Being a Foreign Woman in India / by Heather Martin

Before I went to India, I had heard a lot about being a woman traveler there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a lot of good things. India’s international image was especially marred in 2012 by an especially horrific attack on a local student, bringing to light more reports of sexual and physical assaults against both local and foreign women. New measures were put in place, such as criminalizing sexual offenses, but it seems that even in 2017, only incremental progress has been made on the ground for women’s rights in India.

But being from the US, a country that is regularly touted abroad as an exceptionally dangerous place to go (and with relatively subpar woman’s rights when it comes to reproductive privileges), I wanted to experience India myself before casting judgment. Plus, I know many female travelers and bloggers who have safely traversed India and loved it.

My first welcome to India was from the friendly immigrations officer, looking over my passport. He asked what I was doing in India and when I replied for tourism, he looked up startled. “Alone??”

“No, my boyfriend is with me,” I said, pointing behind to David in line.

“Oh, good.” He looked relieved and carried on.

 

After we settled in Delhi the next day, we decided to use the metro to get around the city, having found it clean, modern, and comfortable on the way from the airport. This was the first place I saw how much the city is trying to protect its women, at least in signage. In every car there were posters reminding men that touching and groping was a punishable crime. India is also the first country I’ve visited where the metro had women-only cars. These were marked by cheerfully pink flowered signs and as the train rolled past, the segregated cars looked mini oases….peaceful, uncrowded, and filled with the beautiful colors of the saris inside. Because I was with David, we had to use the general cars which in contrast were a complete zoo. Our ride from the airport was calm and empty, but in the heart of the city, we discovered how crazy the metro could get. At one busy stop, we waited for a car in a long line of men while trains rolled past at an incredible pace. It seemed like a new train was arriving every three minutes, but still we struggled to get on because there were so many people. Friendly men around us smiled at us and ensured us that we could make it on the next one. We watched incredulously as men threw themselves into packed cars through closing doors, Indiana Jones style. One man even got caught in the doors and forced them back open to eventually squeeze on successfully.

Finally, we were close enough to make our move onto the train. We were mentally prepping ourselves because even in the back of the line, we could see how much of a crush it was to all jam into a car. I have lived in China; I know busy trains. But nothing could have prepared me for the sensation of being part of such a tight crowd as the one that was trying to board this train. I started to understand how people die in crowds. My body was no longer my body; it was moved by the crowd, pushed forward, part of a mass much larger than itself. I had no control over my direction, my speed, or if I wanted to stop.

There was another curious sensation though. I felt, very clearly, that there was an invisible box around me. I mean, make no mistake, there was no actual space and other bodies were pressed against mine. But where I saw other people pushed aside and squished, I felt the men around me take the brunt of the weight of the crowd. The friendly men in line had formed a protective border around me and were making sure I got on the train. At one point, I looked behind me and saw that David, who was there a second ago, had been pushed several people back and the car doors were threatening to close. We reached out to each other and clasped hands and suddenly, that invisible box stretched to include David. He immediately felt this unspoken protection too and he was pulled and pushed by the crowd to come up beside me. We made it, thanks to the kind Indian men around us.

Once inside the car, we were surrounded by these friendly guys who had ensured our boarding. One man smiled widely at us and said hello. After some light chatting, he leaned around and flicked my nose.

“Nice smile.” He grinned widely. “Has anyone grabbed your boob yet?”

No, I responded.

“They will.” He smiled again and turned to David. “You have to always watch her. Don’t let anyone touch her. Don’t let anyone talk to her.” He ignored the fact that he had just touched me and talked to me.

This conversation sounds pretty creepy written out, but in the moment, the guy was just trying to be helpful and friendly. And he represents the dichotomy that seems to follow India anywhere she goes. There is much self-awareness among her people of her faults. In my month in India, many more men warned me about my safety than actually harassed me. But there may be a cultural lack of understanding about what mentality leads to women being harassed, like having a man be in charge of a women’s safety to begin with. I know that there are many people in India who do understand this, but just from my experience, among the less-educated population, cultural norms that contribute against women’s rights seem to reign supreme.

Ultimately, the man was right. My breasts did get grabbed, once at a busy parade celebrating Lord Shiva’s wedding and a couple times at the festival of Holi. This actually doesn’t bother me personally that much…after all, my breasts are perhaps the most clothed part of my body and for me it just wasn’t a big deal. But it is something for women travelers to be aware of. I didn’t get much of a chance to act indignant about any of the instances because they were committed by anonymous hands in vast crowds. The most intense encounter didn’t involve my breasts, but was when a man grabbed me from behind at Holi, and there, I was grateful I had David and other men with me.

 

In general, I think the thing that made me most uncomfortable as a woman is something that most visitors to India will endure….being constantly stared at. This is a cultural thing, as in general, Indians are much more comfortable just blatantly watching people and situations than Westerns are. It’s literally never-ending stares, everywhere you go. David noted that sometimes there would be men who would not just stare, but do a double-take and turn around to follow me before David would make it clear he and I were together. It was exhausting and made me self-conscious….how am I holding myself? Am I dressed conservatively enough (despite wearing long shirts and pants)? Are my clothes too tight? Sleeping on trains always made a little uncomfortable, even in second class with curtain-partitioned seats, because there were often men walking down the aisles who would stare, or pause to look around our cabin. Our time in India was a month of constantly having the spotlight on us. It actually gave me greater appreciation and sympathy for people in my own culture who may stand out, due to being a minority or part of a marginalized community. I longed for the days of walking down American city streets and being virtually ignored.

