, signaling previous sexual activity. The test perpetuates stereotypes of rape survivors as loose women and often is used by defense counsels to achieve acquittals, human-rights groups say.”

    I don’t see anything objectionable about Mangaldas’ words and the Indian men at anti-rape protests would probably agree with her. Regarding reddit its an open sewer its like going on 4chan which suggests the author was looking for offensive to material to pad the article. Besides do you really think the average Indian internet user would express positive views of Kashmiris or that there’s no bigotry on Indian forums? Regarding her stats I’ve already covered that and if pointing to rape in the USA somehow cancels out rape in India then surely pointing to rape in some other land cancels out American rapes, that isn’t what I want to do I wrote that merely to show the illogical weakness of the author’s arguments. Pointing to rape in other countries is only relevant if you’re making the point that we shouldn’t blame a country’s culture for rape. But the problems I’ve highlighted such as infanticide, issues that the author mentioned like child marriage are problems with roots in Indian culture.

  • Ilisha

    You’re right, mindy.

    This article highlights “concern” for women that is tainted by racism and ethnocentrism. It doesn’t, of course, refer to someone like you.

    You’re sincere, standing in solidarity with women all over the world as equals. That’s something admirable, and not the same thing at all. I want to make sure that’s clear.

  • anam

    I think, rather than getting defensive, people should take criticism to heart and focusing on fixing these problems rather than comparing. Indian women, and thus the entire country, will only be the better for it.

  • mindy1

    I think worldwide, the treatment of women is a problem that needs to be addressed

Powered by Loon Watchers