Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia is in the early morning on Wednesday. We are about to wrap up more or less a whole month in India, and I am feeling ambivalent about it. There were plenty of good things about this country, and I’m grateful for the experience of it all. At the same time, I want to get off my chest two very troubling experiences that I keep thinking about.
One of the things that frustrated me the most here was something that I had already mentioned about Thailand. There, Steve and I both felt relegated to the realm of the tourist, instructed firmly to follow the route that was laid out as though at Disneyland. Here, it is more the role of the tourist that I cannot escape. Walking down the street in both Delhi and Amritsar, I was constantly targeted and invited to walk into a shop, take a taxi, or buy something. It got to the point where I was constantly on the verge of yelling “DO I LOOK I LIKE I NEED A TAXI?!” and Steve started cultivating a stupid or sad look so no one would approach him. There were so few places we could go where people would just let us be. The expectation of personal space or privacy itself was a joke, unless we were locked inside our hotel room. People constantly offered us things or services to buy, not because we actually needed it or could use it, but because we were walking ATMs. I have never felt so dehumanized in my life. A little of it can be brushed off, but I fully admit that I take things too personally, and by the time we left northern India, I was entirely drained.
Here in Kerala, it has gotten a lot better. When you walk by the more touristy parts of town, people standing in front of their shops do try to entice you to go in, but if you shake your head, they wish you a good night and leave you alone. Auto-rickshaws still beep as they go by to let you know they’re here, but they barely slow down. People in general are more laid back and less likely to accost you. Still, I will be relieved to leave India. I think the income inequality between people here and the visitors (mostly Westerners) ends up being a real barrier, but it is the local people here who feel it more keenly and can’t conceive of us as people beyond our relative material wealth and potential as cash cows. With the people who are nice enough to not be pushy and to treat us more normally, there’s usually a language barrier that makes prolonged interactions kind of awkward. If we had done more Couchsurfing here, it would have been different, perhaps, but if some strangers can be good, and most strangers are bad, how the heck can you tell? When you put up defenses against that kind of thing, it makes it really hard for you to have meaningful interactions. It takes so much energy or a complete change of environment to switch between not making eye contact with people on the street to responding to personal questions and being candid with strangers. In the Golden Temple and Jaliwallian Bagh, there was just such a different spirit or general aim that united the people who came and made it possible to have a genuine exchange, as when a group of young women came to ask about where we were from or small boys asked for a photo. People respected the sanctity of these places enough not to go inside and beg or hawk their wares. But as soon as we exited and went back on the streets of Amritsar, it was open season again on the tourists.
I also want to reflect on something that I have talked relatively little about, which is my experience of being a woman tourist in India. At first, I wanted to talk about clothing and the different standards here, but I realized that this is only tangentially about clothing and more about how women are treated in general. My experience is more or less what I expected from before we came, and the reason why Steve and I traveled together. But I think it is still worth discussing and dissecting.
Regardless of the clothing I wear, I receive a lot of inappropriate attention in India. Men stare at me a lot. Many men on the street literally turn as they walk by to keep looking at me. When we took the train from New Delhi to Kerala, the man on the neighboring bunk had friends who came over and talked to each other, the whole time eyes fixed on me. It was the most agonizing experience, and made me wish I had been wearing a burqa or something similarly enveloping and shapeless. A man on the street in Kochi made a comment about how I was “looking good”.
I do everything I can to avoid drawing attention, never mind that this is behavior that you just shouldn’t have to tolerate no matter what you wear or do. I always wear leggings in the 90 degree heat under my knee-length dresses and a scarf draped around my shoulders if I have a short sleeved shirt or tanktop on. Anything to disappear! It has made for uncomfortable times, to say the least. This started when we were in Kuala Lumpur, as the women in the Muslim quarter we were staying in wore hijabs or head coverings, and were covered jawline to ankle. Next to that, my v-neck looked very revealing indeed. In East Asia and Thailand, practically nobody cared. India was a very rude awakening.
