09/24/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

The Constant Conflict Between Feminism and Nationalism


Daily life for every woman living in India is characterized by being whistled at, stared, stalked, harassed or even being threatened by strange men. In fact, most of these are not even considered out of the ordinary. The body of a woman is believed to be the property of the shopkeeper whose gaze is transfixed at your neckline as you buy a bottle of water, the traffic police officer who stares at you from the top to the bottom when you ask for directions, or the creepy relative that has leered at you at every family event.

As Indian women, we train ourselves to ignore these men. We are told not to confront them, not to voice our anger because that may invite greater harassment.

A year ago, I packed my bags and arrived in the United States to begin my undergraduate academic career. I am studying at a liberal arts college where every woman is taught to have a voice of her own. I thought that I was so ready for that. But what I wasn't prepared for was that I would soon be swamped with questions about the condition of women in India. The reason for this sudden international attention on Indian women was the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in December 2012.

For someone brought up in the Indian capital, I was immune to seeing newspapers routinely run such news for years. But the story of this woman, however, was different. I saw the entire country stand up and protest in outrage. It even captured global debate.

This was not limited to merely to the media. It entered my undergraduate classroom as well.

The subject of discussion was the role of women in the development of a nation. And the discussion veered toward violence against women and I was eventually asked to express my feelings on the recent Indian case. It should have been easy for me to express the same outrage here in the classroom 7,000 miles away.

But I found deeply conflicted and uneasy. Being away from home, I was not only homesick, but also felt strangely defensive and patriotic about India. The Indian in me only grew stronger. Was I going to speak up in my classroom as a woman or as an Indian?

After all, during my first weeks away from home, I had watched the Bollywood movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai every time I felt homesick. Every time I spoke of my country, I felt my chest swell with pride thinking of the diversity in food, culture, clothing and languages. But now I found myself unable to balance this troubling paradox of being Indian and the ghosts of ceaseless sexual violence against women.

This battle between nationalism and feminism is wrenching.

When I say that our society is known for its long history of discrimination against women, I am not forgetting that there are cases like this taking place on my own college campus here as well. However, the difference lies in the stigma attached to a woman who experiences sexual violence in my country. Most women are silenced and unable to even relate their trauma because our culture seems to blame the victim for inviting violence.

I remember waking up to several news notifications on my smartphone about another 22-year-old journalist who was gang raped in Mumbai last year, India's so-called safe city. Sitting halfway across the world, I was unable to control my emotions. Unfortunately, while the word Delhi flashes images of friends and family, it also stands for fear and embarrassment that I often feel. The condition of women in our country is a disgrace, I feel myself turning red with shame every time it is discussed. Yes, in the last two years, people have begun openly talking about things that were earlier only whispered. But where are we going with all the talking?

As I struggled to iron out my own internal contradictions so far away from home, I found my voice a month ago. It was a strident one.

India's finance minister Arun Jaitley said at a public event last month that "one small incident of rape in Delhi -- advertised world-over -- is enough to cost us billions of dollars in terms of lower tourism."

He was weighing the national loss in terms of tourism revenue with the incident of brutal rape.

I was instantly outraged. But in my response, I was reminded about my own difficulty in talking about rape in my classroom.

My true patriotic impulse is to rise up and declare my intolerance toward rising sexual assaults, not in papering over them. To question the system is the first step toward reforming the system. And that is a truly patriotic act.