November 5, 2013

Perspective from Pune

Reform to the Pune study abroad program needs to take into account more perspectives than just one.

As I have followed the recent resurgence of interest in Michaela Cross’s CNN iReport article from the country she wrote about, I have begun to feel obligated to comment on it, or, rather, to comment on the commentary surrounding it. It has taken a while to gather my thoughts. The article, for both myself and many of my peers currently living with me here in Pune, posed an enormous challenge to the decision we had made several months previously to come to India. More recently, it has been very peculiar for me to encounter such strong skepticism from elsewhere about a program in which I am currently enrolled, and a country that is currently my place of residence. It has given me confidence that the following is a necessary addition to existing coverage both of the article and of the current campaign to alter the program.

It is unacceptable that survivors of sexual assault feel in any way silenced or shamed into concealing their experiences. There is a way to talk about Cross’s article such that her experiences are neither denied nor discredited, and I will try to do this here. It is possible, I believe, to allow that everything she reported was factually accurate—and her reactions to her experiences entirely valid—and yet remain extremely uncomfortable with some of the implications of her piece and the ways that her piece has been interpreted and mobilized within the UChicago community.

Cross’s piece in many ways works as a personal essay: It is more interested in conveying the impact of a personal experience than in analyzing the conditions of that experience. And I make no value judgment when I make that distinction; I mean only to say that when we try to make the leap from Cross’s piece to thinking about the Pune program, we must first understand that Cross herself, in the original piece for iReport, never made that leap. That essay was not written as advice for me, a would-be participant in the program. It was not written for a University of Chicago study abroad program administrator. It was written in order for Cross to share her truth.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, that the essay does not answer a lot of questions. How many other students and staff members were present when incidents occurred? What time of day and in what kinds of settings did they occur? What response did Cross receive from on-site study abroad staff, particularly the program assistant? How many students experienced feelings similar to Cross’s?

Cross’s essay does not lack credibility because it does not provide answers to these questions. Anyone trying to think about changes to a study abroad program in India absolutely must be interested in them. Considering them does not amount to an effort to make Cross culpable for her own harassment. It amounts to an attempt to determine for what the study abroad program itself can be held responsible, and that is a necessary project.

Second of all, Cross’s personal truth cannot be taken as emblematic of the way UChicago students, and female students in particular, have experienced and continue to experience India. To assume that her article alone ought to be enough to merit institutional change within the Pune program—regardless of whether or not those changes are necessary—elides a whole range of female voices equally qualified and ready to talk about their time in India.

The Maroon Editorial Board recently insisted that “the Study Abroad Office must not see Cross’s experience in India as simply an isolated incident which can be left behind with some quick fixes.” This is a conclusion which I must respectfully criticize. I do not deny that the Study Abroad Office and the University have an obligation to Cross as an individual student. But I certainly will deny that it is acceptable to decide what female UChicago students in India need without considering their experiences in sum. Such an approach would not only be impractical, but also would exclude the voices of students who have radically different stories to share, of whom I have met many and among whom I include myself.

I would also argue that it is necessary in this conversation to be aware of the ways in which racial stereotypes have the potential to be mobilized around issues of gender and violence, and, in a larger sense, how gender and violence in India are reported and discussed in mass media. This is not to throw skepticism on any such reporting or, again, on Cross’s article, but rather to urge caution in advance on the kinds of language we use and the kinds of arguments we make when we talk about India and danger.

The inclusion of all voices at this stage is crucial because whatever is diagnosed as the problem will be the target of the eventual cure. And the diagnosis will differ depending on whose voices are allowed to enter the discussion. Do we need an on-site staff member trained in mental health issues to stay in our hotel at all times? Do we need to provide further, more specialized training to the on-site program assistant? Does the Study Abroad Office need to improve its feedback mechanisms or its resources for returning students? And in a greater sense, how are we to behave as women in India? What can we do, or can’t we do, about the aspects of our experiences that are troubling to us? We cannot take the answers to any of these questions for granted. If the project that the Editorial Board and others are interested in is one of keeping UChicago students safe in India, then there is a lot more to do than read Cross’s article, and the foregoing questions are much more pressing and useful to ask than the insidious and misdirected question of why “nothing has changed” from the past year’s program to this year’s.

Emma Thurber Stone is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology and gender and sexuality studies.