As I pushed my shopping cart through the aisles of Trader Joe’s a couple of weeks ago, my mother was updating me about the recent prominent Mumbai rape case over the phone. The gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist in an abandoned mill in South Mumbai, long considered one of the safest parts of the city, was a shock to every Mumbai resident. As I reached for packets of pre-cut brussels sprouts, picked up conveniently wrapped bags of perfectly ripe avocados, and rummaged through the fall-themed squash bins, my mother narrated the developments in the case. As the accused were round up and caught, a greater story was emerging that these men had assaulted, raped, and molested four other women in the very same mill complex in the past six months. In a country where rape is largely blamed on the victim by politicians, policemen, and parents alike, it is no surprise that none of these cases were ever reported, that none of the victims ever tried to come forward, and that the rapists themselves developed a horrific brazenness about the nature of their crime.
My hands were shaking as I added a bunch of bananas to my cart, furiously trying to hold back my burning tears. The issue of rape in India stems from a deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society. One where, ironically enough, women are on the one hand revered and prayed to as goddesses, and on the other trafficked, raped, and assaulted at one of the worst rates in the world. Just six months ago, the nation was up in arms about the brutal rape and murder of a young woman who had been tricked into getting onto the wrong bus. Since then, there has been much discussion and heated debate about the frequency of and attitude toward rape in India. Some politicians have come forward to say that women’s skirts and their desire to roam the streets at night is the real problem. Others are saying that if a victim calls out to her rapist as her brother, he will be merciful, and some going so far as to saying that women who spend time alone with boys should be killed for the dishonor they are bringing upon their families. Obviously, there are much larger issues at play here than merely consent and sexual boundaries. It is about cultural and social structures, about women as the lesser sex, and about a complete lack of law enforcement or accountability to bring justice to the assaulters.
That day, as I queued in the checkout line—my mother and I having said good night—I gripped my cell phone, wishing I could somehow call my mother back and keep talking, while my mind furiously tried to work through all that I’d just been told. That day, for the first time, the colossal distance between here and home hit me in the face. The world of supermarkets, Breaking Bad finales, and coconut water sold in Tetra Paks on one side, and on the other one that is on the cusp between poverty and development, home to more than a billion people, struggling to rein in its rising social inequality, and grappling hopelessly with a political system that is corrupt to its very core.
My experience at Pomona College regarding sexual assault, feminism, consent, and a plethora of other social issues and injustices has been enlightening, informative, and intriguing. It is here that I learned and then fell in love with the idea of post-colonial feminism, here that I was suddenly equipped with the vocabulary to speak out about my own experiences, and to finally voice the issues that I had so long been unable to pinpoint or articulate. I truly appreciate all that the Pomona College community does; I do. However, in the same way that post-colonial feminism has allowed for a strong feminist movement to exist outside of the one that has been constructed within western, liberal paradigms, and has allowed for women of color to proclaim themselves as feminists on their own terms, the conversation about rape desperately needs to be freed from within its current collegiate context. As of now it is aimed toward the privileged, suburban college student, relying on the assumption of a strong hook-up culture and focusing on a very particular context in which rape or any kind of sexual assault could occur.
The Pomona College community is a diverse one, with students from all over the world, hailing from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds. Our conversation about rape needs to become a dynamic, cross-cultural, multi-racial discussion that goes beyond the conventional incidences of rape on a college campus. As of now, the conversation about rape is aimed at simply preventing its occurrence within this specific environment, but isn’t that like treating the flu with medicine that only works while you’re in the hospital? The symptoms, long-term side effects, potential causes, and larger connected complications are being completely ignored. Therefore, the larger issue of rape that occurs from Denver to Delhi, and from Toronto to Tokyo, the one that is demanding us to read the news, to take note, and to facilitate discussions that go beyond shallow gasps and exclamations of momentary sorrow, needs to finally get real attention. Right now we are trying to package the conversation into college-sized boxes, and thus are hindering our ability to really have the conversation at all.