The horrific story of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, India, who died from her injuries a week after being savagely raped and beaten by six men on a bus has galvanized the world's outrage. It has also drawn attention to the general plight of women and girls in India's still-patriarchal culture, including the shameful treatment of sex-crime victims. Yet some American and European feminists worry that the focus on India gives Western societies too much credit for protecting women's rights.
The fear that speaking out against women's oppression in the Third World might be too pro-Western is typical of some quarters of the feminist left.
In the British daily, The Guardian, Irish feminist Emer O'Toole wrote that discussions of the tragedy in India "minimize the enormity of Western rape culture." In the Toronto Globe and Mail, columnist Doug Saunders reports a Twitter exchange with a Canadian activist who told him that while India needs to question its culture's treatment of women, "so do all countries."
Meanwhile, Saunders has been labeled a "rape apologist" by American feminist blogger Melissa McEwan because he had the temerity to suggest that the problems with sexual assault prosecution in North America are dwarfed by the situation in India. Yet Saunders points out some hard-to-dispute facts: Of the 635 rape cases brought to court in New Delhi last year, only one resulted in conviction. In English-speaking countries, 40 to 70 percent of defendants charged with rape are convicted.
Of course, many rapes in the United States, Canada and England remain unreported, and many reports never result in an arrest. But it is safe to assume that the underreporting problem is far worse in societies -- including India -- where a rape victim is likely to become a social outcast.
Even in the most woman-friendly culture, sexual assault cases are often complicated by difficult questions of coercion and consent. But while some societies debate whether a woman can be considered a victim if she gives in to persistent but non-forcible advances after an initial "no," others offer little recourse even to victims of physical attacks. In many places, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it is still not unusual for a victim to be pressured to marry her assailant -- or to be charged with crimes against morality if she cannot prove that the sexual contact was against her will.
Of course, sexual violence is only one aspect of the mistreatment of women in many traditionalist cultures. Wife-beating is often accepted as proper punishment for a rebellious woman. There's a catastrophic lack of educational opportunities for girls and job opportunities for women. While the women of India's educated urban classes fare relatively well, those in conservative areas are not so lucky. The situation of widowed women is especially deplorable: Tradition condemns them to virtual social death, including banishment from family gatherings and a harsh dress code intended to make them unattractive.
Yet, to feminists such as McEwan, singling out non-Western cultures for critiques of misogyny is "colonialist" and "Othering." Some left-wing bloggers even chide Third World feminists for aiding "neo-colonialist" forces by confronting their countries' oppressive traditions (such as forced veiling in many Muslim nations) and taking an overly positive view of women's status in the West. The condescension implicit in such critiques -- often directed at women who have faced persecution and even death threats in their native countries -- is staggering.
No, Western societies have not achieved a feminist paradise. Plenty of room for activism remains. But commitment to cultural diversity should not obscure the fact that, for much of the world, the West does offer a model of progress on gender issues.