My Experience as a Woman in Varanasi, India
Spending five months studying abroad in Varanasi, India seemed like a great idea when I filled out my application, tucked into my couch at home with a hot cup of tea. But when I arrived in Varanasi seven months later, I wasn’t so sure. The city was overwhelming – hot and dirty and crowded and chaotic. Every time I went out, I was met with the weight of the humidity, the smells of garbage, the exhaust fumes that filled my pores and lungs. People on the streets stared at me, made comments and snapped pictures of me with their cell phones, making me feel like an animal at the zoo. The electricity went out for up to twenty hours a day, sometimes leaving me stranded without a fan on unbearably hot nights. I got food poisoning. I got sunstroke. Spending nearly half a year in Varanasi seemed unimaginable.
Twelve weeks later, I can say without a doubt that I’m glad to be here and wouldn’t have picked anywhere else to spend my college study abroad. It’s certainly been challenging, but I’ve learned a lot and feel a sense of home here. I’ve learned to navigate the city and haggle for fair prices with rickshaw drivers. I’ve spent time with Indian families and made friends my own age. I’ve come to understand the order in the disorder, and see a beauty in the chaos.
People ask me why, as a young woman, I would travel to a foreign country without my family – or why I would even venture out into the city alone.
Daily life here has forced me to be aware of my gender more than ever before, which has been often difficult but also empowering. When I walk down the street, men stare and make inappropriate comments. People ask me why, as a young woman, I would travel to a foreign country without my family – or why I would even venture out into the city alone. The most frustrating thing is the very palpable feeling I often get that the men I encounter don’t really respect me – don’t necessarily consider my opinion valid or my requests legitimate.
Though it can be really grinding to often feel this way, I’ve realized how much more assertive and confident I’ve become in the past twelve weeks. I insist that waiters acknowledge me. I argue with rickshaw drivers until I get the correct price. I continue to go out by myself in the city. I’ve realized that speaking up is more important than being polite, that I can be independent and self-assured even within a culture that doesn’t expect me to be. I think this will be one of the greatest things I gain from my time here.
My advice to women traveling in India, and especially Varanasi, is this: dress appropriately, with shoulders, cleavage and upper legs covered. Modify your appearance, but never your attitude. Be firm with those you meet, speak confidently and walk tall.