Seeing the wondrous Taj Mahal rise up out of the early morning mist; being completely entranced by Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort and its Hall of Mirrors; sitting on the floor of a woman’s home, learning how to eat with my fingers; being fed and looked after by a beautiful Indian woman and her mother on a train to Delhi; losing myself in the sunrise at Hampi…
I had so many incredible, personal moments in India. Have you read my blog posts about them? No, you haven’t. Why? Because I haven’t written them.
When I come to write personal accounts of my time in India, I get a bad taste in my mouth and decide to leave it for another day. I just can’t talk about India as if it was this beautiful, positive experience that I will forever cherish. It’s not that there weren’t beautiful, positive moments; it’s that they were all so closely tied in with feelings of anger and fear that I can’t separate the two.
This week I came across this article by RoseChasm (RC): India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear. It is one woman’s account of her time spent studying in India, which was “half dream half nightmare”.
When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence?
“India was wonderful,” I go with, “but extremely dangerous for women.”
As soon as I read this, I knew exactly what she meant. It is a dilemma. Even now I want to point out that I am not on any kind of vendetta against the country. In fact, I have consciously chosen to be relatively quiet about my 10 weeks in India is because I feel it is discourteous to all the wonderful people I met there to only criticise it. And yet I feel it would be misleading to write about India without criticising it.
There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.
This resonates so strongly with my own experience of India that she may as well have plucked the words I could not find right out of my mind.
It may sound exaggerated to some. Indeed, I know women who have visited India and had none of these issues. However, I also met far more women who struggled with sexual harassment while travelling there.
A few days ago, a response to the original article was published: Same India-Different Story. I clicked on the link expecting to read another woman describe her time in India as a perfectly pleasant experience. Instead, I was disappointed to read a completely inadequate response to the initial piece.
The “different story” is in fact no different at all. She states that she “was also very frightened”, “felt violated many times” and was “targeted with harassment”. Of course, she also states that she met “a solid handful of warm and honest Indian men”. In essence, she describes the very same contradiction that RC chose to write about. The only difference is that RC did not explicitly say that it was not every single Indian man who harassed her.
The rest of her response points out that harassment and rape occurs just as much in America and that the original article is dangerous as it creates a stereotype which can be judged harshly.
Yes, sexual violence does occur worldwide. Women have to ward off the unwanted advances of men whether in Mumbai or Milan. However, that it is as common in somewhere like America as it is in India, I cannot say. I find it hard to believe based on my own experience. But that is not the argument.
I can’t abide it when people pick on a singular aspect of an argument (not the central discussion) and then respond by pushing their own, separate quarrel to the fore. Another example of this is when, in response to an article about female sexual harassment, one states that the same thing happens to men and carries on an argument about the fact. Very well, that is true – but that is not the point of the initial discussion.
So what am I getting at here?
RC’s article presents a side of her experience in India which needs to be discussed. It does not mean that there are no good experiences to be had there or that every Indian man is out to get you. But it does mean that women travelling alone in India need to exercise caution. No matter what the situation is in other countries, sexual violence on women is a real, undeniable problem in India. Women travelling there need to be alert at all times and should think seriously beforehand about how they will handle and cope with the harassment.
And just to make it really clear – I am not in any way, shape or form saying that a woman does not need to take precautions in Western society. What I am saying is that unwanted attention from men in India is more prevalent and overt than one would experience elsewhere.
* * *
The stress of RC’s visit to India manifested itself as PTSD upon her return to America. I came home with a few demons of my own, which I think I am still trying to exorcise.
Before visiting India I had high expectations. I knew to expect the dirt, noise, pollution, etc. and that did not phase me (I had just spent 12 weeks living out of a truck in Africa after all). But I also had hopes for something more… something that would make it all worth it.
Quite frankly, I came home disappointed. Here and there I had glimpses of something special – that magical, mystical India of my dreams – but they were so bogged down in all the other shit that I found it hard to make them the focus of my journey there.
As my friend Davinia pointed out, “I remember when you were there and I was speaking to you, you ALWAYS mentioned [the harassment]. It was ubiquitous.” Skype conversations with her and others were an opportunity where I could finally have a good rage about one thing or another that had angered me since my last chat with them, whether it was the cat calling, groping or something completely different like the outright hypocrisy of such a supposedly spiritual nation.
Occasionally I see India on the TV or flip through some of my photos and I briefly feel a warm glow in my chest. It wasn’t all bad. Sadly, however, I don’t know if I will ever write a really personal piece about India and leave out the negative side.
I will leave you with this: