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Sexual harassment in India: American student’s story sparks reaction

CNN News Wire | 8/20/2013, 1:07 p.m.
Michaela Cross, an American student at the University of Chicago has written a powerful account of her study abroad trip to India last year, during which she says she experienced relentless sexual harassment, groping and worse. Michaela Cross

Michaela Cross, an American student at the University of Chicago, has written a powerful account of her study abroad trip to India last year, during which she says she experienced relentless sexual harassment, groping and worse.

Upon her return, she says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is now on a mental leave of absence from the school after a public breakdown in the spring.

Cross, a fair-skinned, red-haired South Asian studies major, titled her story “India: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear.” She posted her account on CNN iReport under the username RoseChasm.

Her story has struck a chord around the world, racking up about 350,000 page views as of Tuesday morning. It quickly found its way to India, where many readers sympathized with the story and men felt compelled to apologize for the experience she endured. Others called for greater perspective and warned against making generalizations about India or its people.

India’s deadly gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi happened a few days after Cross left India in December, and she said that helped others understand what she and her classmates went through. The country has continued to see several high-profile cases of rape and sexual violence cases since then, and the government has introduced tougher laws and punishment for sexual crimes.

On her return, Cross struggled to find a way to talk about a cultural experience that was both beautiful and traumatizing, she said in her essay.

She writes:

“Do I tell them about our first night in the city of Pune, when we danced in the Ganesha festival, and leave it at that? Or do I go on and tell them how the festival actually stopped when the American women started dancing, so that we looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move?

“Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars a piece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?

“When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for 45 minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?”

Later, she writes: “For three months I lived this way, in a traveler’s heaven and a woman’s hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at; and yet I had adventures beyond my imagination. I hoped that my nightmare would end at the tarmac, but that was just the beginning.”

A university spokesman confirmed Cross is a student at the school and would not comment on her mental leave. He said the school is committed to students’ safety at home and abroad.

Cross said she didn’t say anything to the professors on the trip until things reached “a boiling point” — what she called two rape attempts in 48 hours.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, a University of Chicago professor who was in India for the first three weeks of the session, told CNN that he was unaware of Cross’ situation. He noted, though, that the university tries to prepare students for what they might encounter while abroad. The Civilizations Abroad in India program was based in the city of Pune, but the students traveled to other areas during the semester.