On February 15th, the Harvard College Women’s Center announced a new initiative, the “Beyond Gender Equality” Policy Task Force. According to a HCWC statement, the Task Force’s “principal task this semester is to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee,” offering “recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder.” For those of you that haven’t been keeping up, the enactment of rape legislation in India has reached new, scarier-than-Todd-Akin levels of incompetency. On January 23rd, a three-member commission in New Delhi submitted a report on the government’s numerous failures regarding sexual harassment and rape. These recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee are a great first step, and include provisions to ensure that every marriage is fully consensual, that the government takes extra measures to protect homosexuals, transsexuals, transgendered and disabled citizens (groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in sexual assault provisions and legislation), and that a police officer fully investigates every reported case of rape or sexual assault. Unfortunately, many of the Verma Committee’s recommendation were ignored by the Indian government. On February 3rd, 2013, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee signed the Criminal Law Ordinance 2013 in an attempt to further legislate sexual violence. Unfortunately, according to the Human Right's Watch, the new ordinance largely “ignores the committee’s key recommendations, especially on police accountability and framing sexual violence as a violation of women’s rights to bodily integrity.”
At this point, as the Indian government continues to ignore and override the dissent of feminists and human rights representatives, it seems like the situation couldn’t get much worse. But, a group of Indian feminists argue, Western feminists’ “intervention” won’t make it any better. Speaking from the pulpit of political blog Kafila yesterday, Nivedita Menon addressed the Harvard College Women’s Center in a post signed by a group of preeminent Indian feminists. The blog post, which features some BUST- worthy snark, is a thinly veiled attack on the feminists behind the “Beyond Gender Equality” Policy Task Force, and a new addition to a long history of tension between Western and non-Western feminists. Menon acknowledges the Task Force’s intention to “work towards ensuring that steps are put in place that can help the Indian State in its implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, a responsibility the Indian State must take up." She sarcastically continues, "This is clearly something that we, Indian feminists and activists who have been involved in the women’s movement here for several decades, are incapable of doing, and it was with a sense of overwhelming relief that we read of your intention to step into this breach.”
Menon seems to be accusing the HCWC of feeding into feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak’s trope of “white men are saving brown women from brown men.” Of course, in this case, Western women are being accused of overstepping, attempting to impose their own feminist perspectives and protocols in India. While I understand that any attempt to understand or ameliorate the current crisis in India is a good thing, I don’t think that we can afford to ignore these Indian feminists, and the wide-reaching consequences of their dissent. Dismissing the work of these feminists or implying that Western intervention is required in order to save Indian women doesn’t help anyone; in fact, it’s anti-feminist, and it’s a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in India, by Westerners and non-Westerners alike.
Images via The Guardian, Harvard, and Oxfam