Sexual Violence as a Migrating Woman, Re: India Story You Never Wanted to Hear

(Or maybe we could also call this “Sexual Violence as a Migrating -- queer, socio and economically disadvantaged, mostly white and white-passing, able-bodied, educationally privileged, American, cis -- Woman, Re: India Story You Never Wanted to Hear”)

Reflection on Violence while Migrating

RoseChasm shared her experiences of sexual harassment during a study abroad program and her PTSD mental leave of absence from school to CNN iReport "India: the Story You NeverWanted to Hear" on August 18, 2013. (Updated) A response iReport "Same India-Different Story" by twoseat affirms the reports of sexual harassment and also brings a discussion of racism and nationalism. CNN also posts a lengthy statement to the story.

WHEN I reposted this iReport to my own Facebook wall, I wanted to de-emphasize India in the headline, so I wrote “This is a story about sexual harassment and street harassment.” The reason that I de-emphasize India is because I am hesitant to participate in uniquely calling out India for violence against women. I have not been to India. I have travelled in other countries and I have heard first-hand from friends abroad and in the U.S. with similar experiences of street harassment, sexual assault and violence against women. In my view, women who are migrating may be treated differently and/or targeted for violence.

ON this blog post, I hope to further emphasize this point and discuss migration, race and other factors that affect experiences of sexual violence. Sexual assault and harassment are global in scope, but I think survivors experiences (and certainly my own experiences) can be affected by shifts in privilege associated with migration.

I have experienced sexual violence in the U.S. and Korea. Perhaps like RoseChasm I also find it difficult to discuss for a number of reasons. In particular, it is difficult for me to discuss the violence I have experienced in Korea because I want to share deeply complicated contexts and personal ideas that are not easy to sum up. I do not want those listening to my story to think that it is a story about Korea - because it isn’t a story about Korea - my story is about sexual violence. The mechanisms of violence against women in Korea and in the U.S. may differ in some specific ways (location, context, dialog, tone and cues) but they are more alike than different. The stigmatization of women and sex, denial of reproductive rights, slut-shaming, rape culture, poor funding for women’s social services, restricted access to quality ob/gyn care, police and legal discrimination, etc. are common to both societies and found world-wide. However, comparing my experiences of sexual violence in the U.S. and Korea, some differences do emerge, and I tend to think they are related to my own position in society and particularly my citizenship and race.

IN the United States I have experienced sexual violence and felt relatively assured of and informed about my legal rights, access to medical care and the availability of support services. This absolutely offered me a greater sense of security and of my capacity to cope with violence. This is not to say that I wasn't silenced in some ways, some people around me minimized my story or even blamed me. While abroad and as a non-citizen, I have to put different effort into seeking legal recourse, there is a barrier in services, and it may be harder to find support. This also impacts my sense of security and ability to cope harassment and sexual violence. While abroad, some fellow expats and some nationals have also minimized my story - some tried to tell me that I misunderstood a 'cultural difference' and others, instead of hearing my story, rushed to tell me that they had experienced the same or worse in the U.S.

We often think of sexual violence in very narrow terms, sometimes calling it a "women's issue" or failing to be inclusive of all voices. Rape and Sexual violence in the United States and other countries is not only violence against women, but also racial and gendered violence (other examples are terribly abundant but violence on reservations and against transwomen are two that I wanted to highlight here). Although I am mostly white and white-passing (rather, I glow in the dark), I have also experienced sexual violence accompanied by cues related to my race such as racial slurs or references specific to my nationality. I don't mention this in an attempt to equate this and other deployments of racism in sexual violence, but I point this out because it exists and it happens.

I hear often from Korean and Korean-American women who grew up, travelled to or lived in the United States about the fetish sexualization of their bodies as 'exotic' and the accompanying harassment from American men. We saw evidence of many of these stereotypes recently in the Asian Girlz song and music video, but the very real sexual violence and slut shaming of Asian and Asian-American women is generally overlooked in the United States. Thus, I feel that in sharing experiences of sexual violence that occurred in Korea, I simultaneously need to hear and challenge sexual violence in the United States. I am concerned that attention to sexual violence against white women, while absolutely important to our dialog, can get tied up in media and individual-level racism if we place one-sided emphasis on certain societies as perpetrators and certain survivors' voices.

Support for Survivors 

THE kinds of legal recourse or emotional support facilities we might be able to utilize at home may not be present or visible enough for migrating women. Expats do not always have the same rights or access to rights in a society. For example, recently for employment and visa-related reasons three women I know were in effect discouraged by police from making reports or pressing charges against an assailant. By having a pending case, they feared their employers would drop them in a few months when contract renewals are up, and without an employment contract they would lose their legal visa status. The police reminded them one that they may have legal trouble that lasts longer than their visa eligibility and that it could be inconvenient to be summoned back to Korea for the case. This in turn evoked fear about finding translators or a lawyer to help with the case, about their sexual assault being publicized in the workplace, at school or among their social circle, about recovering the huge ($10,000) security deposit they made for their apartment lease if they lost the visa status and had to leave earlier than anticipated, etc. etc. etc. Some of these concerns are unique pressures tied to living abroad. Other stigmatization and slut-shaming might be tied to race or nationality, I am so tired of hearing that Sex and the City is representative of Western women and their sexual promiscuity.

