23 Mar 2014

Because you're special, and because you're not

8:35 pm on 23 March 2014

In a sleeper bus somewhere in rural India I wake and roll over to find a man watching me. He’s an arm’s length from my face and he’s not fazed that I’ve caught him.Yanking my curtain shut I lie stiffly on my back, listening to him breathe through the flimsy fabric. Minutes later, from the corner of my eye I see fingers creep around the curtain and carefully slide it aside, the staring resumes.

I snatch the curtain closed and weigh it shut with my books and backpack.

I don’t sleep for the rest of the way to Goa.

This experience, though unsettling, isn’t the worst of the stories I’ve heard relayed by women who have travelled solo through India, which include being masturbated at in public, groping and verbal harassment.

Isobel Ewing in India

Isobel Ewing in India Photo: Supplied

There’s an exception to every rule, and the respect and kindness shown to me by a handful of men leave me wary of condemning a nation for the actions of a few.

But is it just a few? Recent reports and innumerable anecdotes suggest that India has a problem with women, both foreign and local.

In the three months American student Michaela Cross spent in India, she was the target of such harassment that she said she developed posttraumatic stress disorder after she returned home.

Her story reverberated online just months after the horrific Delhi gang rape case that shocked the world. This time last year, the number of foreign women tourists visiting India had dropped 35 per cent in three months, following a spate of sex attacks that made headlines globally.

I was in India for eight weeks over summer, working at an English-speaking newspaper in Bangalore, Karnataka. I travelled alone for six weeks afterwards. As such, my observations are based on a relatively short time in India – and are the impressions of one tourist in a country of one billion.

 If you can’t cope with a bit of gawking, you certainly won’t be able to handle the anarchic driving

In the lead-up to my departure, Mum would trawl the internet for news stories of violence against women – both tourists and not – in India, and send them to me with messages like “Are you sure about this?” or “Is this a good idea?” Some friends asked if I planned to dye my blonde hair black.

So when I arrived in India I was conditioned for the worst.

Most immediate were the stares – as though my clothes were see-through – but among the myriad other assaults on the senses of India, they kind of merged into the overall experience. India isn’t for the faint-hearted, and if you can’t cope with a bit of gawking, you certainly won’t be able to handle the anarchic driving, widespread corruption, open sewers and waterways clogged with plastic bags and chicken carcasses.

For the first two weeks, I stayed at a hotel near the newspaper offices. It had clean, basic rooms and in the mornings the smell of puri, a deep-fried bread eaten for breakfast, wafted in my window. I never saw another woman at the hotel, which seemed to be mainly frequented by businessmen, but I felt safe. If the hotel boys were at all bewildered by a lone woman guest they didn’t show it.

Through a workmate I met Seema, a maths professor who studied in the US and lived there for 10 years before returning to India. She had a spare room that she sometimes rented out, and I moved in with her.

A smart, successful Indian woman, Seema seemed bitter towards men. She told me that her male colleagues were uncomfortable about having an intelligent, independent woman in their midst, and were actively trying to get her dismissed.

Even allowing for some exaggeration, I was disturbed that this kind of discrimination and harassment might be a reality for many women in India – and it turned out to extend far beyond the workplace.

Both foreign and Indian women are treated badly, but one is because they’re perceived to be special; the other, because they’re not.

Dowry killings, acid attacks, and young women being forced into prostitution were frequently in the headlines. Women sat at the front of the bus, and men at the back – not out of custom or chivalry, but an attempt by the women to minimise contact and unwanted attention.

During my stay, a Supreme Court judge was charged with sexual harassment, and the editor of a respected investigative magazine was accused of sexual assault. As Seema sighed putting down the newspaper: “India is so far behind.”

More women have the confidence to come forward with accusations of rape and sexual assault, after the Delhi gang rape prompted a crusade against such crimes in India – though the incidents being brought to light now are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg.

But it’s important to note the different treatment of Western women and Indian women. Both can be bad, but for different reasons.

