Nicholas Kristof has a recent op-ed titled, “Is Delhi so different from Steubenville?” which makes the case that sexual assault is an international and universal epidemic. He writes,
Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.
In some places, rape is endemic: in South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on trial: in one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire” amounts to “an invitation to rape.”
Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.
He’s right–sexual assault is a global problem that is largely ignored or mishandled by leaders both here and abroad. Kristof is known for making sweeping statements backed up with gruesome details to paint a picture of women as victims. And while his white savior complex goes deep, I don’t fall in the full on anti-Kristof camp, because I do think his writing and work have pushed important and hard to face issues into the mainstream–even if the framing leaves something to be desired.
His global homogenization of women’s experiences is, I imagine, an attempt to register these tragedies as something that happens here as much as it happens elsewhere. Reminding us that sexual assault happens everywhere and that our reaction and treatment of it is not much better than the “less civilized 3rd world” is an important and necessary point to make. But it runs the risk of overshadowing specific differences between the cultural contexts within which sexual assault occurs.
As an American-born South Asian, graduate school educated feminist, I am well equipped with tools for effective cross-cultural comparison. We’ve learned from the mistakes of our Western feminist predecessors not to assume we understand the experience of women in different societies and to avoid universalizing our path to feminist enlightenment as the “liberated women” here to save our downtrodden third world sisters. I understand the importance of holding our words accountable in the face of hegemony, racism, colonization and cultural relativism.
Kristof’s declaration that Delhi and Steubenville are the same is a watered down extension of this intellectual tradition, but lacking specificity creates the narrative for heavy-handed and paternalistic policy to flourish (what is his policy proposal from the US about rape in India?). These sweeping generalizations also ignore how women in India or other places are defining their own movement, progress and development. Understanding international women’s rights in context means both avoiding the racist colonialist stance that sees our third world sisters as uniquely oppressed and in need of our intervention, and avoiding universalizing women’s experiences in a way that ignores the ways patriarchy works differently across cultural contexts.
I’ve often wondered how things would have been different had my parents decided not to move to the United States from India. These questions have always drawn upon my limited knowledge of what life is actually like in India and confused both by the nostalgia of my visits there and the stories about what life is like for women in India, but the conclusion for me is always the same–it’s just different. What is culturally acceptable for women is different, because it is another country dominated by a different religion, history, culture, population and GDP. These differences impacts every facet of society in ways that make universalizing any experience nearly impossible–even within India.
What sexual assault cases have in common is that they are about power and control of women’s bodies–but that’s often about it. Everything else is different and that difference shouldn’t be forgotten. Because when it is forgotten we run the risk of overlooking what many young women actually face in India, what kind of cultural mindset they are navigating and what resources they actually have to access. Or, more broadly–what it feels like to live in this particular country, in this moment–one that is entering the world stage in important ways, with a growing and robust economy with increased opportunities for men and women, bogged down by the nagging problem of unfettered patriarchal tradition–and the limitations this puts on women’s lives, choices and mobility.