THE rape of women that are migrating or transiting through countries is especially under-reported in the US, and in many places there are inadequate facilities for support, medical treatment or legal aid for migrating women (see Tiffany Kim's research with Latina migrants in the U.S.). In other regions important NGOs and state actors have stepped up to extend that support to non-nationals.

EVEN when there are legal or social support facilities operated by a state, they may be problematic and migrating women might not want to use them. Interviews of those who use facilities for migrant women show some criticism of the services (see Grace Cheng & Joan Yoo's research with marriage migrants women in Korea). Compared with familiar facilities available in one's home nation, language and legalese might make a sexual assault survivor abroad feel less empowered to act. Documents might not be translated in a language one is comfortable with. Women might perceive that the Multicultural Centers and Migrant Women’s Shelter are tied up in a problematically racialized “Multicultural Policy" that exerts pressure on non-citizen women in a variety of ways or with national pride/image in mind. Therefore, these spaces may be uncomfortable for some women and impact their perception of safety of of their rights.

RECENTLY in South Korea we have observed that expat women are building their own spaces to provide support for sexual assault survivors. Perhaps this could be because the existing spaces fail in some way to meet their needs. Groups such as Stand Up to Sexism, JeollaSafety Alliance, Hollaback! Korea, and Disruptive Voices bring together community members to discuss sexual violence, prevention and awareness.

Violence Against Women Abroad

I appreciate and respect RoseChasm for sharing her story of sexual harassment and for highlighting the problematic institutional response to her PTSD and to survivors who participated in a university study abroad program. Survivors of sexual violence challenge our system with their stories and call for solidarity and awareness about sexual crimes.

TOO many of our international and personal responses to violence against women incorrectly emphasize women’s migration itself as the problem, when we need to challenge societies the world over to change attitudes toward women.

OUR international regime to address human trafficking grounds itself in migration policy and links to organized crime, thus far too many nations respond by restricting the ‘illegal’ movement of women instead of addressing employment structures in origin countries and inadequate legal and social protections for women in destination states (see Vidyamali Samarasinghe's research on trafficking policy).

IN Korea, the state Multicultural Policy singles out domestic violence in international marriages to justify increasing state intervention into the ‘multicultural family’ and hysterize divorce, without acknowledging that Korean families in similar socio-economic conditions have comparable violence and divorce rates. One reason may be that foreign women are perceived as the most easily mobilized resource to solve the various family crises and care-work burden facing Korean society (see Hyun Mee Kim's research on Multicultural Family Policy).

IN the U.S. this iReport could be an opportunity to articulate how privilege operates differently in the U.S. as a white woman, (with some presumed) economic or educational privilege, and based on citizenship. RoseChasm talks about the preparation to go abroad - I think other organizations also try to 'prepare' (particularly) white women for what will happen when they go abroad and are not ‘protected’ by certain racialized and gendered social and legal structures that in the US tend to emphasize their rights or voices as sexual assault survivors when women of color or migrating women might be ignored or more actively silenced by the same social or legal structure in the US.

Advising Women to ‘Protect Themselves’

I have participated in a number of programs abroad, interviewed for other abroad programs, and myself managed or been in charge of orientation for abroad program participants. I have been the recipient of and the provider of advice to women and men in navigating personal safety and acclimating to differing positions of privilege while abroad. I have heard, internalized and offered advice similar to what RoseChasm reports,
“I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets.”
Similarly, I was advised extensively about what not to wear as a woman, how (not) to drink, advised not to participate in later ‘rounds’ of outings with co-workers, etc. I was told as a newly arriving woman in Korea that if I entered a motel and was raped, the police would not believe me. I was warned that entering a motel would be seen as consent to whatever ensued thereafter. I was told stories of women who came before me and experienced ‘problems’ or ‘cultural misunderstandings.’ This advice came both from fellow Americans and from Korean staff overseeing programs. There was not a lot of discussion about how to respond to sexual harassment or violence.

I felt deeply uncomfortable with this advice, and when it was my turn to serve in temporary short-term capacities offering advice and reflection to Americans abroad, I parroted the stories but thought that I was framing them with my own view that it is never the victim’s fault. I told women it was not their fault if they were sexually harassed but that advice was offered as how to try to behave in order to possibly avoid some of it. I shared my own experiences of navigating street harassment, but tried to emphasize that my response is not THE response and that these are individual choices, I offered up stories of other friends. I told GLBT members that it was their choice to be out or come out, but offered up stories of what friends who had (selectively) or hadn’t experienced, and talked about the stigmatization I had seen in media about homosexuality. I felt that what I was saying was not good enough because I felt it was important to challenge the root of the problem, which was violence directed at people based on their gender and sexuality.

