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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.

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Vishnu’s Tea Emporium: Part Two

The negative stories are not meant as a diatribe. I was there, this is what I experienced, and I am trying to understand it. Although sexual harassment affects Indian women, my experiences seem to be in the extreme — my race and foreign-status ignites a hyper-expression of gender dynamics that are always at work in Indian society. Those who can be inspired to harassment by a white face are not suddenly changing character, even if they do not (or so frequently) harass Indian women. Instead, the narratives of race and culture attached to my body produce a space of perceived freedom, of availibility, where there are no consequences. Indian media portrays Western/white women as sexually available; and in a way this is true, since society has a weaker hold on sex and sexuality in America, in comparison. Men take this representation to the extreme when they call out sexual advances, or directly ask for sex. Very often, they are appropriating my presence for the performance of their gender: one acts verbally against another’s body, sexualizing them against their will with words, sometimes touch, to assert their own power. A play of male dominance through the reification of sexualized gender roles.
The intense sexual harassment worried me. The humiliation and violation, of course, but more troubling was the chance that it would interfere with my ability to form friendships, to trust Indian men.

My friend Vishnu is evidence of how this did not happen. Here is a happy story:

Vishnu, my new Varanasi friend, offers me a tour of the city, calling in his brother to take his place in the tea shop. We set off into the dense maze of tiny twisty streets. People reach out to greet Vishnu over and over, hands clasping, words shared — other shopkeepers, friends. He’s lived in this city all his life, having only made one trip outside, to the great city of Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta). Relaxed and confident, worldly and friendly, he treats me as a person not as the American White Girl.

Shrines are tucked into corners and carved into walls; the city is bursting with devotees. Every pathway has a sacred point, honored with decorations and whatnot — paint, offerings, images. An expressive celebration. Sacred trees persist in narrow, cracked openings. We meet a cluster of them that have been growing for centuries in a quiet corner of the frenetic city, near a open-windowed small room where men have chanted for as much or longer.

He leads me to a temple where three strung bells hang above a square (railings included here) opening in the floor, and I can see three levels below, down into the earth, where a shrine rests at the bottom of a spiraled square staircase. Only Brahmins could go in for ages, but now it is open to other worshipers (but not to tourists). So we gaze from above at the beloved below, removed but in awe.

We’re telling stories and enjoying the exploration, continuing down a (thousandth, it seems) staircase towards the Ganges, towards a burning ghat. To be honest, I am not eager, concerned about coming too close to such sacred, sorrowful rituals. There’s no time to discuss ethics because when we reach the last step, we see several police officers ahead — we immediately turn and duck back up the stairs. Vishnu explains that cops in Varanasi sometimes harass anyone leading a white person around, demanding bribes. I’ve encountered Indian police twice, and I would prefer to avoid a third; but Vishnu laughs at my bounding away, he’s not nearly as concerned as I am.

We are marked. A brown Indian boy and a white American girl are not supposed to be friends.

Vishnu’s Tea Emporium: Part One

Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.

Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.

It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent. 

A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.

I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance —  the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.

“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”

Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.

Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.

More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.

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