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What is wrong with this picture? Carole Vance

February 18, 2013

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

Harvard to the Rescue!

Unintended consequences of Feminist Action

Dear sisters (and brothers?) at Harvard

13 Comments leave one →
  1. sputnik kilambi permalink
    February 18, 2013 11:24 AM

    Thank you Carol Vance for this very important post. I have seen this attitude way too many times in Africa where I worked many years – whether the project was to do with health, good governance or media development – rare are those who are aware of, let alone question the baggage they bring along, or care to think about local reactions to their coutnry’s policies which all too often have devastating effects on the ‘locals’. Like you, I too do not endorse xenophobia but a more humble attitude and willingness to learn from the people they want to help would stand them in good stead….

  2. kirtana kumar permalink
    February 18, 2013 2:36 PM

    Whew..! Thanks Carol Vance!

  3. Melanie permalink
    February 18, 2013 2:40 PM

    Great post, Carole Vance. Appreciate the humility and open-mindedness in writing this piece. Thank you, Nivedita.

  4. Vandana permalink
    February 18, 2013 8:24 PM

    Thanks for looking into it. I hope your article gets to a newspaper or magazine in US too. We need more action oriented thinkers like you.
    The pressure to ‘make a difference’ or ‘figure it out’ and ‘grow up’ begins way back in kinder, by college it is naturally compulsive. By the way, genuine kindness, can it be taught? Or, genuine anything, for that matter.
    Its the scale that astounds me! This passion to “make a difference” and “do good” instead of learning to ‘be good.’
    In short, “looking good” which people aged 50+ kind of ‘get’ is pointless and a problem that sinks deep in the people psyche.
    I will say both democracies have extremes in successes and failures, though the healing time from colonial rules are almost three centuries apart, but we can learn from each other with humility. One way traffic in over-confidence of giving has a colonial flavour.
    When someone wants to export wisdom without collaboration, can it be called intellectual terrorism? Or, what AILS Harvard is an Alienated Ivy League Syndrome?

  5. Shri permalink
    February 19, 2013 12:21 AM

    I am just being curious or perhaps verifying the argument…

    1) CAN Indian scholars, with their caliber and experience, build up such an initiative for Western issues in similar context? (I am not talking about its acceptance or authority, just ability and willingness)

    and if (hopefully) 1 is yes,
    2) Is it imperative that the West SHOULD react in the same way?

    3) Does your argument not indirectly suggest that undergrads in social sciences as well as other fields need a thorough understanding of responsibilities and consequences, when an opinion in such context is made or expressed?

    4) If 3 goes yes, we are seriously talking about either making social sciences esoteric or well-understood… both don’t fit as far as monetary investments in education are concerned.

  6. paushali permalink
    February 19, 2013 7:42 PM

    this needed to be said.though many, i’m sure have hopes that all regions currently segregated by so-called national boundaries will with effort,come to an ideal state of equality,acceptance & peaceful co-existence some time in near future,the point to note is that the means to this end will not necessarily be the same.history for one,has profound relevance.i wish sincerely more people come across this eloquent piece.again,well said.

  7. February 21, 2013 8:24 AM

    but, but, they’re white saviours…and they mean well….and they have degrees…and dad works at Monsanto or GE or Union Carbide (or…) and he tells me that they try very hard to help people that won’t listen (plus…I really love our summer home on Kiawa Island. I want my children to have that as special summer place just like I did)

  8. February 21, 2013 11:09 PM

    thanks for posting – Bitch media.


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  3. Unintended consequences of feminist action: Prabha Kotiswaran « Kafila
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