The global media coverage of the tragic gang-rape and subsequent death of a young woman in New Delhi – and the attendant massive protests the incident have triggered since – may have created a wholly new stereotype for Indian men in the West and elsewhere.
People of East Indian descent have now lived in advanced Western countries – principally the United Kingdom, United States and Canada – in large numbers for at least 40 years. With such a significant Diaspora, Indians (and other South Asians) have become a “visible” minority in many cities from London to Los Angeles.
Over that time, Indian immigrants and their descendants have run the gamut of socioeconomic performance and achievement – from software billionaires to lowly manual laborers. Yet, with few exceptions, Indians have largely failed to establish themselves as part of the “mainstream” in any of their host societies – due to such obstacles as religion, skin color and various “foreign” customs many still adhere to thousands of miles away from the motherland.
As such, the “image” of Indians in the minds of Westerners has largely been created and controlled by non-Indians – consequently, often resulting in exaggerated, distorted or outright false assumptions.
Some stereotypes are actually flattering (i.e., Indians as well-educated, law-abiding, sober, upwardly mobile, disciplined, etc.), while others are decidedly embarrassing or downright insulting (meek, mild-mannered, nerdy, passive, clannish, unathletic, even unhygienic).
It’s true that there exist a great number of Indian doctors, engineers, software specialists and accountants, and there are just as many small shopkeepers, convenience store workers and taxi drivers.
Thus, Indians occupy a rather strange and contradictory space in the Western psyche – they are admired for their intelligence and material success, but simultaneously disliked for their foreign-ness and refusal to easily assimilate.
Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11 – Indians and Pakistanis, often mistaken for Arabs, suddenly became the grim face of global terror -- despite the fact that South Asians had nothing remotely to do with those atrocities. (Admittedly, the July 2005 bombings in London were a different matter entirely.)
Sikh men – with their turbans, mustaches and beards – were particularly vulnerable during the post-9-11 backlash, both in the U.S. and Britain, suffering hostile stares, verbal abuse, physical attacks, even murder.
Eleven years later, that false association of terrorism with Indians has lessened, but has not completely disappeared (especially while boarding an airplane).
Now, in 2013, a new (and wholly unwelcome) phenomenon has slithered into this landscape – Indian men as rapists.
A seemingly endless flow of news reports and broadcast images from India over the past month or so have established a portrait of Indian males as violent, remorseless sexual predators.
Now that India’s “dirty little secret” (that is, the epidemic of sexual violence against women of all ages by men of all social classes) is out – it may never be erased.
This is light years beyond the traditional conception of Indian men as “conservative, tradition-bound chauvinists” who seek to control and limit the behavior and rights of their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters.
This is rape – a shocking, egregious indefensible act of violence that traumatizes women, often permanently.
One could philosophically argue that terrorism (the wholesale slaughter of innocent people) is a far worse crime than rape. However, since the average woman is far more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than terrorism (in India, the West, or anywhere else), the issue of rape is something that strikes more of a visceral fear – i.e., something that could more realistically happen to women.
So, the question must be asked: Will more women around the world view Indian men (including yours truly) as a potential rapist? That is, a greater threat than before the Delhi incident and its devastating aftermath exploded all around the world?
Psychologists have long declared that rape is a crime of violence – designed to dominate and humiliate women – not an act motivated by sexual desire. This premise could (dangerously) dovetail perfectly with the common conception that Indian men are “backward reactionaries” who will never grant women real equality.
After all, isn’t rape just another mechanism of sexual “control”?
Rape is quite common in India, but no statistical evidence suggests that Indian males are more likely to commit sexual assault than any other ethnic group or nationality.
Some ethnic stereotypes are harmless, while others can lead to catastrophe (ask the Jews).
Now Indians – who already have to deal with a multitude of stereotypes and negative attitudes – may have to face yet another daunting image: as a rapist.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.