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Gandhi, Gender and Sexuality, India

A Day on the Street in Delhi

Cultural patterns and learned behaviors explain pieces of it; and the foreign and racial stimuli heightens the occurrence of sexual harassment Intellectually, the overwhelmingly disappointing behavior of a collection of male individuals can be analyzed with social and gender theory, with the hope that understanding will lead to empowerment and change. One striking factor is that harassment was often the worst in areas commonly frequented by foreign tourists — the most popular sites or hotel neighborhoods. Lack of cultural awareness on the part of visitors is problematic anywhere, but it is dangerous to suggest that this can dismiss accountability for such negative behavior.

For today, I am simply going to describe the public treatment I received in my last few days in Delhi, so that maybe you can understand what it is like.

I was staying in a small hotel in Paharganj, known as the backpacker’s neighborhood (budget accommodation and close proximity to the railway station). The white population is only a sliver of the crowd, but at a higher concentration than most of the city.

My life is simple: saying goodbyes, writing, collecting gifts for the package going home. Every day, I walk through the neighborhood.

Walking down Main Bazaar, the widest of the narrow roads shattering order in Paharganj, means hearing “hey, baby”‘s every ten feet or so. I used to count. Every minute at least on the main road. Sometimes every ten seconds for patches at a time. Those were not always the literal words, but that’s how I’ve dubbed the casual inquiry since the first time I heard that Americanism from an Indian guy’s mouth. Other not so pleasant comments, as well.

This should not need to be said, but for those who need to hear it: I dress in primarily Western clothes but conform to Indian modesty, always wear my hair up, do not smile or make eye contact with men. A friend commented that I almost looked angry when he first saw me on Main Bazaar.

December 9th begins just like any in Paharganj — with a lot of sexual harassment — but it is the day that I am (truly, this time) leaving Delhi.

I had visited major locations and ashrams related to Mahatma Gandhi across the subcontinent, but the thread was incomplete: the last, and natural, step was a visit to Raj Ghat, the site of his cremation, in honor of his work and what I had learned.

The park was not far from the railway station, so I made my way through the general harassment of Paharganj, dropped my backpack off in left luggage, and sought an auto rickshaw from those lining the station exit.

Auto drivers tend to be older than the typical guy vocalizing his desire and/or masculinity. They do not verbalize, but they are not entirely free from intrusion. Most often it is lack of respect and a strong drive to overcharge that dominates the exchange. One accepts my price, relatively quickly, among the many who scoff. Zooming off into city traffic, he adjusts his mirrors and I slide all the way over to one side, removing my body from the two circular reflections hanging at his eye level while adjusting my clothes to be sure that I am covered. Sometimes I add an arm across my chest, too, in defiance.

We arrive at the park; I exit with a severe look on my face and pay him. Knowing little English, he responds in a confident voice, “Sex?”

I fling out my arm in a weak hit, not quite connecting with his face, and hurl a few harsh words which sufficiently communicate my opinion of the idea, because his smile disappears and he speeds off.

Already worn down by the Main Bazaar gauntlet, I stagger into the park, stunned by the encounter — that he was almost twice my age, how clear it was that he expected a positive response, how casual.

A few couples and families occupy the wide sidewalk leading towards the enclosed reverential square. Graceful lawns separate us from traffic, drawing in a peaceful quiet despite throngs of schoolchildren on a field trip to see the closest thing you could get to Gandhiij’s grave, as his ashes were scattered across India.

I try to relax, focusing my mind on ashram memories. It is hard to ignore the elementary schoolgirls pointing at me. Depositing my shoes to be shelved away at the counter, I pass through the archway. More little girls come, giggling, to stand a few feet away and then skitter back to their friends. I walk, breathing, feeling each footprint, bringing up a meditative state. As I reach the enormous glossy slab of stone, flame and incense swirling in his honor, I lose focus. Attempt some thoughts of gratitude and respect despite the circling schoolchildren who keep their distance but remain intently observant.

