Western Women in the East: Response to UChicago Student’s Take on Studying Abroad in India

Sophia Ottoni-Wilhelm, Opinions Editor

On Aug. 18, a University of Chicago student using the alias Rose Chasm published an article, “India: the Story You Never Want To Hear,” on CNN’s website. In hopes of giving readers a glimpse of what women experience in India, the South Asian studies major discussed incidents of sexual harassment she experienced while spending the semester abroad. The things she describes are incredibly disturbing: a man masturbating at her on the bus, men filming her dancing at a festival and stalking her through crowds and a staff member at her hotel attempting to rape her friend.

These traumas ultimately led to Chasm’s breakdown and two-day institutionalization about four months after she returned. She is currently on a leave of absence from the University of Chicago and has been diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder. Surprisingly, her story has generated a great deal of backlash. People have criticized her, saying she must have dressed inappropriately, spent time in the wrong places and that she has no place publicizing the country’s issues.

After working in Nepal for three and a half months this summer, I speak from personal experience when I say that all these comments are completely off the mark. Each morning I taught English, biology and math at an understaffed school in my neighborhood before going to work at an NGO that helps rescue and rehabilitate women who have been trafficked into India to work as sex slaves. I worked hard and kept to myself, carefully covering my body before going out. I didn’t go drinking or partying, and still men leered and stared at me every single day — proposing sex, commenting on my body or my face — and twice a man grabbed me.

Just as Chasm describes feeling ripped apart by the experiences, I felt these things wear me out. Look by look, comment by comment, the harassment started feeling regular. Mentally I curled inward, ignoring the things happening to me in order to keep working and functioning.

Now that I’m back at Oberlin, things couldn’t feel less normal. The things I experienced this summer have started catching up with me. For the first time in my life I’m having vivid flashbacks, bad dreams and problems connecting to people. Understandably so, given the work I was doing at the NGO with recovering sex slaves, teaching at the school and generally immersing myself in a culture so alien to my own.

The purpose of sharing such experiences is not to publicize the problems of another country, but to inform people planning to travel, work or study abroad of the importance of preparing mental health strategies. It shouldn’t have to be this way — women shouldn’t have to steel themselves for inevitable harassment. But, since this is the way things are, at least for now, people need to know how common Chasm’s experiences are. Hundreds of Western women returning from Asia have received similar diagnoses of PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders.

It is important to mention that, just as Chasm described the duality of her study abroad experience, I find myself similarly torn between the beautiful and terrifying things I experienced this summer. On the one hand I’m incredibly thankful for my time in Nepal; I got to know many amazing people and saw unbelievable strength in the women I worked with and the children I taught. On the other, I wish I could’ve had those experiences without having to lay awake at night, haunted by terrifying memories and recovering from traumas that occurred weeks ago.

Patriarchy is deeply rooted in cultures worldwide. Women are sexually harassed in this country just as they are in Asia. As I struggle to process my experiences abroad, I think of the other dozens of Oberlin students who were abroad last year. No matter the experience had while abroad, as students return to school it is important to raise questions about how the College administration can help us incorporate what we’ve learned and witnessed. Most of all, I hope that the College will take my experiences and the experiences of my peers seriously: caring for us before, during and after we’ve gone abroad. Whether it is offering a workshop for students planning to go abroad or supporting a group of students to meet to talk about integrating back into college life after being abroad, something must be done to let the student body know the administration cares about our long term well-being.