A feminist abroad: Facing Misogyny in Northern India.

I started writing this piece wanting to highlight the plight of women in India. That was ridiculously ambitious and not my place, either. I am not from India and I don't want to kick a country when it’s down. Also, this has been done countless times before by people more qualified and interesting than me, so I'll spare you the stats about female infanticide, sex trafficking, honour killings and rape culture.

If you are interested in these topics, you can just google it and LOADS will come up. I spent days doing just this. But you're here to find out how WE got on with it, aren't you? 

When we first arrived in India I realised that I have the impossible task of trying to bring up the boys to simultaneously be aware of inequalities whilst also trying to teach them that the world is a fair place. A hard job, I think you'll agree.

Our three weeks there were an eye opener for me. The things that bothered me last time I was there were not the same as bothered me now. Maybe I had forgotten about them or more likely, I was seeing them through the eyes of my children.

India is known for being tough, but it is also vibrant and beautiful. People think that the poverty makes it tough- well that's true in part. The toilets weren't always great! I can take poor hygiene though. Injustice though, makes me furious.

Travelling around, we saw few women working outside the home- and if they were, they were carrying huge pots of water on their heads for the family home- or doing hard manual work dressed in beautiful- but ridiculously impractical saris.

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Obviously, when I was in India, I covered my hair, shoulders and knees but still found myself avoiding eye contact with men on the street. The act of looking up seemed to be encouraging unwanted attention, especially as I was Western and all 'exotic' looking. I just found it was easier to look at the floor rather than to deal with the constant requests for selfies and over-friendly conversation. Sure, not every man wanted to be sleazy- many women stopped us in the street to say hello too- they were all just interested in us. 

Sometimes though, when men asked, it felt predatory. It felt like they were trying out their Bollywood moves on this exotic foreigner. (Don't get me started on Bollywood....!) Obviously, being Western we are known to have sex before marriage- so naturally we must all just have sex with everyone! (I just wish someone had showed me this memo.)

 

In Dharamshala, we loved to spend our days climbing over boulders to the Bhagsu waterfall and climb back again. One day, whilst we were making our way to the river, I went out of my way to avoid the group of men drinking beer in the river in the sunshine in their pants.

In their pants. 

Women were expected to be covered from head to toe, but obviously there was no such demands put on the men.  One man walked up to me asking for a picture. I couldn’t believe he was comfortable enough to approach an unknown woman- his wet, saggy see-through pants clinging to his genitals as he emerged from the water. There was no question that he had every right to dress and behave however he wanted, whilst the women were suffocating under the social restraints put on them.

I pointed out that the women were not joining in. Why were the women not swimming and laughing like the men were? It was hard to adequately answer my son. They don’t want to? They can’t? They feel intimidated, like me? Every few minutes there were requests for selfies and pictures- of all of us yes, but the lack of other women around made me uneasy. We approached another loud group of drinking men and I tried to avoid them by tactically climbing a wide arc around them.

What was worse than the feeling of intimidation around this group of drunk men? Having to explain to my two sons why walking directly past them was a bad idea. Hopefully I had, up to this point been fearless, even swimming in the sea to face my life-long phobia of open water. I am adamant that I don't want them to see women as fragile creatures. 

It is my job to educate the boys that women are as strong as men- though strengths lie in different guises, of course.

Here though, I was avoiding a group of silly, rowdy, drunk men in pants. The boys had wanted to go on ahead and join the party as all the singing and shouting sounded like fun! Well it would to an eight year old, wouldn't it?

How were they to know the singing and shouting did not feel safe? I realised then that the women cover up not just for modesty, but because the stare of a predatory man burns less on fabric than it does on skin.

I shouted at my children out of fury that they would not 'do as they were asked' (hilarious! When do the EVER?!) but really it was my response to feeling unsafe. It was fury that the double standards made me feel like a second class citizen and fury that my ‘fearless’ facade had been blown. I apologised to my children afterwards obviously, shocked at how many feelings this brought up and struggling to decipher what they all meant.

 we climbed up the river lots of times- this was  washing day! 

we climbed up the river lots of times- this was  washing day! 

A week later, I was in the hotel room in Delhi and a previously friendly Bell Boy came into the room knowing that Mike was outside having a cigarette. He made conversation and asked for a selfie- nothing strange in that.  But the selfie was a ploy to get a photo of him leching at me to show his mates. I wasn’t sure what was happening till I saw my sons’ face which was frozen in horror and as confused as I was.

I was furious. Would he feel comfortable if his sister or mother was in my position? No, he said.  

How dare he put me in that position in front of my children? I felt naked in my knee length, up-to-the-neck dress which, surely I should be able to wear in my hotel room without too much trouble? Apparently not. I explained to the children that some men feel they can behave however they like, women are sometimes thought of as powerless. 

The Bell Boy was later fired from his post, I'm sad to say. Yes he was behaving just as society expected him to- but he was also a lecherous pest so, whatever. I just hope he didn't have a family relying on his income.

As I witnessed the homeless women begging with their babies and read the news about the latest fatal rape in Delhi, the extent of mysogyny started to show itself. India opened my eyes to what life must be like for someone less free than myself and I am not sure I had even thought of myself as 'free' before. I realise I am used to my white priviledge. It is comfortable, and effortless; I take it for granted that my voice is (or at least should be) as important as a man's.

There are many people in minority groups back home in the UK who probably feel like I did in India each day- a constant feeling that they are a second class citizen, that someone could do or say something that would make you feel threatened at any moment. It was a horrible feeling and made me realise how hard it must be to live this every day.

I must explain that we met many educated, liberated women who must be strong to thrive in such a culture. Or perhaps they are wealthy and obliviously privileged, like me? Or perhaps they had grown tough.

I also met many friendly, warm and caring men who were living their lives in good and helpful ways. People with humanity and an enormous love for our children who shared their beautiful and vibrant culture with us.

As a feminist woman in India though, I felt the weight of inequality weigh heavily on me. I noticed my fellow women struggling to survive in an unsafe and unfair culture and it made me realise how much work we all have to do. We have a secret weapon though, in the next generation and the education starts here. 

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