Let me start by sharing that I have yet to meet one single woman anywhere in the world who has NOT experienced sexual harassment in some form or the other.
I challenge you to have a serious conversation about it with any woman and ask if she has escaped – impossible. It simply is a question of the various circumstances, frequency or severity… not whether it has occurred.
A letter on CNN by an American student on her experience of harassment traveling in India sparked considerable debate recently:
- India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear by Michaela Cross on her Chicago University study abroad experience
- The Truth About Sexual Harassment: An Open Letter to Michaela Cross on her experiences as an Indian studying in Paris
- India and a Blonde Tourist – An Alternate Account by Jane von Rabenau whose experience is much closer to mine as quite positive with only a few challenges
It prompted me to reflect on some of my experiences as I too began my ‘love affair’ with India on a ‘study abroad’ program. I’ve also seen how complicated these programs are to organize from dear friend who used to lead such tours to India until they became just too challenging.
First blush… flirting run amok (1990)
- My first time in India was with a summer study abroad tour with Canadian university students – mostly MA and PhDs – coming to India with various backgrounds, ages, academic interests. The group was predominantly composed of women with two male leaders – one from Canada and one from India.
- It was a remarkable experience with six weeks of jam-packed amazing activities that left us exhausted, overwhelmed and also deeply engaged. It was a trip of a life-time and, though I didn’t realize it then, changed the course of my life irrevocably.
- And while we had some mild ‘harassment’ from the ‘external’ environment, it was what happened ‘internally’ that was more disturbing with sexualized conduct by the team leaders whose ‘flirting’ went beyond what’s acceptable. From offers of ‘massage’ to needing to firmly shut the bedroom door in a persistent leader’s face, an element was thrown into the ‘masala’ which made an already charged atmosphere even more so.
- One participant had a breakdown – the environment and her experiences in our travels triggered childhood memories of traumatic repeated rapes growing up in Canada.
- Years later one tour leader was charged with misconduct as his activities escalated in future programs. So while there were some marvellous moments, there were other times which alas were not.
- Yet what stayed was positive and the incredible privilege of being introduced in such a dynamic way to a remarkable country.
Dancing with eve… learning to fight back (1995-1996)
- Years later on a fellowship studying in Delhi, I learned first hand just how serious the innocuous sounding phrase ‘eve teasing’ truly is.
- As I hopped on and off DTC buses and navigated the streets of Delhi, I quickly discovered this was very real and potentially dangerous.
- On buses, ‘shoulder jacking’, for example, was quite popular and while primarily directed at seated women – guys were not immune either and would also find themselves being vigorously rubbed against in a situation where there was literally no room to move.
- So I shed my polite Canadian veneer and learned to fight back! Practicing my basic Hindi hurling abuses, attempting to embarrass the perpetrators by shaming them loudly and, at times, drawing blood as I dug my fingernails into hands that were in places they had no business being.
- I learned what to wear to reduce unwanted attentions, how to carry myself differently and never let down my guard when alone.
- I also learned to always arrange a ‘male’ companion if going out at night – which generally just happened and was all good fun!
- And it virtually stopped! The new ‘amour’ worked brilliantly and I could be comfortable as long as I worked within these lessons learned.
- While there were challenges, these were few and far between. Overall, it was an exceptional time – full of discovery, growth and much more – one of the most positive experiences in my life. For every negative there was an even greater positive experience and I have no regrets.
A match made in Mumbai (2003 to….?)
- Fast forward to 2003 with a return to Delhi… there were signs of some improvements. However catching a bus or rickshaw after dark from work to home was still decidedly NOT a safe or pleasant experience.
- With the purchase of a car, hiring a driver, I finally had respite and gained a freedom to move around that had earlier been impossible.
- More significant was the move to Mumbai in 2005 which enabled me, for the first time, to take off the ‘armour’ I adopted to cope with life in North India.
- It was suddenly acceptable to step out of home in the evening alone and hop on a rickshaw! What joy! What a relief!!
- Defiantly I began to confidently wear clothes that I couldn’t conceive of decades ago – and revelled in how significantly what is considered ‘appropriate’ had changed.
- And while I would never deliberately invite trouble, I do have age on my side. After 23+ years flirting with India, my love affair has evolved from being a young ‘didi’ (sister) to a maturing ‘aunty’ – respectable in a committed partnership with a lovely man.
