Christina James '11: Calling Myself A Feminist

Christina James was the 2012-2014 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is her first second year narrative.

At Oberlin, I decided to major in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies because I felt that my gender identity, consciously or subconsciously, influenced many decisions that I made and was the lens through which I saw the world. Though I feel that I have developed multiple perspectives on life, through speaking other languages and living in Indonesia and India, feminism has been an underlying beat to which my life has set itself. Working for Jagori in India, I became comfortable calling myself a feminist.         

 

Like many feminists, I subscribe to the meaning behind the quote “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”[1]. To see women have to fight micro-battles to wear what they want or all out wars to save their life, to hear them talk casually about being beaten by their husband or inlaws, made me wonder if women are socially defined as people in India. When case workers in the women’s courts at Jagori shamed a woman for treating her daughter in law like an animal, or told me they stayed up all night trying to talk a man down from killing his wife, that feminism beat became loud enough that I couldn’t hear myself think and rage would fill me up until it spilled out of my eyes. This rage initially was directed towards individuals, largely men, who routinely violated rights guaranteed to women in India’s legal fabric; as I spent more time in India, and working at Jagori, my rage turned to earnest urgency to have one question answered – what inhumanity would raise, encourage, and urge men (and some women) to commit such violations of human rights?

 

Dressed in my salwar kameez and dupatta (typical North Indian top and bottoms and a scarf), no matter how careful I was, I still got harassed and even groped, and all in broad daylight. But rape has become an accepted fact here in India, regardless of whether a foreigner is involved or not. No matter who you are, there are no rules to follow to keep one safe from rape or sexual harassment. Society claims there are rules, such as wearing proper clothing, not going out at night (or if you are, going with men you know), and taking public transportation, among other mandates. Jyoti, the woman raped and killed in Delhi in December 2012, was following the "rules" exactly - take public transportation, take male protection, etc. She was raped anyways, even though the subscribed to social norms. Unlike laws, these social norms are not applicable under all stated circumstances. Specific incidents of rape and harassment are so random and could happen to any woman at any place or time of day that you either have to be scared all the time, or realize that you should just live your life the way you'd like to live it (within reason).

 

 

I didn’t intend to focus most of my work at Jagori on violence against women, but through the mission of Jagori, my skill set, and my attraction to the revolutionary work of the women’s court program, each project I did at least touched on violence against women. My most recent project involved documenting and analyzing the cases that came through Jagori’s women-run court, totaling over 280 cases that had complete information. Jagori has been working for the past 11 years on arbitrating cases of violence against women. This project recorded and evaluated some of the data the team has generated over the years. Analyzing and documenting case-related data has the potential to provide insight in four key areas: 1) giving a quantitative value to the work carried out by the organization; 2) re-assessing the Violence program’s long-term and short-term goals; 3) determining how this program can better serve the beneficiaries of AWAJ’s work; and 4) providing Jagori with statistics that are easily presentable to funding agencies.

There is a fundamental paradox in the way women are treated in India. Since the Delhi gang rape on December 16th, 2012 made international news, all eyes have turned toward India as the moniker for violence against women. In response, India swiftly imposed harsher punishments for rapists and increasingly fast tracked rape cases through the legal system. Despite laws that protect women’s safety and harshly punish perpetrators, national officials continue to place the responsibility on women to discourage rape by dressing modestly and staying indoors at night. These laws can only go so far to protect women if the society they are living in continues to be patriarchal and bars them access to these laws. Increased policy implementation at a local level, rather than more policy creation on a national level, would benefit women and begin to change society from within.

There are several obstacles facing women seeking justice for sexual assault or domestic violence. At Jagori Grameen, the NGO I currently work for, I document and analyze data on cases that come through the women’s court, and have spoken to women who have endured abuse for years without receiving justice. The women’s court both works to mediate cases outside the judiciary and helps clients pursue cases through the government courts. The majority of the cases are not filed in government courts for three reasons: 1) the complainant does not want to publicize her case for fear of being ostracized in her village; 2) a woman with few connections or financial resources has little chance of seeing any result from filing a case in court within five years, largely due to corruption in the police departments; 3) compromises are more quickly struck at a village level. The last process showcases how the very laws designed to help women attain justice for violence inflicted upon them are often circumvented and ignored.

