Being Abroad in India: India's Woman Problem

05/10/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In New York City I often forget I am a feminist, but in India, I noticed there's a woman problem. Since arriving in India one month ago, I have made many realizations and observations on the role of women. My first observations were that, just as my experience at an Orthodox Jewish seder in Midwood Brooklyn, where I learned to cover my knees, my elbows, and make sure no clavicle was showing, I better cover up or be judged. Secondly, I learned that I went out after sundown, there were no women to be seen. In fact, I haven't yet met a single Indian woman after sundown. I also learned that it is extremely difficult to be a woman travelling alone in India, without a support network, which I luckily have.

As a young globetrotting feminist and teacher I have already lived abroad in two other countries: France and Japan, one as a philosophy student, the other as a teacher and I know how to be a respectful expat. But at 30, I am more secure in my identity as an American who can be respectful but remain herself. I am studying yoga and philosophy and also doing the requisite travelling. As the "mixed race" (as they say here) child of interfaith parents with a lightly Buddhist Ukrainian immigrant ex-catholic mother who first introduced my sister and I to yoga as children and a New York Jewish constantly shticking father, my extended family includes almost every color and faith.

In Goa, the Russians, whose mafias and tourists have flooded the scene, seem to be embracing "free love" for the first time. At least once a day I'd see a Russian spinning and smiling at the sun in a tranced out bliss. It was endearing, but the cycle for me went: hipster parents, hippie upbringing, desperate for wealth and structure, Park Slope boho bliss, New York City, competition, rules, rules, rules, rules, no bending, lack of wealth, Bushwick: leave.

I started out on Goa's famous hippie beaches. All karma trance and yoga, and I relaxed into the beachlife leaving New York City behind like a bad type A dream. "Why worry chicken curry? What to do katmandu?" said some of our new friends. After living abroad in Paris and Tokyo, I found India a more blended and welcoming culture, like Brazil. It even looked like Brazil with it's Portugese influence, mansions and, of course relaxed mind. I later found, unlike the other Asian country I lived in -Japan- India was very kind to its immigrants, providing a refuge for thousands of Nepalese and Tibetans and its dominant faith, Hinduism provided the exact umbrealla of diversity that I loved in New York. I also discovered, that like New York, life was tough, and overcrowded and often ruthless but on a heightened scale. It also had the backwards mentality outside of big cities that felt less than zen.

In India, the statistics still show 25% of Indian brides are killed for dowry before they turn 30 with 40% unreported.( India is in its second wave of feminism, while America is in it's third. After a few weeks of squat toilets, and handwashing my underwear and a daily round of inappropriate sexual stares, rikshaw drivers adjusting their mirrors to my crotch and "Where are you from?" which today was "How much are you from?" and "Sex with you-possible? Not possible?" I picked up a copy of "FEMINA," India's answer to Marie Clare. In it were sophisitcated, even feminist women talking about modern problems, dating, fashion and of course health. The only twist, the health had a New Age yoga flair, and the true-life column was about a woman who committed suicide after she was raped and harrassed by her teacher.

Back at the Goan beach bar, a Berliner joined us for supper and we got into a conversation about his being a polyamorous psychoanalyst. Not an eye batted for these New Yorkers. He went on to describe how at age 35 he lived in a loft with his artist friends (yawn) and practiced S and M zen meditation. The S and zen the only twist. He mentioned that the whip you can request from your master during zazen to wake up would greatly pleasure a masochist (Germans).We went on to discuss polyamory, the book "The Ethical Slut" I read in college and tried and failed my early 20s, and the effects of such.

As we talked I realized I was being reactionary but all I could think was how refreshing either an urban lumberjack, new guido or simply a traditional male was in response to his effeminate, polysexual ways. Postmodern men, or omega men, are simply boring. I started to consider some of the date request I got from Indian men here. And I later accepted a request and fell in love with a boy from Kerala. A muslim who wears a skirt (dhoti) and eats with his hands from banana leaves. But, I remembered that when I dated a Sikh-American the marriage taboo, came up again.

