“I was afraid to accept the role.”
These are the words of Leeza Mangaldas, an Indian movie actress who wrote an opinion piece for CNN about her hesitation to accept a role playing a woman who gets gang raped, for fear of community backlash. She discusses the role’s eerie similarities to the real-life story of the young female student who was a victim in the now infamous Dec. 16 gang rape in New Delhi.
Though Mangaldas had already graduated from Columbia University at the time of her writing, she shares in common with other South Asian international students the experience of living in both South Asia and the United States, and the way in which this contributes to a unique perspective on the crime.
The larger debate that has emerged since Dec. 16 has been dubbed a “culture war” by some who see it as a conflict between the desire to accelerate toward modernity and the responsibility to preserve a traditional culture.
An Indian demonstrator holds a placard during the one-month anniversary of the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi.
There is also the issue of where the blame should be placed for the violence against women in India. Organizations such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — which boasts more than 2 million members in India — believe that the decline in moral values and threats to traditional cultural norms are to blame for unsafe conditions for women and girls.
For international students in the United States who hail from South Asia, their response to the gang rape is influenced both by their experience at home and the campus culture they have become a part of while attending an American university.
“In Pakistan, women have been caught in a similar battle, between a culture that stigmatizes them over the rapists and laws that make it increasingly difficult for them to get justice,” wrote Nur Ibrahim, 22, an international student from Lahore, Pakistan, who is a senior at Harvard.
This stigma has become a point of discussion in online forums and media outlets, and has also spilled into the streets.
In Bangalore, one demonstration by a large group of men and their supporters received widespread attention for the unconventional way in which participants showed solidarity — by donning skirts. Running on the tagline “change mentalities, not clothes,” the men banded together to challenge the view that the way a woman chooses to dress incites violence against her.
One consistent message among supporters of the Bangalore demonstration and similar displays of solidarity for women’s equal treatment is that legal statues and definitions of violence against women are untenably inadequate and discriminatory. Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy cites the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as one such example, which, in her opinion, made it possible for Indian army and police officials to commit rape with impunity.
However, this is not to say that longstanding legal frameworks have not proven malleable.
“In the past few years laws have been passed to make it easier to convict rapists, like the Women’s Protection Bill,” wrote Ibrahim, “and there has been more awareness in the media about upholding the rights of women.”
The conversation about a woman’s equal treatment as well as the consequences for those who commit crimes against her is an ongoing and increasingly global one.
Though progress has been made in securing stronger protections for women since the 1979 adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by the United Nations General Assembly, an incident in which a young woman’s decision to board a bus results in her death has caused some to question whether legal changes and declarations are, in fact, to be the sources of meaningful change.
“We can’t just blame the government and police,” said Umme Hane, 19, an international student from Bangalore, India, who is in her second year at the University of Virginia, “we understand that it’s our society that needs to correct itself.”
The need for societal change that occurs outside of the hallowed halls of a nation’s government buildings is a sentiment that raises larger questions about the state of gender stereotypes in South Asia, as well as the more controversial suggestion that enough is not being done to change the tide. This is a conversation that extends far beyond South Asia and is lent a unique perspective by the students who travel between their homes there and college campuses in the United States.
“Even while the entire country was protesting, there were more cases of horrifying rapes coming in which clearly shows that we are not doing enough to protect and respect our women,” said Hanne of her native India.
For students like Hanne, the wait continues for meaningful action to be taken in the aftermath of a crime that shocked the world.
Powered by Facebook Comments