What is wrong with this picture? Carole Vance
Guest post by CAROLE VANCE
Two faculty members at Harvard, associated with gender studies, convene a Policy Task Force, designed to “to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder” and in this semester “to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee”. This is not a student initiative, though a meeting with students is scheduled to invite their input, along with that of the larger Harvard community.
What is wrong with this picture? Presumption? Hubris? Ignorance of the long history of feminist conversations about the challenges of working transnationally? Rather than being a training or practice exercise for students (which it might usefully have been), the conveners seem to think their Task Force has the authority and competence to make such an intervention, without any collaboration or conversation with the many scholars and activists working on sexual violence in India, and, more astoundingly, that it would be taken seriously. This confidence might be misplaced.
As a US feminist and teacher, I am concerned this enterprise sends a very unsound message to students: that the bounty of good intention and concern is sufficient to justify and enable a raft of US-generated projects, NGOs, and ‘help’, with much knowledge or collaboration. For the record, I am not endorsing xenophobia, scholarship restricted to one’s back yard, or forbidden areas of engagement. What needs thought is a better process.
Elite colleges in the US are filled with undergraduate students, particularly women, who want to ‘change the world’ and especially ‘save women’. A good thing, except for the fact that they tend to believe that their good intentions are sufficient; in-depth knowledge of history, language, politics, and culture is not necessary; US policies and invasions have no bearing on what they do or how they might be perceived; the women in need of saving are not to be found in the US but elsewhere; and there are no activists and scholars in every region with long histories of work on the topics of their concern. It is important for undergraduate education, particularly in gender studies, to puncture this bubble rather than inflate it further, if only to make more effective and collaborative work possible, as well as to permit some self-reflection.
One could imagine many programs and discussions with undergraduates that would be productive and educational. What lessons can be learned from feminist organizing and activism in India in the wake of the Delhi rape (especially since it could be said that feminist activism is much more vibrant and effective in India)? What reforms in law and its implementation are effective, given different legal systems and historical contexts? How do we understand the (relative) lack of response to horrific rapes in the US, including the previously mentioned Steubenville case? In fact, the meeting organized by students poses one such question as the focus of discussion. One could think of many programs and events, designed to inform students and introduce them to the complexities and challenges of working and thinking both locally and globally.
Instead, students are given the impression that their input, convened by two faculty members, is an appropriate and reasonable intervention and their recommendations would be received, perhaps even happily.
It may be that the project can be reconfigured, as others have suggested, but it would be helpful to consider the process and how it might benefit from many decades of feminist conversations about collaboration.
Teaching US students to work transnationally is an uneasy and very challenging undertaking, at best. I don’t pretend to know the ‘right’ way, but we need to reflect on the models of intervention that we offer students.
Carole Vance is a feminist scholar and activist based in the US. Among her many publications, the most familiar to an Indian audience would be Pleasure and Danger. Carole is closely associated with Indian NGO CREA’s annual Sexuality and Rights Institute.
Other posts on this issue on Kafila