Carefully Crossing Cultural Lines

Every morning four high school students present the news. Every morning we are numbed by depressing story after horrifying tragedy. The ceasefires in Gaza never seem to last until the next day of news and Malaysian Air can’t keep a good name. But last week we learned of a trauma in India that shook the school more than any other piece of news could. A six year old girl was raped by a teacher at her school in Bangalore.

Rape is a rising crime in India. The most well-known incident – which sparked national protests – is the Delhi gang rape case of 2012. A young woman was traveling with a male friend on a private bus during the day. She was taking all precautions that come with travelling as a female. And yet, the 6 other men on the bus committed one of the most heinous crimes. They beat up the man and raped the woman. Two weeks later she died from her injuries. The rapists went through a year of prosecution, and were sentenced to death after being charged with rape and murder. As a result of this case, and the protests that occurred nation-wide, new laws were passed and new courts were created to hear rape cases.

However, there are still rapes occurring every day that are unheard. It is estimated that half a million women are raped in India every year, and that the majority of these are unreported. A woman and her family faces serious repercussions culturally. Their neighbors will gossip. To us, that sounds petty, but when you and your family have been living in a village or a community for generations, this is not a small thing. What is more, that girl will grow up constantly hearing from everyone around her that she is unmarriageable, impure, tainted. The family will get a bad name. The list goes on. For these reasons, rape tends to be kept secret. It is taking a huge shift in thought, but the percentage of reports are rising.

It should not take brutally horrific cases – like the Delhi gang rape or what just occurred in Bangalore – to force change. But it does. This Thursday, Bangalore held a 12 hour bandh to protest sexual offenses which shut down the entire city. They were protesting the fact that cases like this can happen to begin with. They were protesting the school administration for trying to cover up the case in order to protect their teacher and the school’s accreditation. They were protesting in order to demand safety for women throughout the city. This kind of public action and nation-wide awareness is needed in order to make any change.

So the question remains, what can we do at Shanti Bhavan – truly a haven of peace – to protect our children from the reality that they return to on the holidays and will graduate in to? Thursday night, as the bandh was taking place in Bangalore, we held an hour talk and open forum to discuss rape. This was not an easy task – my audience consisted of 12 to 18 year old students, Indian adults, and western volunteers – but I eagerly embraced my assignment. As a Woman and Gender Studies major, I spent the past four years studying, discussing, and fighting against these issues. As a global traveler and everyday ambassador I know to respect cultural difference and tread lightly on certain controversial issues. But, this week was my chance to break down those barriers.

I sat on stage in between Dr. George, the founder of Shanti Bhavan and a father figure to every student, and Shilpa, a graduate of SB who returns every weekend to mentor the older students and serves as a big sister to many. Dr. George began with an explanation of the bandh and a definition (for the purposes of our talk) of rape. The air was stiff and their faces long, but I could feel nerves and awkwardness evaporating as we spoke.

It was time for me to debunk myths. Rape does not only occur between strangers…94% of the cases in India have perpetrators known to the victim. Alcohol is not an excuse. The son of a rapists will not also be a rapist. Men ARE capable of controlling themselves. And lastly, to break the ice, debunking the most ridiculous rumor of all: “men who are non-veg are rapists.”

Many of these students know a friend or family member who has been assaulted, some themselves are victims, so the concept of a known perpetrator is not foreign to them. They live in a society where young girls are often unwillingly married to an uncle. They live in a society where every girl and woman has to be perpetually vigilant. I was therefore challenged to find a balance between assuring every single one of these students that rape is NEVER the fault of the victim while making them understand the gravity of putting themselves in a compromising situation.

How do you tell a young woman to pay attention to signs of danger – being asked to spend time alone with a man, being treated extra sweetly, and inappropriate comments – and simultaneously keep her from feeling guilty if she misses one of these warning signs and becomes a victim? How do you encourage them to make smart choices – avoid side alleys, walk in packs, return before dark, etc. – when the reality is that assaults occur despite these smart choices? According to these “rules” the woman from the Delhi rape case was “doing everything right” and yet…

We did our best. It was probably one of the hardest hours of my life. I did not agree with everything that my co-presenters said. In fact, I passionately disagreed with some statements. But I also knew that this was not the place to express my privileged, white, liberal, women’s studies educated, feminist opinions. I utilized my feminism the best that I could. I assured that everyone knows assault is never the fault of the victim. I guaranteed my students that there are precautions you can take without compromising your sense of self. We taught them a few self-defense moves that would inflict enough pain to try to escape. I gave them advice for how to tell someone about an assault and how to be the listening ear that someone confides in. I created a safe space where they could come and ask me questions.

And they did. 9th grade boys came to find out what would happen if a victim, as she was defending herself, killed her attacker and had no way to prove it was in self-defense. They asked how we assure that the security guards placed at all-girls colleges won’t be perpetrators themselves. And most importantly, they took my charge to share this knowledge with their sisters, mothers, and friends back home. A few older girls, although still a little shell shocked and unwilling to pry further, told me that it was helpful and they learned a lot. A teacher even thanked me for opening the dialogue.

Sometimes, awareness and an open line of communication is the most we can do. Now that the taboo has been broken, I hope we continue to discuss this hard topic.



2 thoughts on “Carefully Crossing Cultural Lines

  1. Hi Dear One—Wow, what an event to be part of. I have been trying to get the computer to do what I wanted it to do– and I finally managed. I have been trying to get a message to you for a few weeks. Please do not give up you goals as you find yourself  in the middle of many hot potatoes. The cultures you now live in will force you to make decisions that will not be easy. It seems to me that two main points need to be hammered home  constantly with all groups: self protection techniques and being able to read the signs about the environment you are in. Just remember—not everyone is your friend????? Teddy, the rough rider, always said ” walk softly, but always carry a big stick”. The “big stick” is knowledge. Good luck as you test the new waters you may never have been in before. I love you and miss you more and more each day. I’ll keep in touch more often, now that I know which buttons to push.  Papa

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