Quickly out of the square, back to my shoes, across a lawn, deep breaths now, far to the edge of the initial grassy slope but still within sight of women although at least fifty feet from any human being to get a break, I sit against a tree and take out a little book of Gandhi’s writing to recover what meaning I lost.

Six teenage boys in matching uniforms gather together about fifteen feet away, stare, and laugh.

In one forceful phrase I instruct them to leave. They begin to move, but look back and linger, so I stand to go, and more of them arrive. All around seventeen/eighteen. They follow me in gangs of four or five, fanning out behind me laughing pointing jeering grinning. I lose it, shout back asking them to leave me alone, the farther ones pick up the pace.

Four months in India and I am finally, literally, chased away.

It is not violent. Eventually, after following me for a good seventy feet, they stop, I break away and reach women, crying once my face is turned away from the teenagers. But they were clearly part of a high school trip, where were their teachers? And the families, couples, adults there. This was not a subtle moment in a packed street. It was a crowd of more than twenty whooping and pursuing a girl in front of their eyes.

Delhi had been my home during the journey, hosting close friends and inspiring work. I left the park and the city hating that that was my goodbye.

About Bridget

A nomad, writer, performer, director, facilitator, and interfaith activist. One travel blog, one earth religious blog.


6 thoughts on “A Day on the Street in Delhi

  1. Hi Bridget…Its unfortunate that you went through such harrowing experiences during your stay in Delhi. The problem, though is not limited to just foreign national women but Indian women as well. Respect to women is unfortunately, non existent as far as some sects of Delhi are concerned and when you have the same sects in the police, public transportation & other public interfaces, the issue just becomes magnified many times over in a city which, otherwise, has so much good to offer.

    Posted by robinjabraham | March 28, 2012, 11:03 am
    • I had hoped that the intensity of my experiences was the extreme due to the intersection of race, nationality, and gender; hoped that although Indian women must face the same, that it was to a lesser degree, even if just not so frequently. Thank you for commenting, it’ll take the work of all people to resist the perpetuation of an unsafe environment.

      Posted by Bridget | March 28, 2012, 8:28 pm
  2. Like Robin mentioned it is a national problem which most occurs in areas where either there is a lot of illiteracy on in areas where society raises a boy and makes him believe that anything he does is acceptable because he is a boy, which to be honest is many societies. Thanks god, hyderabad is not such a disaster in this case, sure there are perverts but i guess its not all that bad. I am so shocked reading the expat blogs and their experiences in India, it is very shameful. I am sorry you had such a bad experience. Please carry a pepper spray with you at all times

    Posted by ashleypatterson21 | June 5, 2012, 7:08 am
    • Thanks for commenting!

      Sadly, Hyderabad provided some of my worst street experiences. While I was walking through the central touristy bit (Charminar is the monument, I think), I was approached every minute by a sloppy grin. Search for “Hyderabad” if you’d like to read the stories.

      The good news is that I am still in India: despite such intensely negative experiences there is (1) definitely something worthwhile in being here and (2) I managed to survive the harassment with the ability to trust and connect to people still intact.

      Posted by Bridget | June 5, 2012, 11:08 am
      • What could be worthwhile?…and yes the touristy places will be full of perverts providing a grin or a hand on your groin to repulse you. But, I thought in general the street experience is not so bad in hyderabad, I guess it depends on the areas too. If you go to Banjara Hills or Jubilee hills you would rarely find such occurrence.

        Posted by ashleypatterson21 | June 5, 2012, 11:11 am
      • I completely agree that the harassment is concentrated in touristy areas, in any city. (I’ve even enjoyed parts of Delhi! North Campus is pretty chill). Thinking that exposure takes away the “awe” factor, but leaves women free to be objectified (a.k.a. not really a person).

        I guess I get the easy version of India now, up in a hill station. It’s that there’s so much to learn, so much to think about!

        Thanks for writing again, have a lovely evening-morning.

        Posted by Bridget | June 5, 2012, 1:47 pm

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