“We are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women” – Simone de Beauvoir, (The Second Sex, xix)
To my women readers: can we think of a time and space when we have not thought of ourselves as a woman, and the cultural discourse it has been embedded with? Is it really possible to think of ourselves beyond the ‘gendered’ classification? Judith Butler in her essay on Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex begins by quoting Beauvoir’s famous statement that frames the discursive differences in the taxonomies of sex and gender. As Butler famously states, “ ‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’—Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired” (35). Butler of course explains the cultural discourse of gender and the meaning the female gender acquires under a patriarchal cultural context. It is this overarching context of patriarchy within which I want to frame my discussion of the recent violence against women in India.
The recent case of gruesome brutalization and rape of the 23 year old, medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey has indeed galvanized a certain section of people across India in a way that previous cases haven’t. I am not here to investigate why this case has sparked such widespread protests, much of which is certainly an elitist protest in the Indian population, or why many other such heinous brutalization of women, in subaltern contexts (the rape of Soni Sori) or the rape cases in Kashmir’s Kunan Poshpora have not garnered the same kind of media attention and public outcry. Even after this specific case, there have been more reported cases of gang rape in India, and there have not been similar vigils and protests against them. Yet, over the last few weeks, a rather interesting rhetoric has emerged at the wake of the Delhi rape case. Whether in academic contexts or at more casual conversations, I now hear how alarmingly unsafe Delhi has become and of India’s acute misogynistic culture in comparison to other cultures. Statistics have been thrown about whether India has the highest reported rape cases or number of gendered violence, or whether the number of domestic violence and rape cases is highest in US (Poulami Roychowdhury’s “Focus on Rape in India Ignores Gender Violence as Global Tragedy” at CNBC, which went viral on some social networking sites with the title “Rape cases in US far exceed India’s numbers). Anderson Cooper’s coverage of India’s misogynistic culture and Delhi rape case highlighted the subsequent protests and stated that—“the sentiment that women simply don’t have a voice here turned to anger”. More recently, Nicholas Kristoff’s NY Times article “Is Delhi So Different from Steubenville” also compares the Stebenville Ohio rape case against the Delhi case, and presents hope in the statistical data of decrease in American domestic violence, and that “incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters in the last four decades” (Kristoff).
Two things that come out of such rhetoric is worthy of our attention here—first, the discourse has shifted to doubly effacing the “third world women” as voiceless victims and as feminist theorist, Chandra Mohanty states in her essay, “Under Western Eyes, “Third world women…never rise above the debilitating generality of their “object” status” (213). The assumption then constructs a narrative of voiceless monolithic Indian women as in this kind of neo-colonialist yoke. Uma Narayan also discusses the similar problematic ground on which “cultural explanations” are given for fatal forms of violence and abuse against “third world women,” that suggests that Indian women suffer “death by culture” (Dislocating Cultures 84). Such cultural explanations also become proponents of the hegemonic colonialist discourse. Secondly, to be sure, there is no denying that there is deep rooted misogyny and an extreme form of patriarchy in India that allows for such violence against women to occur in the first place, but what I am interested in is questioning the very framework that needs to pile up statistics to show which nation has worse rape and abuse statistics. It almost becomes a defense of one nation’s patriarchy as better than another. Thus, one needs to interrogate and analyze whether the constructed binary of Steubenville rape case versus Delhi rape case is a justified one to begin with. Here, I must clarify that I am not interested in homogenizing all women across class, cultures and races into a problematic notion of “sameness”, rather what seems problematic in such debates of seeking which culture has worse kind of gendered violence takes away the larger problem of understanding feminist solidarity across borders, and question of understanding “what has become of women?”
Instead of demonizing one society against another, the pervasive phenomenon of patriarchy everywhere is never really questioned. The idea of a woman with the gendered acculturation in specific cultural contexts acutely reminds us that patriarchal contexts may change, but it still “exhorts us to be women, remain women, become women” and allows for such dreadful marks of abuse and power over women’s bodies that become the grounds and currencies over which patriarchy secures its powers. Ultimately, it is necessary that a true understanding of feminist solidarity and consciousness across borders emerges and creates a space to question the very grounds of patriarchy at the local contexts, beyond the hegemonic neocolonial constructions of cultures and victimization.
Beauvoir, de Simone. The Second Sex. Translated. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Butler, Judith. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Yale French Studies. Vol. 72 (1986): 35-49.
Mohanty, Chandra Mohanty. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman. Columbia University Press, New York. 1994.
Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1997.
 “Tonight on AC360: Gang rape victim inspires change” CNN Jan 7, 2013.
 Quoted in Simone de Beavoir’s Introduction of The Second Sex
Amrita Ghosh has a Ph.D in English from Drew University, New Jersey. Her dissertation is on Partition Literature and Postcolonial studies. Amrita has a MA in English literature from Rutgers University and has been involved in translating works from Bengali to English. She is also the co-founder and editor of Cerebration.org a literary magazine that strives to initiate critical dialogue across boundaries. Ghosh currently teaches at Seton Hall University, NJ.
Photograph courtesy of AFP