Yet today in I see signs of the earlier blithe assumption of safely moving around as a woman in Mumbai in jeopardy. In dismay I watch my beloved ‘Bombay’ report repeated public cases of brutal rape and witness the environment shifting. Each day the newspaper brings further updates on the latest example of a woman or child being molested.
My love affair remains strong and true – I remain fortunate to construct a life where such challenges are minimal. However I’m equally aware this is something which can never be taken for granted. Eve teasing in India is not to be taken lightly. However India is by no means unique and no one is exempt either from the experience or responsibility for sexual harassment.
So how does it feel to be a woman in India? Frankly how does it feel to be a woman anywhere in the world? Or, for that matter, under certain circumstances a man too? Sexual harassment is unfortunately universal. Can you challenge this?
- India sexual harassment: American student shares horrific experiences (cnn.com)
- Sexual harassment in India: ‘The story you never wanted to hear’
- How it feels to be a woman in India
That just sounds horrendous…! And very interesting, thanks for sharing. Oh, how I love Europe…
Wasn’t an easy blog to write… I’ve had it sitting in my drafts folder for some time as its very uncomfortable. Yet I stand by my stance that India is not unique. There are other tales to tell from other parts of the world too, alas.
And sure, every woman has experienced some kind of sexual harrassment. I remember these incidents very distinctly, because they are so far and few between. I think there may have been three while I was living in Germany and two in the UK. None of these assaults were serious, thank God. Nothing like this has happened to me yet in Spain after having been here for two yeas.
I can’t imagine living in a place where I couldn’t move around freely, requiring a male ‘escort’. Bollocks to that! 😉
Thank you so much for sharing this! Honestly, I think these incidents stay with you for the rest of your life because it feels so violating. Over the years I have seen 3 predominant reactions to these incidents:
1. People (both men and women) tend to write these issues off saying they are being blown out of proportion – I have to say this outrages me and I feel personally hurt trying to even defend these arguments.
2. People still tend to blame women for these incidents which I think is very dangerous. Shifting the blame to the survivor or victims in any situation, does not help anyone, especially the women involved.
3. A large group of progressive men and women are raising their voices against these issues in a much more aggressive way. That’s what will lead to a change eventually. You know, at some point, I am sure all countries faced a similar evolution as India did (US had it’s own gender issues, and other Western countries have their own), but what has helped is the active engagement on these issues. In the entire world I must say, we are far away from being perfect! But calling out these issues in public does help and raise awareness!
Thanks for posting this! (Sorry about typos…was typing quicker than I was thinking)
While I’m appreciative it struck a chord, it would be even more lovely if it didn’t, wouldn’t it?
I agree that it is such a disquieting topic that it does get ‘written off’ or women are partly ‘blamed.’ Just check out the Guardian link “Lady of the Cakes” shared where both these sentiments featured.
The challenge is the 3rd response doesn’t have such a prominent voice though there certainly is a lot of attention recently on this topic thanks to a series of high profile tragedies. I landed home on the weekend to be greeted by the front page on the rape of a child by a bus driver.
What I learned is we can only take responsibility for our own actions and engagement. Which is why I learned to fight back in Delhi – while was careful to discourage any such unwanted attentions, when it did happen I made a huge fuss and did not tolerate anything. And I expected others to support – which maybe is incredibly niave but seemed to work.
I remember one time when I was followed by a van from the highway to the place I was living with the guys in the van shouting out things best not repeated. I walked straight up to a local shop and explained my predicament. Out poured several tall sardarjis outraged that one of “their” colony girls was being harassed. Didn’t matter that I was blue eyed, fair haired… I’d been living there for a year, shopping, chatting and was a damsel in distress.
Honestly, for every negative experience I could share three times the positive. However it doesn’t minimalize the negative.
Thank you again for your very thoughtful comment.
I was trawling through the archives, and I found it – an article I read a little while ago in The Guardian (the UK equivalent of the New York Times)
What hope is there?!?
Sigh… Sad but not entirely un-representative of certain circles of thought.
Most of the time, much of my day-to-day ‘universe’ is quite different and far removed such callus disregard for women’s rights, their freedom to move about without being harassed.
However such opinions are bubbling away beneath the surface…. and I’m not foolish enough to kid myself that they don’t exist.
