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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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On Chai and Perspectives

My travel experiences do not capture typical life in India for the average person, as far as I can tell. I can touch on commonalities and strive for understanding, but I am always coming from a particular history and culture (this is the case for all of us). My race, gender, and nationality can never be ignored or overcome, to bring me into any sort of “authentic” experience. Every story is translated through foreign eyes, and potentially only exists because of my unusual status: technically in the “indecent” category, yet also privileged, slipping past normal boundaries, liberated and isolated by my difference.

The outsider, privileged status allows me to move through many layers of Indian society, the novelty factor giving me a buffer space in which I can meet the economically disadvantaged — a strange enough presence to slip into people’s lives for a moment.

Of course, correct me where I am wrong.

My brain adapts to my environment, and over time I began to be more comfortable in grittier environments. With an extraordinary ability to tunnel-vision, I can forget that the United States exists, forget the shiny, tailored world of mainstream America, the manicured public space and extensive (and expensive) grocery stores. If I am away from middle-class India for long enough, I slip into a reality bound by train compartments and chai stalls, hand-washed clothes and cold bucket showers.

For some reason, the lowest economic class accepted me with less fuss than its more privileged brethren. I was less an anomaly…or, rather, equally out-of-place but less likely to made to feel the distance.

Every day in Bodhgaya, walking down the dirt road from the Bhutanese temple, I received a smattering of female voices calling out, smiles across generations — a mother and her daughter at least, if not more women gathered in their multipurpose tent. The front acts as a restaurant of sorts, a homemade bench-like table supporting pots, utensils, and a kerosene stove; two or three mismatched plastic chairs set out for the customers, all open to the air. A bed occupies the back of the tent, a wooden platform draped in mosquito netting. Every time I hear them calling out, inviting me to come in and eat, I smile but do not stop.

The last morning, I build in time to have a chai.

The young-looking girl turns out to be fourteen; she takes my order. Her mother rolls up into a sitting position on the bed, bursts into a smile, and points to one of the chairs, inviting me to sit. Her daughter prepares the chai with confident, practiced movements: pouring water and milk, measuring out the rolled black tea (it’s alright that it’s part artificial, the cup will only cost five rupees), taking out a beaten tin canister of masala spices, pumping the ancient stove and setting the pot on to boil. The mother and I can only gesture and smile without a common language, but her daughter and I are able to chat: encouraging education, discouraging early marriage. Not a lecture, just attempting to use my celebrity status to celebrate her dreams and ideas rather than standard social roles. I applaud her English skills and focus on discussing her studies. Her mother is all warmth and welcome, the daughter performance and maturity.

The chai is delicious.

Another Desperation

The walk between the Bhutanese temple’s guest house and the Buddha’s bodhi tree is about fifteen minutes, but every rickshaw bicyclist eagerly hawks their services. They’ll follow for a moment, ignoring rejection, then fade back.

There’s an unusually high number of men following me on bicycles.

When I first arrived, I could find every temple except the Bhutanese one with its elusive guest house. Which meant walking all over town. Going down the main road opened up more male inquiries, distinctively done on wheels. The bicycles slide closer, keeping pace for the minute or so that they (1) build up the courage to call out only to hear a quick negation or (2) are rejected immediately but linger, hoping.

Although I’m quite experienced in being shouted at on the street, this feels different. In Delhi, sexual harassment primarily functions as an assertion of the aggressor’s masculinity, often a blatant demonstration to a cluster of friends. Most of the time, the guy does not leave space for any sort of response. My presence is largely irrelevant, despite casual interpretations: those who expectantly wait for the anticipated affirmative response are the minority. Instead, men appropriate my foreign independent white female body for their gender performance, defining themselves as effective, heterosexual, masculine men by ridiculing and violating my presence. This comes from deeply divided and rigid gender and sexual norms.

Most if not all of the men in Bodhgaya actually want a response. Their behavior looks similar to the above on the surface, but it lacks delight in your discomfort and indifference. They hope. A desperate strangled hope that makes the whole performance sad. This feels similar to being overwhelmed by the auto drivers outside the train station: high demand for a rare commodity — with limited local supply.

Bihar, the poorest state in India, has some gender issues, with an imbalance in population that is not the worst in India but has been steadily dropping from its once-high position. The spread of dowry culture and a general preference for sons lowers desire for female children; and, in some cases, people turn to gender-selective abortion and female infanticide.

There simply aren’t enough women. I suspect that it increases the pressure these men feel. Bodhgaya calls many travelers, and more tourists means more harassment. I still feel more rare here than in the busy backpacker neighborhood of Paharganj.

Some are more persistent than others. A few slow down on motorbikes and call out, then move on when it is ineffective. One fellow returns three times. I am walking past the Thai-style temple when he spots me, hitting the brakes and sweeping over to begin a conversation. I treat him like everyone else: direct and polite words with a carefully neutral-nearly-negative face. But either his fantasy or his desperation is too strong to acknowledge it, and after a false departure he returns with the same words, swinging his motorcycle to block my path.

Young, well-dressed, attractive, if he was plucked out of his cultural context and dropped onto an American street, he wouldn’t have so much trouble. But he is too much like the rest, and ignoring my rejection does nothing for his case.

By now I am sure that I’m going the wrong direction, and I cross the road, sighing over the thing you never want to do — go back the way you came, letting everyone know that you are lost.

After a moment, the motorcycle guy (always remaining astride it) turns and cuts across the road, pulling up alongside me. Indignant, I say, “You are treating me like a prostitute.”

And that gets through to him. He leaves. At the time, I found it odd that that was what finally convinced him to go, that he would not succeed. Maybe he just had more confidence than the rest, so it took longer to shake him. But I hold out hope that he realized what so many others did not — what his behavior says about who I am to him.

It wasn’t upsetting, and a moment later an elderly gentleman offered directions, enabling a quick discovery of the Bhutanese temple. But throughout the rest of my time in Bihar, men would sporadically trail behind me and fade. A sad sorry desperate parade.

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