Our new highly judgmental and urbane friend mentioned the rape and murder of a 15 year old girl in Goa two years ago and then the story of a 9 year old Russian girl who was also raped on Goa's beaches. I researched the case, wondering how laid back people respond to crime. And I found the response from Goa: "Bikinis encourage Rape." She was 15, her lifestyle, drug use, sex life all have nothing to do with being violently violated in a way that is almost worst than death. Goa's government was lax about it and her mother had to take photos of her bruises to prove it was a murder. I did wear a bikini on Goa's beaches, and think that culturally I was in no way disrespectful or provoking of attack.

The most interesting response to Goa's ridiculous response is the comment that if bikinis encourage rape by Indian men, then Sariis should encourage rape by those from burka culture.

After being told more than once to cover up, I responded to a store clerk in Rishikesh that we don't criticize Indian women for showing their bellies in America. It may sound disrespectful, but the fact is the reason topless beaches are able to exist in Europe and nude yoga colonies in Hawaii are that people can become desensitized. I am an American and I don't wish to impose my culture on India, but I want India to relax a little at the sight of a clavicle. If you see Goa and Dharmasala, where women can wear tank tops without fear, you can see the result of embracing the new world culture. We are a global society.

As a former ESL teacher, constantly being exposed to new cultures, languages and nationalities, I am extremely aware of the relativity (and even sanity) of life. When I taught Mexican-American students, I was initially at first a little shocked by my Dominican female student requisite thong showing, painted on jeans, and bra exposed cleavage tight tops. After a while, I felt relaxed (I lived on France's topless beaches and spent a holiday at a Hawaiian yoga retreat that turned out to be clothing optional) and saw that if there was no reaction, there was no big deal. But when I taught Elementary school-aged, young Mexican American girls it still bothered me to see them in mini skirts and knee high boots. A fellow ESL teacher who had lived abroad in Mexico assured me "It doesn't mean the same thing it does here." I knew it couldn't, but it disturbed me.

I only got this when I began walking around India in a t-shirt and kneed length skirt. Slightly above the knee. It was a porno for Indian men and the women looked simply pissed. One Hare Krishna Indian woman tsked my tanktop and told me "Sari is better." I think she felt comfortable motherly criticizing me because all my scarves I bought for comfort and style said "Hare Krishna" which neither I, nor my Malayalum speaking friends could read. "Hare Om," became the new greeting for me.

Why did I risk the flesh show? It was 100 degree heat and Rishikesh-capital for yoga freaks, the Beatles and hippies, and unfortunately prime season for Indian local toursists, particularily those from the exotic and very conservative Rajastan area.

I saw the men in a new light, but I live in New York City where I once as an exercise searched the amount of child molestors in Park Slope for an article I was writing to Bushwick. There were at least 40 on my block. So crime exists everywhere.

There is a lot of work to be done in India as an activist, writer, journalist but there is even more work to first be done on myself. When I left Goa and went to Kerala, a state in India famous for its communism and "God of Small Things" and man-skirts called dhotis. Men wear them at home, or white ones in public and are constantly shifting them into mini skirts and maxi skirts depending on the breeze. For some reason I became entranced by the skirts and when a young man at our "home stay" befriended my sister and I it turned into a kiss and then love. Our dates consisted of him taking me around on his scooter, paying for me to eat dinners and chais while he strangely was never hungry or just ate, and a romp on two separate beaches-one all Muslim where we couldn't hold hands even when the tourist eating waves almost took me away. He also told me the men were making comments about my knees showing.

Later, a family of five gathered to watch us and three local boys kept asking me for "coins for their collection" and wanted to know where I was from. Fiyas refused to touch even my hand when the water almost swept me away and would remind me to cover my knees or push my hands away from holding his waist -sometimes-only to steal kisses or hugs when he knew the coast was clear. Growing up in New York and living in Europe the coast was always clear, I began to fantasize about moving to Italy with him (or a new lover) and having PDA freedom along with my new hippie spirituality and physical health. Then I noticed that he always walked in front of me and not beside me, and I started to think there might be more to know that I was still missing.