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