Street art in Pondicherry, India
For the past two months, I have been studying and living in Bangalore, India. As a young, blonde, white cisgender American woman, I have heard many precautionary tales of other young, blonde, white, cisgender American women’s experiences abroad. Before I left Minnesota, everyone from uncles and aunts to friends’ parents to strangers in grocery stores were giving me ridiculous advice about how to dress modestly, act without drawing attention, and interact with men of color from the global South. While intentionally and unintentionally, a lot of this advice had a racist, orientalist undertone, much of it also pointed out the realities of woman all over the world who challenge conventional gender roles, defy societal and familial values of feminine decorum and purity, and take the risk of venturing out into public spaces.
Like all places, sexism exists in India. However, sexism does not appear nor perform itself in a universal, static way across the world, but it is transformed and molded by the socio-political, cultural, and historical context of countries, cities, and communities. In India, women are constitutionally granted equality by the state and legally there are many liberal laws to uphold women’s access to the workforce and politics. For example, there are aggressive affirmative action policies called quotas or reservations for women in government, jobs, and education to attempt to create a level playing field for all Indian citizens. Women have a 33% – 50% reservation of elected seats in parliament, state legislatures, and local city councils (called panchayats), and a 30% reservation in admissions to school and colleges. Unlike the U.S., India has seen a woman become head of state and women in the formal sector are granted twelve weeks of paid maternity leave across the country. There are also strong movements to address problems of sexual harassment in large cities. For example, the Bangalore City Police have a poster campaign that discourages sexual violence and the public transit system has a code where women are granted seats at the front of the bus. This is not so rigid of a system that woman can only sit in one place and men the other, but if a woman requests that a man move then he must give up his position for her.
Bangalore City Police poster campaign
However, the realities of women across the country are generally much bleaker than those described above, and those experiences are complicated by class and caste. Domestic violence, familial preference towards boys, and eve-teasing (aka street harassment) are major issues. Wives are subject to marital rape, dowry harassment, and abuse from in-laws. Rape in marriage is legally not considered rape in India, and while dowry harassment, threatening/abusing the wife and her family to receive more money after marriage, is illegal, it is difficult to enforce. Families also tend to prefer boys due to the cultural tradition of sons living with and looking after their parents in old age, so having boys is an economically smart move in families that practice this custom. And lastly, street harassment and access to public spaces is a major issue for women in India.
One of the initial things I was shocked by in India was the lack of women in public spaces. Unlike men, women do not loiter at tea stalls, public parks, or restaurants predominantly due to societal and familial values of feminine purity and modesty, and a general lack of public facilities like public bathrooms (men pee wherever they want in India) and street lights. Even as I sit here to write this blog, as far as I can tell, there are only three women (including myself) in this entire Starbucks. At any moment, you will expect to see approximately an 8:1 ratio of men to women walking on the street. This absence of women is disconcerting to say the least. It will keep me from leaving my homestay alone or from going out in the evening when I know that I will be coming home in the dark, and my obvious foreignness (fair skin, blonde hair, green eyes) also draws unwanted attention. While I have been observing the city, it has been observing me right back. I cannot leave the house without getting stared at. It is something that I will never get used to, but there are certain things I do to draw less attention, like dress in kurtas, pull my hair back in a ponytail or bun, wrap my scarf around my head, and wear sunglasses to keep from making eye contact. Regardless, I still experience harassment quite often, ranging from physical acts to verbal acts and from discomforting “flirting” to aggression. Granted, street harassment and sexual violence also occurs in the Twin Cities, but I have not experienced so much of it concentrated into such a short period of time.
Long line of men in Starbucks
However, my whiteness also has given certain privileges to my experiences here. For one thing, I can get away with social faux pas that Indian women cannot. At my group yoga class, I will pretty much receive a private lesson for all the attention the instructor or assistants will pay to me relative to the other yogis. At restaurants, I’ll be offered free samples of food. Just here at Starbucks, another white American student and I were asked to partake in a coffee taste test, and the barista proceeded to tell us of other white people who also participated. My skin color also represents the ultimate beauty standard in India—fairness. Women will complement my fair skin and freckles, and one of the most unusual complements I have received to-date was on the light color of my arm hair. I spent a three hour car ride with a nine-year-old girl who analyzed the pigments of my complexion and the other white, American girl I was with for the entire ride. She said that her skin was dirt-colored and ugly, and it is difficult to convince a young girl she is perfect just the way she is when all the toys she has played and many of the “desired” women she has seen on T.V. and advertisements are white and blonde. Feminine beauty in India is quite literally unobtainable for Indian women.
I still have a month and a half in India, and while I have grown to appreciate the cows hanging out in the street, the late dinner time, and the bucket shower, I am still emotionally and ethically unsettled by much of the things I am observing and experiencing. Like everywhere else in the world, gender is complex and charged and created. In India, I am challenged to examine how I perform my femininity and how I am able to transform it according to the circumstances of my location.
Phadke, Shilpa, Sameera Khan, and Shi Ranade. Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2011.