What I find really disturbing is when men don’t seem to draw a distinction between sex and rape, between consensual (whether it is accepted by society or not is another issue) and forcing another human being, while justifying their actions in some way to themselves. (‘She was wearing X’).
It’s an inexhaustable topic.
Thanks for posting, I realise this must have been difficult to write, with a zillion conflicting thoughts ricocheting through your head.
It is disturbing and blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator happens. The challenge is that there is no easy solution and it takes more than just a ‘village’ to change.
You are also quite right… it wasn’t an easy post to write but one that had been on my mind for some time.
Quite a candid and brave writing, if I may. Do admire your take on such issues and the way you go about living in India. In case not seen this one –
Your writing brings few random memories – had a friend in Bombay in the early 1980s and she was from Delhi. Delhi buses were notorious for what was then called ‘bottom-pinching’. I asked Shoba how she dealt with that and her cool response surprised me – ‘it depends on who, if the guy is good-looking, won’t mind’. Having lived in New York, seen lewd comments passed on sidewalks at women; men take such liberty giving ‘neck-massage’ even at work place (may be that is accepted as an endearing act ! ). I have had women ‘rub’ against me, both here in Indian buses and in NYC subway – HONEST !
No doubt the evil exists, but if you had noticed, the Indian media is feasting on ‘rape’ news since the Delhi incident. Let’s hope law & order and better men psyche prevails.
Happy and safe stay in India !
Thanks for link to the India Today piece – what she writes is far more representative of my experience in India! I’ve honestly had a brilliant time and felt very honoured to see, do and experience life here. Like Jane, I’ve never had an issue with ‘stares’ which are more curious than threatening. It also makes a big difference what area one is in – there will be more ‘attention’ in a tourist area than just every day life in a colony.
And once I learned to shift my approach on buses in Delhi, there was a marked difference. Did it happen? Sometimes. But did it happen constantly? Absolutely not! I’m serious that for every challenge there was 4 Xs the positive experience – often more!
It is sad but true that harassment can happen anywhere. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada I can tell stories of people I knew well who were brutally raped. Most horrific was one woman raped in her own bed at home in our supposedly safe suburban neighbourhood.
One can only hope that some of the recent media attention will lead to it become less acceptable. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an upsurge of reports – not because there is a change in incidents just that more women feel confident to come forward to report.
Here’s hoping things will improve and thanks – I sure hope to remain happy and safe in India. 🙂
Thank you for sharing. This is definitely an issue that needs to be talked about more. Sadly I see some young women my daughters’ know that are so used to sexual harassment that they just believe it is normal.
‘Slut-shaming’ also seems a big issue with some young women. And if they blame other women who are harassed, assaulted or attacked because of how they look, what they wear, what they’ve done in their past……
Sometimes I feel the spirit of sisterhood is missing amongst women so thank you for sharing your experiences and nurturing that spirit
Scary to think that sexual harassment is considered normal – anywhere in the world! Wish I was more optimistic that ‘sisterhood’ uniting could solve the issue! However every little bit helps and if one encounter or one conversation can change the approach of one person to stop, think and never repeat such harassment, that is a one very important step forward.
My sister lived in Mumbai for a year and when she came back to the US there was a period she wouldn’t go anywhere alone – she said she felt too exposed. It always made me wonder.
China for me – there has been some, but not much and mostly name calling, but I do feel the ability to walk in almost any area and feel safe, even alone. Women have always been stereotyped to be the strong one in Shanghai. Though they may not help me when I fall, they don’t abuse me either.
For me, Bombay has been brilliant! I’ve been so comfortable here compared with North India – but that isn’t a good benchmark to have. Also there are ways of constructing a life to ‘shield’ from every day encounters. The biggest difference is a car – with that one can be much more independent and keep ‘out’ unwanted attentions.
Shifting neighbourhoods has also been interesting. While I loved the place I used to live and there were several advantages, I tended to go everywhere by car or rickshaw from it. However in Bandra, where I live now, I walk a lot – practically every day when I’m home! It has made me more aware of the rhythm of the area and dynamics.
Which is why I can tell you that there is a group of guys in the slum next door that I DO NOT want to encounter alone when they gather on the street. However walking through the village/slum feel perfectly safe and even do the smile and nod with a few folks, say hello to the parakeets and pussycats as I use the narrow lanes to cut through to another road.
