During a short stint at a prestigious undergraduate college at Delhi University in 2002, I and a number of my peers were shocked to hear a public figure’s advice on how to avoid sexual harassment when taking public transport in the city. “Just dress like a boy”, she told us, unreflective of the misogynistic message she was sending to young urban women. Most of these women, you see, were aspiring to be mobile career people, unhindered by the dogmas and archaic gender dynamics of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
In April 2012, when visiting another prominent South Delhi institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for an international conference, I was struck with the high levels of campus activism and gender sensitivity in the postgraduate cohort. I also happened to be monitoring the nation’s numerous, and culturally powerful English-language television news networks for my postdoctoral research project (funded by Professor Graeme Turner’s ARC Federation Fellowship). Again, I noticed a remarkable increase in the featuring of previously taboo gender-related issues on prime time news, as well as talk shows on political and social subjects.
To give you a snapshot of the kinds of stories that were making headlines, these included the battering of baby girls by their fathers in lower and middle class homes in big metropolitan cities, gang rapes of minor girls, and reports on the failings of public schooling. In May of the same year, Bollywood superstar with a difference, Aamir Khan, brought such issues more conspicuously into the public and media spotlight by starring in and producing a 13-part Oprah-style chat show called ‘Satyamev Jayate’ (or, the truth always triumphs). The series had an overwhelmingly positive, class-transcending response, with the very first episode on the high prevalence of female foeticide dissuading hundreds from sex determination tests.
So what has changed in middle class India and its media in the last decade? And does the western world’s thinking about contemporary India reflect this change?
Many detractors would err on the side of political correctness, and argue that it is not even possible to talk about one India, let alone speak of this India as undergoing youthful, self-initiated, introspective social transformation. However, when I met Shoma Chaudhury, editor of leading news magazine ‘Tehelka’ at the Storyology conference in Sydney in July this year, she too noted that the tenor of the recent anti-rape movement was markedly different from previous instances of orchestrated civil society protests (such as the anti-corruption movement in 2011). Another visiting journalist, Mannu Joseph, told me that this was due to a vast increase in the number of young women working in the Indian media.
So, while empowered female media professionals are taking the reins in terms of spotlighting gender issues, and young urban audiences are clamouring for a shift in media and societal values, the media in the west seems to be taking its time to adjust its orientalist framings of this now transitioning society. Most stories on major world news satellite networks reported on the anti-rape protests, and the recent conviction of the four accused with nuance and adequate contextual information. There were even those that rated the Delhi reportage and responses as more gender-progressive than the victim-blaming discourse of the Steubenville rape case around the same time by the major US news networks.
However, some western media commentary began to give the impression that India was not safe place to visit for female tourists, and painted South Asian men with a rather broad, and a rather unflattering brushstroke. Noteworthy amongst these was the recent account of a University of Chicago exchange student who allegedly suffered constant sexual harassment, and was diagnosed with a traumatic disorder on her return home. This was followed by the account of an African-American student on the same trip who had similar experiences, but added that she also met Indian men who were extremely kind and supportive.
While giving a talk at a student feminist society at the University of Wollongong, I was asked how west-based feminists could support the movement in India. The answer lies not in telling people what to do, I replied, but in staying well-informed, looking past stereotypes, and expressing solidarity.