By Guest Contributor Hannah Green
In India these days, it’s hard to go for very long without thinking about gang rape. Since the horrific and well-publicized rape and death of a young woman in Delhi last month, more rapes have been appearing in the headlines every day. More politicians’ and public figures’ opinions about why violence against women occurs are getting thrown around as well, each more ludicrous than the next. (But the press isn’t tolerating the nonsense this time, nor are the women of Delhi.) It’s a confusing time to be female and living in India. The constant discussion of rape makes it difficult to forget bad experiences. And it’s hard to know whether to be dominated by anger or fear. It’s easy to forget that India’s–and the world’s–reactions to this will shape what the next stage in the women’s rights movement will look like.
It was a Monday afternoon at the theater in Lucknow, a small city not far from Delhi, somewhat old-fashioned by reputation. We–the women in the audience–were wearing the loose, concealing clothing that women usually wear in Lucknow. The three women on stage were dressed similarly, but in striking combinations of black and pink. The audience was excited, maybe a little tense. During the introductory remarks, the Delhi rape case had been brought up again. About ten minutes into the play, the atmosphere changed when she walked on stage. Black hair, black top, short black skirt, long brown legs. She looked good, but she wasn’t trying to titillate anyone. She spoke with a kind of serene authority “Meri short skirt ka aap se koi lena dena nahin hai.” My short skirt has nothing to do with you.
The play was Kissa Yoni Ka, or The Vagina Monologues translated into Hindi. (Starring Varshaa Agnihotri, Rasika Duggal, Dilnaz Irani, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, and Dolly Thakore and translated gorgeously by Ritu Bhatia and Jaydeep Sarka.) This staging was the first in Lucknow, part of a week-long drama festival called Repithvar. Two years ago, the same festival had tried to bring this play to Lucknow, but it was cancelled at the last minute when the cultural minister objected to the “adult” material Bhupesh Rai, the festival organizer told me. Dolly Thakore, one of the stars of the show, told me that she was happy to have an opportunity to perform in cities where The Vagina Monologues had previously been banned at a time when rape and child molestation were at the forefront of discussion in India. Dialogue about violence against women is opening up across India, and this play is a part of that.
After the play was over, I tried to figure out why the short skirt monologue was the one that made it hardest for me to hold it together. And I thought, seeing this woman onstage, seeing the way she took control of everyone in the room made a lot of lies go away, at least for five minutes. One of them–that women get raped because of what they wear. Another–that the fucked-up ways of thinking that make this monologue necessary are isolated to certain countries and people of certain skin colors. Originally, the same defense of short skirts was written in English for an American audience. There, too, women don’t get to wear short skirts without occasionally being told they’re asking for rape. (Even my high school “health” teacher also told a classroom full of teenaged boys and girls that women who wear short skirts are asking for rape.) Kissa Yoni Ka was translation at its most powerful.
Sometimes I have the idea in my head that when I get sexually harassed in India, it is because I am a fair-skinned Western woman. I didn’t come up with this myself. An information packet from the institute where I study in India advised us female students to try not to blame ourselves if we get assaulted–especially if we have blonde hair. A public service video by the Indian Ministry of tourism portrayed superstar Aamir Khan protecting white European women from lecherous Indian men. I’ve heard multiple people come up with this explanation for harassment of foreign women: that many men who don’t know what Western women are really like assume they want to have sex with anyone, anytime, because they’ve seen American porn. Rashid Rana, a famous artist from Pakistan, described his inspiration for a piece that depicts how people from different parts of world distort the image of their women in different ways: “Men who haven’t been exposed to the West or haven’t traveled there, because of their exposure to pornography they will think of Western women as very promiscuous and they think that, when they’re going to land in the West, people will be having sex on the roads and streets.” It’s a brilliant artistic concept, but brilliant artistic concepts don’t encompass the whole of reality–that is, that some Indian men are capable of treating their own women equally perversely. That even in the part of the world where they were invented, short skirts have been used as legal evidence to justify rape.
People are more willing to talk about violence against women if that violence is perpetrated by “the other.” That’s why ex-pats are so keen to talk about bad experiences women have in the street in India–less so in their own college dorms in America. I’ve heard other foreigners seem to almost relish conversations about “creepy Indian men” and even openly suggest that all Indian men are incapable of respecting women, which daily experience teaches isn’t true. The ease with which people blame outsiders also explains why Indian politicians try to avoid the issue of widespread rape by pinning it on the West’s influence, even on Western clothing. These kinds of discussions are easier to have because they don’t require introspection. But they are also distorting–and worse, isolating. If you’re made to believe that harassment occurs because you’re an outsider, you’re less likely to feel like you can ask for help. Realizing that many Indian women also have to deal with this daily makes me feel like I have allies everywhere. On a larger scale, more open discussion of sexual harassment worldwide will make it harder for anyone, anywhere, to claim that it is another culture’s problem.
The success of the translation of The Vagina Monologues shows that the troubles women have due to our anatomy are present across cultures. And the translation is a success. In Lucknow, audience members had to be forced out of the theater because so many of them were eager to share their comments in the guestbook that had been placed on stage. In its home, Mumbai, the show has been running in front of full houses for 5 years. (The English version has been running Mumbai for 10 years.) As this play’s candid discussion of violence against women spreads to more and more corners of the country, I hope that reactions to the recent rape case will also continue to open up the discussion of violence against women in India. I hope that self-reflection will outweigh political excuses and that the strength of women’s rage will be an example for the world.