Representative photo. Photograph:( WION )
Earlier this week, we came across Ms. Bhattacharyya's emotionally charged essay, 'Why an Indian girl chose to become an American woman' (published in Quartz) on her challenging journey to become a naturalised American citizen. She describes the alienation and disaffection she felt from her home country and how this largely stemmed from the fact that India had failed its women (and by extension her) due to the widespread sexual violence within our society. Finally, this disaffection led her to pursue a strategy of extending her stay in the United States (or literally anywhere else) in an attempt to escape the horrifically morbid fate Indian women are preordained. While we largely share her concerns about widespread violence against women, we find her characterisation of India's society misinformed, laced with generalities and therefore incredibly problematic.
As Indians studying and working in the United States, we are confronted by a similar array of choices as Ms. Bhattacharyya. The US is inarguably a melting pot of diversity - a country that prides itself as the land of immigrants; attracting the best and brightest from every corner of the world. And yet, this fantastical 'land of the free' too suffers its own set of major issues ranging from mass gun violence to racism. The insidious culture of sexual harassment and assault is ubiquitous in the US too, spanning Wall Street, Hollywood and college campuses across the country. It is misleading to suggest that a woman can leave her house and drive for a 100 miles without a single care in the world. If one is to believe economist Amartya Sen, even if we multiply the instances of reported rape by 10 (to account for underreporting), estimates of its occurrence would still be substantially lower than in the UK, US, Sweden or South Africa.
The fight for gender inequality and violence against women has miles to go in India as it does in the rest of the world, but despair and a defeatist attitude is not the way to win any battle, least of all this one. In her essay, Bhattacharyya laments that even change would be unable to undo the damage done by our history of oppression. It seems as if she hasn't examined the history of the very country she holds in such high regards. If India has a history for regressive practices, Western history is also replete with similar repression of women's rights right up to the early twentieth century. It was only after a long struggle that women were able to win the right to vote. And yet, if, as the writer herself argues, she feels safe enough to drive across the country at 3am, it is clear that things have changed. India on the other hand, being a relatively younger democracy and several years behind the United States in economic development cannot be dismissed as incapable of change or progress. We may be the world's 'smelliest' and most 'interesting' melting pot as frivolously put by Ms Bhattacharyya, but at least we broke the glass ceiling long before any of us even called it that with the reign of Indira Gandhi. As of 2018, this feat is yet to be accomplished by the world's oldest democracy, a country where she feels safer and more empowered in.
The inscrutable Americans-esque analysis of her personal experience in the United States of feeling 'poor' and like an 'outsider' goes against the very spirit of why we moved to the US - a country that thrives on its immigrants' confidence and relentless will to stand out. She not only perpetuates the Indian stereotype of being secondary in America, but also reaffirms the superiority of someone up in the West determining just how hipster you had to be to be considered cool, or how much of your intellectual prowess authors like Hegel determine. While it may make for a catchy statement to call India a country that doesn't know what to do with its women, it's utterly careless to do so because of how dangerously wrong this narrative is. For starters, the Indian government through one of its landmark schemes MUDRA Yojana, provides small businesses across the country with seed capital in the form of loans, and almost 75 per cent of its beneficiaries are female entrepreneurs, thereby not making India a country that "doesn't know what to do with its women" as claimed by Ms. Bhattacharya. We are also the first country in the region to have a purely women-led railway station in Rajasthan affirming public female confidence in a state that is traditionally known for nothing but its textiles and rates of child marriage. Further initiatives to boost women participation have also been kickstarted by the private sector. While there are several challenges we need to scale in order to become the country we deserve to be, we are eternally optimistic about our ability to surmount them.
The overall comparison of a global super power with one of the oldest civilisations in the world is not only irresponsible but also blatantly ignorant. Our nation stands at the cusp of awakening and ever growing polarisation, much like the United States. We use our rather fantastical, emotionally charged and inspiring films to inculcate a culture of openness and make big budget movies about periods, homosexuality, and religious tolerance. In her 70 young years, India has kept one finger on the pulse of social change. The transactional approach she has adopted when assessing her loyalty to any country, be it the United States or India, is disheartening and just the kind of spirit a nation that thrives on unconditional patriotism-fueled progress does not need. As Indians living in the United States, the only parting advice we can give her is to continue texting friends and family while being out and about on American streets at 3 in the morning; for these roads too are rife with thorns, some much sharper than the ones in India.
(Mansi has written the piece along with her fellow NYU graduate Abhishek Dalal)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the authors and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)