5 Ugly Realities Of Being A Woman Visiting India
The summer before my junior year of college, I volunteered to work for a mental health clinic in a small city in India. I suppose I should say that it was "challenging yet rewarding," or that it was "the hardest summer of my life" but that I really "found myself." But, I'm not about to turn my experience into Eat, Pray, Love. It didn't take long after I arrived for things to turn ugly.
Sure, when people ask me what India was like, I often just placate them with funny stories about shitting my pants on an airplane or watching men practice their Bollywood moves at the gym. While those stories are true, they're not the whole truth. The truth is, almost all of my memories of India are tainted because of one uncontrollable factor: I am female, and, in India, that means ...
There Are Some Pretty Bizarre Rules
All of this talk of "rules" is going to seem cruelly ironic when I tell you what eventually happened to me. But, we'll get to that.
Upon meeting my Indian host family, I was almost immediately given a list of rules that mostly had to do with my gender. Some were common sense, but others were baffling. For example, I was instructed to avoid making eye contact for longer than four seconds with a man. This could be seen as an "invitation" -- specifically, into your vagina. This was one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of my stay, and, if you read on, you'll see why that's really saying something.
It sure explained all the guys walking around with stopwatches.
So, I would be talking to a male co-worker or friend and think, "How long has it been? Did I fuck it up? Has it been five seconds?" I was darting my eyes around so much that I probably looked like I was on crack.
Also, there was to be no smoking, drinking, or hanging out in bars. No pouting. No spending any time alone with my host brother (exchange students refer to the families they're staying with as "host father," "host mother," etc.). Don't overeat. Don't date. Don't adjust your clothes in public. Don't talk too loudly. Don't talk too softly. Don't stay out past 7 p.m. unless you're with your host father. Basically, try really hard not to be a woman -- that would be great. Thanks.
"In fact, would it be too much to ask for you to wear a fake mustache and/or a prosthetic penis?"
There's A Strict Dress Code
This part is something you probably expect from certain parts of the world -- the organization I volunteered for had already advised me to bring conservative, loose-fitting clothing. Still, my host mother took one look at my scandal-packed suitcase and decided we needed to go shopping.
"Ankle socks?! Not in this house, missy."
My wardrobe, under her tutelage, was to consist of long, flowy skirts and shapeless tunics. Keep in mind it was around 110 degrees in the summer, so while I was trying not to be a female, I was also trying not to be a female with swamp ass. Again, if you move to a country like this, obviously you're going to have to be willing to adapt to some major cultural differences. But, if you're a woman in India, there's not a lot of room for fucking up.
There was this one time I was hanging around the house and didn't notice that my baggy shirt came down too low on the sides, revealing a little side-boob action. Well, you would have thought I was running around and grabbing every dick I saw because my host mother went ballistic. She actually threatened to slap me if I didn't immediately go upstairs. I spent the rest of the summer dressed as a nun.
You Have To Have A Man With You, Or Else You'll Constantly Get Harassed
My volunteer organization assigned me a translator, but, in reality, he was more like my security guard. He would accompany me to and from work, and stay with me all day on the job. I made sure he was always around because as soon as he left my side, it was like putting myself out on the sidewalk with a big cardboard "FREE" sign.
Women get treated like objects. In this case, a street sofa.
And here is where the paradox of male attention comes into play: Whether you are invisible or the sole focus of attention depends entirely on what kind of attention you want.
For example, I once had a flight to another part of the country that got delayed. I spent 12 hours trying to get someone at the airport to help me make a damn reservation for a new flight. Even female employees would just redirect me to someone else, who would then also redirect me to someone else, in a never-ending game of Hot Potato (Hot Samosa?). Eventually, I resorted to asking a random Indian man if he could help me out, but he wouldn't do it. Finally, my male traveling companion walked up and spent five minutes with them -- and poof, we had a flight. I was steaming. That was after 12 hours of trying to get someone to listen to me.
The fake mustache and prosthetic junk were looking more appealing by the minute.
But, when men are walking up to proposition you for sex, well, then it's non-stop. Walking through a market felt like a series of push notifications to my nervous system. It became commonplace for vendors to leave their stands and follow me around, asking dozens of random questions ("Hello? Hello? Hi, are you Indian? English? Are you married? Want to have Chai? How old are you? Where are you going? Hello, lady. Smile, lady."). This could go on for 15 minutes, even if I didn't respond to a single question.
