On Wednesday, October 15, Madhusree Mukerjee, an author and journalist, came to Stevens to discuss the increase of rape and sexual violence against women in indigenous tribal areas of India. The event, which was co-hosted by Gender and Cultural Studies and the Center for Science Writings, hoped to shed light on the real demographics of the issue and to raise awareness about the negative consequences of development.
Mukerjee started off her talk by showing headlines about rape and India in New York Times articles. She pointed out that news on rape is being reported more often and the brutality and scale of rape has increased. Even though the awareness of rape in India is increasing; the reasoning behind its cause is based on misinformed claims. Mukerjee pointed out that many believe that the increase in rape in India is a form of backlash against the recent emancipation of women. She challenged this reasoning explaining that the emancipation of women in India “is not across the board.” She also pointed out that many New York Times articles report the rapes in Indian tribes to be acts ordered and condoned by village elders, which she pointed out to be false. Misinterpreted information such as this prevents societies across the world from learning the true causes of the sexual assault.
Mukerjee showed data revealing an unequal gender ratio in India. The data she presented startled the audience as she showed that the best gender ratio in India is found in indigenous tribes rather than in industrial cities. Her reasoning behind this occurrence was the fact that modernity inflated the issue of materialism in these cities and therefore dowry demands increased. This of course made a female offspring burdensome on an urban household.
Mukerjee then shifted her talk to discuss indigenous tribes of India. Some tribes lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and practice gender equity. The Santals tribe was such a tribe based in West Bengal. Mukerjee described the Santals as people whose lives were embedded in “music, romance, love, and song.”
Modern Santals are cultivators, laborers, and miners due to recent development in their native lands. This development is a stone industry where quarries are built and where many are forced to work laborious jobs since the dust that results from the quarries spreads over crops and destroy agriculture. Mukerjee points out that development such as this is not sustainable due to the increased consumption which results from it.
In these Santal tribal areas, women are victims of sexual assault and murders by outsiders. There’s alcohol fueled domestic abuse as well. Some Sental women are resented by their own tribe due to relations they have with outsiders. What’s really shocking is that now Sental men are turning on their own women. Santal youth gangs are raping their women and forcing them into nude parades. These are all “copy-cat” occurrences which was not part of Sental culture before. Mukerjee used a quote from Frant Fanon to argue that these Santal men are emulating their oppressors, the quarry owners, due to the fact that they envy their power and wealth. Mukerjee also pointed out that the increased misplacement of indigenous women in these tribes leave many Santal men without partners, also resulting in violence.
Mukerjee was able to grip her audience from the very beginning of her talk. “Her slides were very engaging and she was able to put all her information into context for the audience” said Junior Sara Hassan.
“I found the talk to be mind-blowing” exclaimed Sociology Professor Yu Tao. “Who would have thought that an idea as positive as development could have such negative consequences.”
“What really shocked me was the fact that indigenous tribes actually gave women more gender equity than the developing areas” said Junior Matt Hall. Students and professors alike engaged in discussion and conversation after Mukerjee’s talk was over. She left the audience questioning “whether development was truly empowering the most vulnerable women.” The emotions invoked by Mukerjee’s talk left some rather alarmed and others hopeful of future change. Although no clear solution was proposed by Mukerjee, as Pofessor John Horgan pointed out, “part of the hope is raising awareness and that’s exactly what [she’s] doing.”