The LA Times ran this story a few weeks ago on a local college professor’s work in Nepal to fight human trafficking. I’ve been mulling over the story for a while, so I didn’t blog about it right away. I wasn’t even sure why I was bothered, but then I read about After the Wedding last week, and I felt as though I had a moment of clarity. It’s funny how a fictitious story can sometimes help you better understand your own reality.
Anyway, back to the article. Six years ago, California State University professor Jeffrey Kottler visited a village in rural Nepal to study maternal mortality. During his visit, he discovered that sex traffickers were taking young girls from the village — sometimes through kidnapping, sometimes with their parents’ consent — and forcing them into prostitution in India. Kottler, who was very disturbed by the scenario, decided to buy a Nepali girl’s freedom. He paid the village school principal fifty dollars to ensure that the girl stayed in school and out of prostitution for at least one year. Within six years, through fundraising and having two Nepalis monitor the uses of the funds, Kottler bought the freedom of 42 girls, preventing them from ever being sold into sexual slavery.
So why exactly would this article bother me, you might ask? Let me be very clear: I applaud Jeffrey Kottler. I fully support what he is doing, and I wish there were more people in this world like him. He’s done more with his life than anyone I know. And believe you me, most of my friends work or have worked tirelessly in the public sector, organizing immigrant workers or opening a health clinic for the homeless or helping abused mothers find employment. Yet despite our collective efforts, I don’t think any of us can honestly say that we’ve been able to prevent anyone from entering a lifetime of servitude and forced prostitution.
So it’s not Kottler who bothers me, or the idea of non-browns helping browns. It’s the undertones of this article and others like it that I do have a problem with. Those of you who follow my posts and my personal blog know that I generally cringe when it comes to stories of westerners “saving” the primitives from themselves. I cringe largely because these stories tend to reek of condescension, and they overlook the work that the “natives” have also done in the same field.
Likewise, the writer of this article uses interesting anecdotes to highlight just how “backward” the Nepalis are. The villagers are so poor that the typical house has “an animal to be tethered to the back wall.” “It’s a place where a father can be killed by a tiger.” There are blatant strokes of sensationalism here, much of which has nothing to do with anything. What exactly is the writer trying to do by evoking so much animal imagery? Then he states that the natives are so devoid of education that they “didn’t know where America was.” Oooh, shocking. Never mind that most Americans I know wouldn’t even be able to point out Nepal, much less India, on a map either. It’s not just the condescending tone, it’s the fact that Kottler is the sole hero of this story, while the Nepalis who co-founded his organization, who have monitored the girls and their educational progress over the years, are not given nearly as much credit. One of the co-founders isn’t even mentioned by name. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it takes as much if not more effort to monitor funds and evaluate programs than it does to raise money. In fact, no Nepalis were even interviewed for this story — it’s told entirely thorough Kottler’s perspective. You would also think from reading this article that Kottler is the first and only person to ever fight human trafficking in Nepal, that the Nepalis themselves never once considered taking on this problem, or that they’re simply unable to. In fact, there are Nepali NGOs that have taken on this issue. Yes, maybe they haven’t eradicated the problem quite yet, but they shouldn’t be overlooked entirely, either. Their efforts deserve coverage and attention, just as Kottler’s efforts do.
It’s not just this article, it’s a trend that I’ve seen elsewhere in coverage on women in developing countries. Anyone reading this Chandra Prasad article who isn’t already familiar with Indian society would think that arranged marriage is a primitive institution that no Indian has ever questioned, and that it’s up to Prasad — and Prasad only — to help these people understand the folly of their ways. When Nicholas Kristof covered the Mukhtar Mai case in the New York Times back in 2004, it wasn’t the fact that a white man brought the story to global attention that bothered me. No, it was his lazy observation on Pakistani culture — one that “chews up women and spits them out” — that I found unsettling. Instead of researching the social, economic, and political conditions that would lead something like this to happen in rural Pakistan, it’s much easier to primitivize an entire country. Statements such as these make me question the motivations of the writer: are they really trying to help others and rally their readers to care about those who are less well-off? Or are they more interested in asserting their racial, cultural, and economic superiority?
This is not to say that I think that American newspapers should never cover the plight of women and girls in South Asia. Far from it. Chandra Prasad was fair to question the practice of arranged marriage, Nicholas Kristof was right to cover Mukhtar Mai’s case, and the LA Times should congratulate Jeffrey Kottler. But the baggage in these articles, the pervasive assumptions and heavy-handed generalizations on desi culture and society, should also be a point of discussion for readers, bloggers, and writers alike. Being critical of these undertones does not make me an apologist for misogyny, for fundamentalism, for desi culture, or for my retrograde ancestors. It means that I’m simply asking for coverage that’s objective, comprehensive, and constructive, with less “West Knows Best” and finger-wagging attached.