In order for women to be able to access laws that punish perpetrators of violence and guarantee them rights, small changes must be made at the local level before more widespread state- or nation-wide policies are ratified. First, a curriculum about gender sensitivity and respect for women must be implemented in schools, police trainings, and government offices. In the wake of the Delhi gang rape, there was a sharp increase in the hiring of female police officers, but they largely reflect the same sexist mentality of their male peers. Second, preventative measures should be taken at the village level; counselors from outside the village should conduct counseling sessions with newly married couples on a regular basis. To circumvent stigma associated with admitting personal problems in village life, counselors will have to come from outside the community, yet possess a similar background to couples they counsel. Third, to combat corruption and increase access for the poor, women, and low-caste individuals, a commission at the local level, comprised of officials from outside the community, must oversee the operations of every police station. These commissions will ensure that cases are processed in a timely manner for all litigants, and should punish those police who are negligent or delayed in processing any criminal complaint lodged at the station.

Though laws in India are arguably written in favor of women, their implementation, especially in rural areas, makes it difficult for any woman to receive justice for wrongs done to her. Channeling focus and resources to local level programs in rural communities, with accountability and oversight from outside these communities, will strengthen societal equality to match the strength of existing laws. In this way, the patriarchy that perpetuates violence against women will no longer deter women from the legal system that is waiting to be of use to them.

 

 

Though violence against women has been the issue I have worked on the most, I firmly believe it has merely opened me up to the complexity and rawness of a nation undergoing rapid changes and has only made the wonderful aspects of India glow even brighter. India has come to be a home to me in a way that causes me to get defensive of it, particularly in situations where I am the only one around that can offer a grounded and remotely informed opinion. While I was in Taigu, China in December 2012, days after the Delhi gang rape happened, I was at a banquet at Shanxi Agricultural University and about to tuck into the cold portion of dinner, when there was an announcement made that the woman who had been raped in Delhi had just died in Singapore. This prompted a conversation that largely revolved around how uncivilized India was and how everything there was dirty, largely focusing on negative things. I chimed in, cheerfully, saying that India was one of the most vibrant and complex places I had ever been and that we were all glossing over the good things about India, like the incredible food, diversity of languages, religions and cultures, and the passion with which Indian people attempt to hold their governments accountable by taking to the streets when they disagree with nearly anything. My comments effectively ended the conversation, but I found myself taken aback with how forcefully I defended a place that I had such simultaneously opposing opinions about.

Sitting here in Lexington, listening to Hindi music, I think about how I am struggling with which parts of my identity from India to keep and which to discard, which American customs to embrace and which to resist. Sometimes on chaotic Indian buses, even when there was Panjabi rap music blasting, I would listen to something completely out of place, like jazz, as a sort of inside joke to myself – a way to tell myself I didn’t have to be present with all my senses. I would watch the hills roll by and forget where I was going for a while. On the bus to catch the train to my economics class, I listen to some of the same Panjabi music, trying to escape the order of people boarding and disembarking as slowly as they want, acutely aware of the man next to me trying not to have any part of his shoulder graze mine, and somehow longing for the days where everything was thrown together in a messy and wonderful jumble. I don’t even have to hold onto the handlebars here – it’s no fun anymore.

A palpable difference, one that I noticed as soon as I got off the plane in Malaysia, is not having to carry myself in a way that tells people “I know where I’m going, there’s no need to talk to me, male passerby”. I don’t have to race to get a good seat on the women’s car on the subway – men don’t stare here, out of either curiosity or something much more sinister. I walked around at night alone for the first time in years and felt no fear. I don’t have to have a grammatically correct Hindi phrase on the tip of my tongue ready to yell at a man who harasses me. My posture while walking is more relaxed – I can wear shorts and it’s the most normal thing in the world. I want to wear my salwar kameez to class one of these days, but I’m afraid people will stare for an entirely different reason this time.

 

[1] Originally said by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler, as far as I can tell.

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