On my walk home from the train station one afternoon, someone whispered something crude as I walked by and grabbed by butt. I turned around to confront him and he started to run. I started to run after him, yelling, and he disappeared down a side alley. A huge group of people looked on and said nothing.
On a trip to Kerala in the south of India, in a city called Thrissur to celebrate the crazy and amazing Thrissur Pooram festival (re: lots of elephants), I was right in the middle of an enormous crowd of thousands of people. Drums playing, instruments blaring, people dancing, elephants on the perimeter with men dancing on their backs—it was an insane and incredible scene. It was only halfway through the day of parades and processions and silliness and stepping in elephant poop that I realized I was the only woman in the crowd. All of the women and children were watching from the sidelines while the men partook in the dancing and debauchery.
The men who work at my gym stare at me. A lot. And trust me when I say that it’s not because I’m one of those women who looks sexy when she sweats. The trainers also assume my complete fitness incompetence, rushing over to instruct me before I’ve even lifted a weight. The very blatant assumption that I’m an inexperienced athlete because I’m a woman makes me furious.
When my roommate and I were desperately searching for an apartment, in a ridiculous process that included lots of confusion and a few sketchy back-alley meetings with our broker, we spent three weeks waiting on one place to come through. We had already paid a token deposit and, after confirming that our delayed move-in was due to a “leakage” and not “leeches,” were eager to move in. Then our broker told us that the building society didn’t want us move in because we’re single women.
I ride in the “women’s only” car on the train to avoid harassment, even though I resent that segregation has been deemed the solution to harassment of women in Mumbai.
These are all realities of my life as a foreign woman living in India. To be clear, I know that I could never begin to understand the complex and diverse experiences of Indian women, or other foreign women in India for that matter. In most ways, I personally experience very few limitations as a woman living in Mumbai. I feel no discomfort in most social interactions with men my age and can move freely around the city.
Nevertheless, there is a hyper-awareness of the fact of my own gender that I’ve never felt before; this is the first time that I’ve ever felt any sort of “different-ness” because I’m a woman. I wear clothes that I wouldn’t wear in the U.S. to be culturally sensitive and so as not to attract even more unwanted attention than I already do, and I’m happy to wear culturally appropriate clothing. But I also pay close attention to my surroundings to make sure that I’m not acting too “out there” in a given situation. Why do I feel like I have to understate my personality so as not to approach behavior that would be considered inappropriate for a woman?
I’m left with so many questions. How dare I complain about the difficulties of being a woman in India when I also inevitably (and uncomfortably) benefit from being an expat? What do I even really know about most women’s experiences in India, and who am I to comment on them or presume to know anything about them? Not only that, but am I making unwarranted judgments based on my own notions of gender roles and what is “right” or “wrong?”
I could start talking about women’s rights and considering feminism through a framework of “culturalism versus universalism,” but I’m in no way qualified to talk about that. To put it simply, being here and experiencing just a relatively tiny drop of marginalization because of my gender has been eye-opening. Hearing about the enormous and terrifying issues of child marriages, bride burnings, female infanticide, dowry deaths, and so many more that affect millions of Indian women never ceases to stun me. I have met women here who have inspired me in hundreds of ways through their tireless work and their endurance through situations that make my head spin. I never thought of myself as a feminist before coming here, but now I’m thinking about women’s issues and gender equality in entirely different ways.
With all of that, maybe a year’s worth of gender hyper-awareness isn’t such a bad thing.