A friend who spent time working at an NGO in northern India summed it up well when she said both foreign and Indian women are treated badly, but one is because they’re perceived to be special; the other, because they’re not.

A widespread perception of Western women, substantiated by online pornography and Hollywood movies, is that they are liberal, loose, and up for casual sex. A man I spoke to in Bangalore said the assumption among his friends was that white women are generally great for fun and good sex before you settle down with a nice homely Indian wife.

It’s hardly surprising, given the droves of European tourists sunning themselves in bikinis on the beaches of Goa without a thought for the local culture. I covered my legs and shoulders in most places because, if I didn’t, I could expect unwanted attention.

One day in Varkala, a beach in Kerala on the south-west coast, I thought I’d indulge in some sunbathing as there were other tourists around doing the same. I stripped to my bikini and began reading a book. No more than five minutes later, a shadow fell across the page. I looked up to a throng of about ten young Indian guys snapping away with their camera phones at my sparsely-clad body.

Isobel Ewing in India

Isobel Ewing in India Photo: Supplied

It was a distressing experience but, at the same time, I’d chosen to shed my clothing at a beach close to a sacred area frequented by Hindu worshippers. I realised the importance of understanding different cultural values while travelling, as both of a show of respect and a means of self-preservation.

A French woman I met in Bangalore didn’t see it that way. She said if she wanted to wear a dress or high heels, she would; she wasn’t going to change her behaviour simply because she's in India. If men harassed her, she’d shout at them. She felt that, all cultural sensitivities aside, it wasn’t OK to grope any woman anywhere, no matter how she was dressed. It seemed idealistic, but I found that when I did reprimand men for inappropriate behaviour, they were immediately ashamed.

One man sat next to me on a bus in Goa, and asked if he could join me on my travels. I replied with the usual lie that I was married, but undeterred he stroked my arm. Then, suddenly, he grabbed my boob.

Shocked, outraged, I shot to my feet and shouted whether he’d like it if someone treated his mother or sister in that way. He cowered and apologised repeatedly while several older women glowered at him.

Maybe he thought I – a wanton Western wench, bra strap showing, bound for Palolem, Goa, where tourists hang about drinking beer and smoking spliffs – would be open to such advances

It’s hard to know what was going through his head. Perhaps he thought this might be the only time he would sit next to foreign women on the bus and he decided to try his luck. Or maybe he thought I – a wanton Western wench, bra strap showing, bound for Palolem, Goa, where tourists hang about drinking beer and smoking spliffs – would be open to such advances.

But trying to fit in wasn’t without its problems, either. In my first week in India, I bought a shalwar kameez, the baggy pants and long top worn by many younger women as a substitute for a sari. This was met with amusement from my jeans-wearing female workmates who asked teasingly if I was trying to fit in. My friend was told if you dress like an Indian woman you may be perceived as seeking a husband.

It’s hard to know the full extent of India’s problems with women, as assaults against white women are highlighted by media coverage, while those against Indian woman are far less visible. But rows of skin-lightening creams in pharmacies spoke to a preoccupation with pale skin.

I’m fortunate that I can look back on my experiences with a laugh.

Michaela Cross described India as a traveller’s heaven but a woman’s hell. I wouldn’t call it that.

At first, I was reluctant to venture out to the streets for dinner because I expected an attacker to be lurking in every shadow, and every passer-by a potential bum-grabber.

But after a few weeks, I’d finish work at 8pm and get the rickshaw driver to drop me at a family-owned supermarket close to my apartment so I could walk home in the warm evening, soaking up the sights and smells of the neighbourhood.

Goats crossing roads, Muslim men on scooters responding to the call to prayer, kids playing cricket on the red dirt or letting off fire crackers in the middle of the road, fruit stall owners peddling papaya and custard apple.

I felt comfortable – still an outsider, but one going home after work, just like everyone else.

My experiences were at worst uncomfortable, and I can laugh about them now.

But I’m not an Indian woman.

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