Last Thursday I was invited to discuss sexual harassment of foreign women in India on the cable news program, Agenda. The next day the morning papers were filled with the news that a photojournalist was gang-raped in Mumbai -- yet another high profile story of sexual violence in India.
The topic of discussion on Agenda was a recent blog by an American student, Michaela Cross. She wrote that the sexual harassment she experienced while studying in India was so severe that it led to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Her story was published on CNN iReport and went viral, triggering embarrassment and outrage in a country already reeling from the Delhi gang-rape case and numerous other sexual assaults.
As an ex-pat living in Mumbai I believe Cross. Her story rings true, even if it's an extreme version of other incidents I've heard, witnessed or experienced. I also think that she might have been especially vulnerable -- as is evidenced by her PTSD -- but that shouldn't invalidate her story. Nor should it keep other women from visiting or living in India. A response written by one of her cohorts gives a more balanced picture of the experience of being a foreign woman living in India: harassment happens, but most of it is, at worst, a nuisance. That doesn't make it okay, but it also doesn't have to spoil an experience in India.
First of all, some parts of the country are safer than others. It's a huge and surprisingly diverse country -- imagine if the EU was hobbled together into one sovereign nation with different languages, cultures and religions. Indians have told me on numerous occasions that Mumbai, despite the recent news, is much safer than Delhi. When I visited Delhi I was alone for a few days and the hotel clerks insisted that I only take taxis that they arranged. The front desk manager explained, "That way we know the driver and who you're with." They told me not to hail an auto-rickshaw after dark. In Mumbai, on the other hand, I can be out late by myself and not think twice about getting in a cab or rickshaw. The conventional wisdom tends to be that parts of the north (including Delhi and Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located) are more aggressive, poorer and less safe for women. The south, with it's higher literacy rates, matrilineal traditions and laid-back attitude is somewhat safer.
It's probable that Cross received an unusual amount of attention. I've been told by older Indian women that white women are viewed as having "loose" sexual morals. I've watched as beautiful blonde friends were stalked by a presumably educated and middle class Indian man at a music event. One of those same friends told me that she had a man reach up her (culturally appropriate) maxi skirt when she was climbing some steps at a major tourist attraction. Just today I spoke with another American who has been groped multiple times by auto-rickshaw drivers and had a piece of her blonde hair snipped off by a woman passing by. The stares on the street increased noticeably when my slender blonde sister came to visit as well. But, sometimes the staring and mobile phone pictures that Cross writes about are just a matter of curiosity: "Hey, we went to the Taj Mahal and we saw Americans!" Some young men told my husband that he looked like a professional wrestler and wanted pictures with him. He gets a lot of stares, even in Mumbai where there are plenty of foreigners.
Despite all of the media attention paid to attacks on westerners, it was the rape and murder of a physical therapy intern last December which has probably had the biggest impact on the country's overseas reputation. A 25% drop in tourism has been correlated to the Delhi tragedy. If massive protests and bad press don't get the government's attention - a loss of revenue and reputation (I hope) will.
Indian women are probably hassled, groped and attacked far more than westerners and violence against women is hardly a new thing in India, but the fact that the world is suddenly focused on the problem may signify a sea change. The relatively robust press as well as outraged citizens are demanding action from their government. An increasingly affluent and educated population is growing less tolerant of sexual harassment and assaults against women. For instance, a group of men in the Bangalore donned women's skirts in a clever protest meant to remind us that clothing doesn't justify sexual violence. On Agenda a young woman from Delhi lamented that Indian women have come to accept 'Eve Teasing' as part of life. In fact, rejecting the cutesy and reductive term 'Eve Teasing' in favor of calling it what it is - harassment - might be a good place to start when it comes to changing hearts and minds.
As an ex-pat I've been somewhat protected from the worst of it because I have enough money to not take public transportation, I work from home and I'm often accompanied by either my male driver, my husband or friends. What someone wears should never be an excuse for sexual harassment or assault, but I have enough sense to dress in ways that are culturally appropriate because, as ex-pat Jean Burke-Spraker writes, "Shorts are OK for guys, but will attract unwanted attention for women. Yes, it's sexist. It doesn't matter. Some might argue that they see plenty of young Indian women in Bandra in shorts and tank tops, so why pander to the conservative Indian culture? Because HP [Himachal Pradesh] is not Bandra [wealthy Mumbai neighborhood], and you are not Indian. Those young women are part of the culture; they can challenge India's mores and gender roles. You can't. As a visitor, it is your job to show that you respect and appreciate the culture." Of course, dressing appropriately still doesn't mean we won't still get attention. Cross writes that she did dress respectfully and she was prepared for her red hair to be an object of fascination. As a South Asian studies major she even spoke a bit of Hindi.
None of this means we can't speak out about the problem simply because we aren't Indian. Our responsibility to stop violence against women doesn't stop at our own nation's borders. Women and men around to the world need to stand in solidarity with our Indian sisters by shouting, "Bas!" Enough.
This story was originally published, with a slightly different title, on LipstickandPolitics.com