Inadequate Institutional Responses to Violence Against Women

WE see again and again that institutions such as Peacekeepers, Peace Corps, U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant, study abroad programs and others, may not take adequate measures to support members who are assaulted, to listen to stories of violence and initiate policy change, to push for legal rights or social support for participants, to take care of their members who are abused. Institutional accountability needs to be more clearly articulated and this dialog is important.

PERHAPS a part of the problem may be that some people overseeing these programs do not personally experience the violence, or because of their own gender/race/sexual orientation/class*/educational*/citizenship status* lack an awareness of how these privileges might operate and affect the safety of program participants, or deny that sufficient 'proof' of violence exists. It is flawed to say that we care about the safety of our program participants, simplistically advise them to ‘be’ safe, but fail to adequately emphasize their safety to partner organizations or advocate for their safety in our broader work - when we vote, in our mindsets, and with our own participation - in social and legal structures.

WITH only a few months experience in Japan, or with only a year of experience in Korea, I was chosen to help new arrivals with their own process of acclimation. I was not an expert, and even years later my own views are constantly changing and growing based on experience. I am aware that by being selected for these positions by an institution - based on my race/gender/sexual orientation/class/educational background - other voices may not have had the same priority in an program. Institutions may rely too much and too passively on women, people of color and LGBT members to step up and speak out or apply for the kinds of leadership programs that I sought, but these same institutions should be accountable for caring about safety, questioning conceptions of safety from diverse perspectives, seeking out knowledge and sharing it. It is not enough to passively welcome women, people of color and LGBT members to speak, rather institutions needs to take a more active role in learning and incorporating diverse concerns in their safety programming. Thoughtful safety policies require careful consideration of gender, race, sexual orientation, citizenship status, etc.

Poor Media Responses to Violence Against Women

AGAIN and again we see troubling coverage of violence against women in the media. I am particularly disappointed that CNN iReports updated the story in the days after it was published to add a “producer note” BEFORE the text by RoseChasm. I took a look at a dozen other iReports and while most had an ‘Editor’s note’ that provided background info/credentials about the writer or summarized a related new story, NONE directly or indirectly questioned the iReporter's motive for sharing their report or offered a lengthy quote by an opposing viewpoint or institution.

The “CNN Producer Note” quoted below in effect minimizes much of RoseChasm’s story, seems to question her motives for sharing the story, and prioritizes the words of the University of Chicago staff and professor who manage the study abroad program [emphasis mine –CBM]:
CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Please note that CNN cannot independently verify the events described in this post [This is the fundamental premise of the CNN iReport system, isn’t it? The reports are not made by CNN staff, but by people on the ground. Yet, by writing this, CNN seems to cast doubt or distance themselves from this iReport –CBM]RoseChasm says [Was her iReport in doubt? –CBM] she shared her account of studying abroad in India and experiencing repeated sexual harassment in hopes of spreading 'international exposure about what women travelers and residents experience in India.' [Why do her motives need context? None of the other iReports I have read question the motive of the iReporter CBM] The University of Chicago issued the following statement [Why does the UofC statement come BEFORE her report? –CBM]:
'Nothing is more important to us at the University of Chicago than caring for the safety and well-being of our students [And apparently they or CNN care quite a lot about making sure that UofC gets this statement out there in cases when a student shares about threats to their safety BEFORE we even read the story about sexual harassment –CBM], here in Chicago and wherever they go around the world in the course of their studies. The University offers extensive support and advice to students before, during and after their trips abroad [Be specific: How extensive and how useful? –CBM], and we are constantly assessing and updating that preparation in light of events and our students' experiences [Be more specific: How will it changed based on this report? What has the institution learned from this story? –CBM]. We also place extremely high value on the knowledge our students seek by traveling and studying other civilizations and cultures, and we are committed to ensuring they can do so in safety while enriching their intellectual lives.' Dipesh Chakrabarty, a University of Chicago professor who was in India for the first three weeks of the session, told CNN that he was unaware of RoseChasm’s situation [Then why is he being asked to comment on this ireport BEFORE we read RoseChasm’s story? –CBM]. He noted, though, that the university tries to prepare students for what they might encounter while abroad.'Both faculty and staff in Chicago and our local Indian staff counsel students before and during the trip about precautions they need to take in a place like India,' Chakrabarty said in an e-mail. 'Ensuring student safety and well-being is the top priority of both the College and staff and faculty associated with the program.''Every year about 25 students enroll in it and several have gone on to become India-specialists by doing PhDs on the country and its past and present. This is the first time that I personally have come across such a serious problem,' he said. You can read more about this story on CNN.com.
- katie, CNN iReport producer” 

*I think that class, educational background and citizenship status are important to discussions of migration and sexual violence. Processes of migration are heavily impacted by these statuses.  

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