Once, while I was traveling, I came back to my private hostel room to find one of the staff members hiding in my bathroom. He asked me how much I would "cost for the night," to which I responded, "Ask my husband, he'll be here in a minute." When I reported it to the management, I was assured he was "just doing his job."
"In fact, that's a premium service. Expect a bill."
It's exhausting. And scary. Yes, of course, those types of behaviors can happen in every country around the world, and, yes, not all Indian men, etc. But, it's a full-time job navigating which look is "harmless" and which might turn you into a CNN headline -- I'm talking about a country that has one of the highest rates of sexual violence toward women in the world. And those are just the reported attacks, not counting the many acts of sexual violence that go unreported each year.
Unfortunately, I'm one of those unrecorded statistics ...
The Rules Do Not Keep You Safe
At first, living with my host family was awesome -- I was getting a more local experience and grew to absolutely adore my host mother. But, as time went on, things got weirder and weirder. By "weirder," I mean "creepier." My "host father" would make comments about my body and try to "cuddle" with me on the couch. I would try to laugh it off and say things like, "Hey, I'm your daughter!" but I would just be met with eye rolls or disapproving glares.
Which, in retrospect, I feel like I should've been the one giving.
All of the bedrooms were downstairs, except for mine, which happened to be next to my host father's office. If I had a question or wanted directions to get somewhere, he would ask me to come into his office and close the door. I would refuse, saying I was uncomfortable and that he needed to chill out a little, to which he would reply: "This isn't America, sweetheart. You're living in my house. You live by my rules."
In retrospect, I should have spoken up sooner, but I was 19 years old, naive, and didn't want to come across as difficult. I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place: speak up and have people call me a liar or a drama queen, or stay quiet and feel unsafe. Be accused of being a spoiled American brat, or risk having something really awful happen.
Spoiler: It did.
I had a key to lock my bedroom door, but, unbeknownst to me, my host father had one, too, ironically "for my safety." One night, I awoke to find him masturbating next to me with his hand down my pants. That was the last straw because what would be, if not that?
The next morning, I called a friend and moved in with him. As I mentioned, it was taboo to be alone in the company of a man who isn't your husband, so we told everyone we were married. Note: When I lived with my host family, I was only allowed to be alone with my host father, which is fucked up on at least seven levels. I counted -- it's at least seven.
Moving helped, but this would not be the last time I was sexually assaulted on my trip. There were two other incidents, the details of which I'm honestly not comfortable getting into. And, compared to what other women have gone through, I was actually extremely fortunate.
There Are Great People There, But, Culturally, The Deck Is Stacked Against Women
When I notified my volunteer program of the incident with my host father, they pretty much blew me off. I pray that they didn't place any more young women in that home, but I didn't tell anyone else because I honestly didn't see what difference it would have made.
And that is, of course, part of the problem. I remember thinking, "If I feel this powerless, and this frustrated, what the absolute fuck must it be like to live here?"
You have to remember, in India, up to 90 percent of marriages are arranged, meaning only 10 percent are "love marriages." They actually advertise them right in the newspaper. Looking for a wife? Just head to the "matrimonial" section. Ads include height, weight, job, caste, education, what they're looking for, not looking for, etc. My absolute favorite was one that was specifically requesting a "homely girl." Or, the guy that followed up his long, poetic speech by calling out to his true love with,"I like pets." Swipe right!
"Soul mate wanted! Must love dogs, sunsets, and non-consensual diddling. No smokers."
It really is a lot like Tinder, except it's your dad who's fielding your messages, and it might lead to your death. When I spoke to my host mother about the process of arranged marriages, she explained that when the prospective bride and groom meet for the first time, the woman can play her veto card at that time. If you think that might cause some animosity, though, just be glad you didn't reach dowry negotiations before you decided to be difficult, because you might get killed for that -- that very thing happens 12 times a day there.
In all fairness, I met tons of intelligent, progressive men while I was there, such as my host brother. I met women who were more patronizing than men as well as women who risked their lives fighting for women's rights. I met every type of person because in a country of approximately one billion inhabitants, it's not one size fits all.
Though, as I mentioned, the clothes sure as hell were.
But, there are some traditions and attitudes that have allowed things to get this way, which prevent meaningful change. And, while I can sit here and talk about the trauma of my own experience, my host mother's response summed it up perfectly: "Look, I'm sorry this happened. But, you get to leave. I have to stay here for the rest of my life."
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Harsh Truths You Learn as a Doctor in the Third World and 5 Weird Things You Learn in the World's Deadliest City.
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