This past Sunday, Indian novelist Lavanya Sankaran published an opinion piece in the New York Times that made waves in social media. She entitled her article, emblematically, "The Good Men of India."
I'm speculating here, but I suspect that she was trying to offer a feel-good read to all those Indians offended by the slew of recent negative media attention the country has attracted of late. (The photo above shows a vigil for the victim of the Delhi gang rape.) And there's no question about it -- it's certainly been a painful experience to read news stories describing India as a country of rape, absolutely unsafe for women, and full of predatory men. Yet Sankaran's response is comically simplistic, if not downright dangerous.
According to her, Indian men today fall into two categories: The first are "feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure, fighting poverty, exhausted, denied access to regular female companionship, adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography, newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence -- and not able to respond to any of it in a safe, civilized manner." Though she doesn't explicitly label them, it's clear that these are not the men she's referring to in her title. These are the Bad Men of India, the Men Who Rape.
Opposed to this shifty bunch are the eponymous men of Sankaran's title, whom she also refers to, for good measures, as the Common Indian Men: "committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger. Frequently spotted in domestic circles, traveling in a family herd." She sees these men look after a baby on a plane. She has a friend whose Indian husband is one of these men, and cares for his parents.
Sadly, the situation isn't this black and white. The committed, the concerned, the cautious, the intellectually curious, the linguistically witty, the socially gregarious, the endearingly awkward, the quick to laugh, the slow to anger, those who travel in family herds, those who look after babies, those who care for their parents -- they can rape too. These "Good Indian Men" can also discriminate, harass, hurt and rape. And classifications like Sankaran's make it that much more difficult to speak out against such cases.
What about the heroic jawaans, the regular soldiers of the Indian military responsible for brutal mass rape in Kashmir? Or a respected spiritual leader raping a young girl? Or countless incidents of teachers, in cities and villages, raping their students? (A quick Google search will find you several.) What about Indian members of parliament, shamelessly sexist on record? Or an old Supreme Court Justice who suggests marriage as a post-rape compromise in court? Or the Indian President's son saying that a woman protesting rape is as baffling to him as a woman going to a disco? Where do these men figure in the feral men vs. Common Indian Men taxonomy? Perhaps they fall into other classifications not elaborated on by Sankaran in her piece. But for all she knows, those charming businessmen she saw carrying a baby on a plane could be abusing their wives or girlfriends, too.
Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau in India show a pervasive reluctance among women to report rape -- across all social classes and education levels. "The NCRB figures also show one important reason why victims have an incentive to remain silent: the rapists are mainly friends, even kin," writes Indian journalist Praveen Swami. "Even though the media overwhelmingly reports on dramatic cases involving attacks by strangers, all but four states reported that nine out of 10 alleged perpetrators or more were known to the victim. In Delhi, that figure was 96.6 percent." Even though there now seems to be considerable political momentum for reforming laws on sexualized violence in India, there is a notoriously cool attitude toward marital rape.
I don't mean to suggest that Sankaran's portrayal of a Common Indian Man is egregiously wrong or offensive -- not in the least. I suspect that she did not intend to blindly categorize Indian men into the kinds who rape and the kinds who do not, but merely to remind us of the good that we already know exists. Yet the picture she paints of her Good Indian Men potentially makes it even harder to trace and punish the crimes committed by those who are part of this picture: friends, husbands, family members, teachers, and the well-educated. Her simplistic rendering of Indian sexual politics runs the risk of reinforcing a culture of impunity among those who benefit from their high status in Indian society.
By comparison, it's worth considering the recent news on rape in the United States. Many of the recent cases making headlines have taken place on college campuses or in high schools -- Maryville, Missouri, and Steubenville, Ohio, being the most recent in the public eye. The perpetrators in these cases have often gained sympathy from many in the public and the media because of how "good" they were: "good students" with "promising futures." The "good" label is dangerous. It mitigates blame for rapists, often transferring it to the victims instead. (And it's worth noting that, despite the rape epidemic on campuses around the country, the New York Times never saw the need to run an op-ed with someone reassuring its readers of the existence of the Good American Man or the Good American College Student. As usual, the soothing oversimplification was reserved for foreigners.)
I have no doubt at all that there are millions of men in India who are kind and respectful to women; my own father, brother, and many other relatives and friends are such Indian men. But the negative stereotypes about Indian men -- or anyone, for that matter -- are not wrong because I know someone who doesn't fit them. They're wrong because it is nonsensical to make statistical generalizations about a massive population based on a tiny and subjective sample. Rape is a crime whose perpetrators transcend national boundaries, class divides, feel-good classifications and stereotypes. Accepting this perhaps unsettling fact is the first step toward addressing the problem.
Uzra Khan is an editorial research assistant at Reuters in New York.
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Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.