I’ll admit I was never in China long enough to truly get a feel though I do move about alone a few times. Never felt unsafe on the roads however the hammering at the door in the wee hours by ‘ahem’ someone checking if I wanted ‘company’ was preposterous and absurdly funny in a twisted way!
Sorry about the banging on the door, apologies in advance per say. Knowing the rhythm of local life definitely helps though. Totally agree!
The late night door banging happened in Beijing and don’t know who was more surprised – groggy me or the lady of the night?!
Carissa, I am glad you write that this so called ” eve teasing ” happens everywhere, though it may have a more ugly face here. But I do remember when one did not hear so much about this sort of sexual brutality in Bombay. Not sure if it was a fact or the media brushed these issues under the carpet. Delhi was always notorious, but now it seems our city has become equally unsafe….sad
Thank you Manju for your comments. One hopes that with attention will come change, however not entirely convinced that will be the result. I do suspect that part of the upswing in reporting is the attention and that those who earlier would have remained silent in a different climate are now coming forward and speaking up.
Most times, we live in a ‘bubble’ of our making filled with wonderful people like yourself and your husband – kind, considerate and amazing souls both. I feel so fortunate to be in that universe but felt it important to expose the ‘other side’ that does exist.
Oh my gosh, that’s awful! There have been some such horrific things in the news lately haven’t there. That’s so weird, I’ve just posted about this topic myself, came for my catch up, and saw this. You’re definitely right in that it is universal, I have experiences from the UK, Spain, and Mexico (everywhere I have lived). I’ve just read the Guardian article, it’s shocking that “[rape] starts with the woman.” That attitude, which certainly isn’t unique to any one place, makes me so so angry!!!!
It has happened more than once where freakishly you have written about practically the exact same thing that was on my mind! I just read your post – incredibly moving and frightening familiar.
Yes, that was really really strange actually! Your post was as well, and on the one hand it’s almost reassuring, for want of a better word, to know that you’re not the only person experiencing this type of harassment. And on the other, it’s awful that it’s happening at all and that it is such a thing that so many of us in completely different situations and on opposite sides of the world, can relate to!
Sad but true… sigh….
I travelled in India many years ago and remember the harassment as mildly annoying. But I was younger and more inclined to put up with stuff that today I would count as harassment.
It’s an interesting topic; well done for trying to tackle it.
Most of it is mildly annoying and little more than that. Also the ‘attention’ is more predominant in touristy type places. Every day life is quite…well.. ordinary and relatively hazard free. 🙂
This wasn’t an easy topic to share but one that is important. Just recently at a very ‘upscale’ gathering looking across at the Ambani billion dollar empty ‘house’, a guy was saying how tragic it is so many issues are happening now and never did earlier.
This tall, lithe and drop dead gorgeous woman in her mid-40s sitting across from just turned on him and said he was completely blind! That it in many ways is slightly better now and when something more serious happens, there is media attention and people talk about it rather than sweep it under the rug as a shameful secret that is somehow the woman’s fault.
The way I see it, every voice counts.
As a male, obviously haven’t faced what you have. In my younger days have been in a bus with friends and squared off to save them from unwanted attention, but have always loved the Indian heart. When in need they are there for you.
As an Indian, I apologise for all the bad experiences you may have had, and as a father of a daughter I cringe at the thought. Everything said and done, and with the choices I have, am proud that she is growing up in India.
Despite the morons and the fanatics, we still have some saving graces.
India has far more saving graces than challenges. I’ll never forget all of your kindness and incredible generosity of spirit! If there is one guy who is the opposite of the negative and epitomises the positive – that’s you! An apology from you makes no sense whatsoever as there is zero you could possibly apologize for.
Thanks for stopping by my blog but more importantly, being part of all that is good that opened my eyes and understanding to my amazing adopted home India.
Huge hugs to you, Ekka and the kids!!
Eve-teasing is but a shameful reality of India. It is still rampant across the length and breath of the country. But there are heroes like Manoj Sharma, who laid down his life to save a woman from being eve-teased. You can read the complete story and as well as my tribute to this knight of the modern times, here: http://authorranjit.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/is-the-bad-better-than-the-good/
I actually think it is time to stop calling it “eve-teasing” and call it what it is “sexual harassment” which is a criminal offense.
I have many male friends who will not tolerate this in any form and yet, I still have not met a single woman anywhere who has not experienced it in some form or another…
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