The most extreme example of being stared at was in Jaipur, when David and I were in our hotel room, relaxing in front of our laptops. I was sitting on the bed in a shirt and underwear, having shed my pants the moment I had privacy, as is my usual tradition. We had apparently forgotten to lock our hotel room door because suddenly, it opened and a strange man appeared in the doorway. We looked up, startled, and saw his face, as surprised as we were, and he quickly shut the door. However, after a beat, the door opened once more and he peered in, deciding perhaps that he wanted one more look. He stared at me, and I stared at him. It was only a moment, but it seemed to stretch out a long time. Incredulous at his gall, I calmly but indignantly said, ‘close the door!’ Thankfully he complied and the door remained closed. I jumped up and locked it.

 

India also made me grateful for the company of the local women in a way I’ve never experienced before. Most of my closest friends at home are women and I love female company, but I’ve always equally enjoyed male company and being around a group of men in any other culture has never made me feel self-conscious or on edge. I never thought about how relatively homogenized our genders are in Western culture, with the lines even being blurred more and more lately. In India, the genders feel very much segregated, not just in their political and social rights, but in very tangible ways you can experience as a visitor. The most obvious way is the clothes that Indian men and women wear. Both David and I admired how well put together Indian people are, in their grooming, fashion, and accessories. The vast majority of women we saw wore either the traditional sari, or a salawar suit (a long tunic worn over leggings) and their very presence seemed to shimmer with color, sound (anklets with bells are popular accessory), and lavish fabric. Men, in contrast, while still fashionably-dressed, tended to wear darker colors and Western pants with button up shirts. So instantly, there was often a visual distinction between the genders and falling in with a group of delightfully dressed, beautiful Indian women felt like a treat to me when it happened, since it occurred much less frequently.

Women were also much less likely to talk to David or me, so I also rejoiced when the opportunity did occur. Most of the women we met were friendly and even if they couldn’t speak English, often took the time to smile at me. They also seemed to be less interested in us, which was actually a relief after so much staring from the men. I did become blatantly sexist after a while…seeing a rare woman tout would instantly make me compelled to buy something from her, after dismissing so many male touts. I tired quickly of all the selfies men would request from us, but when a woman or group of girls would shyly approach me, I jumped at the opportunity to pose with them. They were often a breath of fresh air.

I don’t want this to be a blog disparaging all the men of India. One of the fascinating things about India is the overwhelming quantity of people you will interact with, so the chance of having a negative interaction with a man is higher, not just because of certain cultural norms, but simply because there are just more people from all walks of life around you. This also means that you will meet some really wonderful people, and the majority of those for us were men. Our first friend in India was one of the helpful men on the metro, who started talking to us after the nose-flicking guy got off. He delighted in getting to know us and welcome us to his country and even brought us back to his home for dinner with his wife. He was the first in a line of thoughtful, funny, and exceptionally hospitable Indian men that we met in our month-long travel.

There were two general types of Indian men I couldn’t help but adore on many occasions. The first type is the young bachelor with his male friends. I was surprised when we first arrived in India and I started to notice all the groups of young guys, well…hanging off one another. Hand-holding, shoulder-nuzzling, and hugging everywhere! I’m used to male hand-holding in other countries, but this took it to a whole other level of bromance. Because the genders seemed more segregated, there appeared to be more guys just hanging out with each other until they marry and they weren’t shy about displaying their affection. We also wondered if because homosexuality is outlawed and such a taboo subject in India, the idea that such affection could be perceived as anything other than platonic is implausible.  Regardless, I loved seeing these adorable groups of guys sincerely display their love for their friends. These groups were also always so polite when they asked for pictures with us. One of my favourite pastimes became subtly watching a few guys linger around us for a while, slowly working up the nerve to ask for a picture before shyly approaching.

My other favourite archetypal Indian man was the ubiquitous family man. Roving bachelors would turn into protective dads, their children in their arms as they shepherded their family around. The reason they stood out more than the average Western dad was that this protective bubble seemed to emulate out, past their family unit and around strangers like us. There were several occasions where we would be stuck in a hopeless crowd, trying to fight our way out when a man with his family would start to guide us through, parting the mobs for us and making sure we had a clear exit. Fathers would make sure I had a seat on the metro and would help us when we were lost. A couple men would also approached us with their toddler in tow, and shyly request that we say hi to the curious child. Random dads are not usually the type of person I notice back home, but in India, I always felt safer when a watchful guy with his family was near.

Both of these descriptions of Indian men are anecdotal and not meant to stereotype, but I did want to make it clear that even though India may be a stressful and sometimes upsetting place for foreign women, it still isn’t a place where visitors should fear locals or cast judgment upon the entire male population. While Rajasthan may be one of the few regions I personally would choose not to travel alone (though many women do) just because it’s an exhausting experience, once you have your expectations in line, cultural differences don’t have to weigh heavily on your visit. So many things foreigners could interpret as rude should be taken with a grain of salt as cultural and racial curiosity and a positive attitude will help each day go more smoothly. This does not mean that being sexually assaulted is okay or you have to shake it off. Such experiences gave me greater appreciation for my own culture and country and greater empathy for disadvantaged and abused women of India.

The most important things to remember as a woman traveler, in India and any other country, is to be mindful of the culture you are entering, be confident, and use common sense. You should take extra steps to be safe, but you don’t have to be scared. Negative experiences may happen anyway, but keeping an open heart and mind will bring out more good than bad.