After an Indian girl was gang raped and murdered on a bus in Delhi last month, a plethora of articles about gender violence in India have emerged, flooding the pages of major American newspapers with horror stories about violent discrimination, rape, and murder, and the police’s complicity in these violent crimes. These stories are, no doubt, terrifying, tragic, and terrible. My heart goes out to the women who are forced to live their lives behind veils of fear, who can’t go to work or school because they will be raped and tortured, who have no chance of living dignified lives because they live in fear, and that fear is absolutely justified by their experiences. I’ll never forget the three times in my life when I have truly felt violated by the gaze of a man, felt in close proximity to physical danger because of the way that someone else’s eyes were staring or someone else’s footsteps were following. I have only experienced this on three occasions, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place where that is the daily reality, where women experience this type of gaze — or worse — many more than three times before they even arrive at work.
But in my experience, Americans have a tendency to look abroad as a way of ignoring our problems at home. Colonialism and imperialism have always profited from the delegitimization of foreign cultures when we claim that foreign cultures don’t treat their women as well as we do. We’re so quick to label others as sexist, racist, or classist, yet we tend to deny the existence of sexism, racism, and classism in our own culture.
If you somehow missed the blatant sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscars, then perhaps you’ve heard about the student at University of North Carolina who is facing possible expulsion for speaking out against the man who raped her. And if you still don’t believe that sexism happens in America, just turn on the radio. Regardless of which hit song is playing, it’s probably degrading to women. And if rape and domestic violence doesn’t convince you that we have a serious sexism problem in American culture, check out Sheryl Sandberg’s Ted Talk about the lack of women in top positions in the work force. And if you’re still unconvinced, just turn on any form of American media — television, radio, advertisements, music — you’ll see the extent to which gender stereotyping can lead to violence and discrimination.
I am so, so lucky to live in a country and an era where I can study at university, work in any field, vote, wear a variety of clothing, and walk and drive by myself. But to focus on India’s gender issues and ignore our own is a short-sighted perspective, not to mention a tool used to assert American cultural dominance over the growing powers that threaten our position on the global stage. By privileging our forms of oppression over foreign forms of oppression, we delegitimize foreign cultures and excuse cultural imperialism, colonialism, and even certain forms of racism. We excuse and ignore our own flaws by focusing on the flaws of others.
Anybody who has ever been in an airplane has heard that in case of an emergency, you must secure your oxygen mask before helping others. So rather than being so quick to point out issues abroad — ethnic wars, gender violence, lack of adequate healthcare and social mobility etc. — let’s focus on some of our own problems. What about the institutionalized racism and institutionalized classism in the food industry, where animals are tortured by undocumented immigrants who can’t get other jobs and can’t legally speak out against their employers, and the neighbors of industrial farms become so sick from the chemicals that are fed to the animals that they can no longer breathe, but are forced to stay put because they don’t have the means to move elsewhere. Is Sunday morning bacon or a daily glass of milk really enough to justify institutional racism and classism? What about the public health issues in America — obesity and lack of health insurance, just to name a few — and the fact that we are the most obese, medicated, cancerous civilization to ever walk the face of the earth. What about the fact that we’ve never had a female President. What about the fact that we raise our children in a culture that perpetuates these oppressive traditions, and women are taught that the only way to succeed is to stop eating, to wear pounds of make-up, to laugh at sexist jokes and to dance to music that degrades them.
I could talk about the porn industry, I could talk about brazilian waxes, I could talk about the hypersexualization of young girls. I could talk about the lack of economic equality, the problems with maternity leave but not paternity leave, the rates of domestic violence and the myriad ways that we blame the victim. But you get the picture — we live in a sexist culture, it just so happens that our sexism is more under the rug.
Of course, it’s hard for me to complain about equal wages when I read about women in India. But as Nicholas Kristof wrote:
“The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer who said, a bit forlornly, that he was stationed there to look for terrorists and pirated movies. He wasn’t finding any, but India posted him there to show that it was serious about American concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern slavery was not perceived as an American priority.”
The Oscars are broadcast all over the world. American television and advertisements are broadcast all over the world. With sources like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, America’s influence is spreading faster than ever. So let’s secure our own oxygen mask before helping others. Let’s confront the sexism in our own culture, because that’s a necessary element of fixing the problem of sexism and violence globally.