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Whose Voices Get Heard?

Study Abroad as Neo-Colonial Tourism

by JESSICA NAMAKKAL

Amongst continued reports in the Western media of sexual violence in India, including gang rapes that have resulted in death, a young woman, a student at the University of Chicago, recently wrote an essay for cnn.com, “India: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear,” about her experience with sexual harassment in India. She laments that her love for India, for the culture and spirituality, had been destroyed by encounters with men masturbating in public and groping her and her friends while they were “bargaining at the bazaar for saris costing a few dollars a piece.” She longs to show off her “Indian sandals” to her friends at home, but does not wish to remember the “man who stalked me for forty-five minutes” after she purchased them. She thought she had been properly prepared to travel in India – she was a South Asian Studies major, she “spoke a little Hindi,” and she had been warned that as a white woman, she would be “viewed as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize.” Still, her experiences with the darker side of the tourism industry pushed her into what she describes as being diagnosed with, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Since being diagnosed, she has taken a leave of absence from school and is trying to come to terms with what she experienced in India.

There are two distinct voices heard these days that address the issue of sexual violence in India: one voice is that of the Western tourist, worried about her safety while traveling, while the other comes from within India, from both women and men concerned with the lack of attention paid by the Indian government to the problem of violence against women. Both point to a similar problem that exists on a macro-scale: women are often the target of violence, and the Indian state has done very little to address the issue, while attacks have escalated. Despite the fact that the great majority of these attacks are against Indian women, many of whom the Western world, and most of India, for that matter, will never hear from, the voices of Western women who have been traumatized in some way from their travels and study in India dominate much Western coverage of India, thus widening the already existing gulf between Indian women and women from the developed or First World.

The University of Chicago student who wrote the cnn.com article, Rose Chasm, wrote from the viewpoint of a victim, and of course, in many ways she is one. However, it is important to recognize the other victims linked to the network she traveled during her time in India. Tourism is not a neutral action – the author, and the other students she traveled with, along with thousands of other Western tourists in India, are part of an industry meant to make a few people at the top of the industry very wealthy, while the majority of laborers working in the tourist industry struggle to get by on a day to day basis. The people who sell the $3 saris to tourists on the street tend to see Western consumers as what they are – people with power and wealth who have traveled to a foreign place to get a “good deal” on goods from impoverished workers. Tourists in India commonly complain about their taxi drivers, hotel owners, and chai-wallahs trying to “rip them off” – no mention is made of the inequality, the “bad deal,” that Indian merchants get from catering to wealthy, but stingy, tourists, only interested in getting “the best deal” to brag about at home.

Of course every woman, man, and child in the world deserves the freedom to travel and walk wherever he or she wants to whenever they choose, but that is not the world we live in. Currently, it is quite simple for American students to sign up for a study abroad program in India, apply for a virtually guaranteed travel visa, and buy a plane ticket to India. When they arrive, they can buy cheap goods, eat plentiful foods catered to tourists, buy endless bottles of “safe” water unavailable to millions of people who have no access to clean water, and travel freely throughout the country on trains, on airplanes, and by hired car. What of Indians who wish to study in the United States? There are certainly a small percentage of well-connected and well-off Indians who travel to the US with ease, but for the vast majority of India’s 1.241 billion people, travel outside India is unthinkable. Even if they could manage a visa to the US, which is highly unlikely, they would be faced with the need to raise enough money, in rupees, to live in a location ruled by the American dollar (the current exchange rate is 64 rupees to 1 USD). Once in America, the Indian student faces various degrees of racism, xenophobia, and cultural ignorance. Several shootings in the past decade have shown the general inability of Americans to tell the difference between a Sikh, for instance, and other turban-wearing peoples. Furthermore, Indian students in America are rarely treated the way that American students in India are – most American students are prepared to go to India with training sessions and on-the-ground support in India if they encounter any problems. Despite the resources available to American students, making them incredibly well supported in their wanderlust, universities often do them a disservice. For Rose Chasm, it seems that the University of Chicago made her feel that they would be able to protect her from the political reality of India.

This student wanted to go to India to learn about the history, culture, and people of an “ancient” country. She wanted to dance at the Ganesha festival in Pune and to come back to the United States bearing beautiful, handcrafted, low-cost gifts. Instead, she learned, in a very violent and unpleasant way, that life is not very easy in most parts of the world. She saw the after-effects of a colonial system that constructed the intimate ties of whiteness and capitalism that rule over the labor and material wealth of the rest of the world, and the patriarchy and sexual violence built during the glory days of the British Empire. Whiteness and wealth went hand-in-hand in colonial India, and the power of racial hierarchy still rules the market, sometimes in the guise of tourism. She was forced to experience the hard truth that sometimes the price of a sari is more than $3, that it carries the surcharge of acknowledging the history of the colonial exploitation of material goods and services—a message that rarely appears in a Westerners approach to India as a peaceful, yoga-centric space of spiritual comfort. The tax on Western women tourists, of feeling uncomfortable as men stare at them when they are dancing in public, take their pictures as they walk down streets devoid of Indian women, and make lewd advances in response to the widespread attitude that Western women are more likely to have casual sex than Indian women (another colonial-era rumor), is indeed a high-price to pay. How, then, do we begin to fix this system, to cast off the cloak of colonialism and begin to see people as more than merchants and consumers, as haves and have-nots? Western students arriving in India, regardless of their good intentions, their knowledge of Indian history and culture, are still Western consumers, and thus participants in the tourist industry.

One solution is to encourage study abroad programs to recognize the structural differences between India and the United States when constructing their programs in India. The cnn.com editorial by Rose Chasm shows just how far the divide between Western women and Indian women is – how can we move towards global solidarity for a woman’s right to live free of sexual violence while also recognizing the privileges inherent in one’s nationality, the rights granted by a particular passport? Rose Chasm’s program at U of Chicago may have warned her that Indian women dress more conservatively than American women and that she should follow suit, but they did not suggest that instead of simply conducting herself in public spaces as she would in the United States, she might instead seek out Indian women to spend time with – to understand how they live, what they do on a daily basis, and how they feel about the increasing attacks on Indian women in their own communities. It is all too often that the voices of Indian women get lost in these debates, the very women who are both the most frequent victims of sexual violence in India and working hardest to combat the system that keeps them from speaking out and protecting themselves, their sisters, mothers, and daughters.

What if American women (and men, who should certainly participate in this discussion) who wished to study in India, who desire to really experience what life is like on the sub-continent, spent their 3 or 4 months working with groups of women and/or trans or queer people and their allies to help out in the struggle against sexual violence in India? What if instead of shopping for saris and sandals, and taking trips to Goa, they met women and asked them questions about their lives, their struggles, their hopes and visions? There are, certainly, some universities and programs that offer such possibilities for learning from Indians, not just about them, but the tourist industry in India, and globally, is so well established that it is often difficult for non-Indians to access the communities they would like to learn from. Discussions clearly need to be held within institutions of learning about new approaches to sending students abroad, to addressing what it means to be an American in a non-American space. Establishing connections that would encourage American students to enter into dialogues with Indian women, and men, who are fighting oppression and inequality would be a more valuable study abroad experience than following a tourist trail well-worn by centuries of Westerners looking for something India cannot readily give.

Jessica Namakkal is Visiting Assistant Professor of International Comparative Studies at Duke University. She can be reached at jessica.namakkal@duke.edu