In Kochi, I started looking for and purchased a tunic, or long-sleeved top. Ostensibly, it was because I loved the Indian fashions, but the practical purpose was to sport a more modest neckline. When it came up tangentially in a conversation the other night, I gently probed to see Steve’s reaction, and it was immensely gratifying that he had also noticed the rise in the level of inappropriate attention. When we are walking on the street, usually single file because there are few sidewalks on Indian streets, Steve has noticed that if he is walking in front of me, men’s glances slide from him to me and stay there. If I happen to be walking in front of him, many times, they simply never even look at him because they’re staring at me. Both of us wrestled with this for a moment, quietly asking ourselves what was wrong with this country.
The most egregious example of this treatment came when we were on the morning bus to Alleppey two days ago, and a middle-aged man squeezed into the aisle seat on our row (which seats three, so it wasn’t a problem) next to me, with Steve by the window. He acted perfectly normal for a while, until it became obvious that we were trying to figure out where we were on the route. Steve took out his tablet to check via GPS and Google Maps, and the guy next to me volunteered the name of the town we were about to drive into. He did this a few more times, and each time, I thanked him briefly with a smile and then looked away. A minute later, he put his arm down squarely on my bag, which was sitting on my lap. This meant his arm was resting right next to my arm, and for an agonizing 2-3 minutes, I exchanged panicked glances in silence with Steve before I finally moved my bag with a muttered apology and ostentatiously opened it, dislodging his arm, to take out a scarf, which I wrapped around my shoulders. He did not make any more moves the rest of the trip, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we got to Alleppey.
As a woman, when you receive a comment, a look, or light physical contact from complete male strangers, your immediate reaction is to ignore it and keep ignoring it. This is a deeply ingrained instinct for pretty much any woman I have ever met, with lots of rationale behind it. If they meant it and want to get your attention, you’re just feeding them what they want. If they did it accidentally or didn’t mean it in that way, you’ve just accused them unfairly and embarrassed yourself. You can’t shout down every boor you meet, so for the most part, I try my best to put those incidents out of my mind and not worry about it. On this societal level, however, where the behavior is so pervasive, ignoring each and every incident means that you are just pretending that you live in a separate universe where this isn’t happening, while you feel more and more uncomfortable everywhere you go, and try any deterrence that makes sense, including wearing three layers in sweltering weather. Any inconvenience, just to make them stop! What really happened is that by ignoring all these incidents, I felt like I was being pinned into a corner of silence where I could only quietly endure these regular violations of my personal privacy and space. I cannot imagine what it must be like for Indian women, but I have slowly realized that in many cases, I saw women standing with each other rather than men, walking in groups and rarely on their own. They take many measures, and perhaps within the local community, public disapproval can do more to curb this behavior, whereas tourists come and go.
Of course, it goes without saying that not every man we’ve met in India has been completely creepy. We have met quite a few very warm, welcoming people who have treated me like a human being and not just a woman or a tourist. Which is, I guess, all you can really ask for. But there are enough people who don’t, and it makes me want to advise against India as a single female traveler or especially a younger female traveler. For a lot of women, college is the first time in your life where you are on your own dealing with such up front male attention and experience overt sexual harassment. I think I’m able to compartmentalize this experience and not be hugely upset about it now, but this is certainly not how I would have acted four or five years ago.
India has certain measures that alleviate the amount of harassment, but they hardly go far enough. On the public bus, there were women-only rows near the front, and men and women seemed to board by different entrances by unspoken agreement. A man could only sit in a row with women in it if there was already another man sitting there too. That seemed to be the rule, since Steve and I were sitting together, and there was a man and woman in the row behind us talking to each other. It’s not unlike what happens in Japan, with women-only subway cars to give them a safe space. To me, though, it feels like public measures of toleration, and a part of me wonders that if the segregation of the sexes doesn’t promote a sense of disconnect between men and women, resulting in less understanding and less communication. Either way, India needs to take a different tack. Public service announcements, an ad campaign, initiatives by local companies or governments. Just making it more difficult for sexual harassment to happen isn’t the same as discouraging this behavior. And certainly the high profile incidents of sexual violence and harassment that have plagued India in the past are testament to the fact that it’s something that is a lot more prevalent here than in American culture.
My mother would be frustrated with me talking about this topic, I think, as she has often been when I’ve railed against the injustices of the world. It’s not like I don’t understand that there has been sexual harassment in this world since the dawn of time, or that one of the most populous countries on earth happens to be a very hostile place for women. This is quite a large issue that certainly no one person can change, but I’m not quite ready to admit failure. It would be admitting that Indian men or men in general aren’t capable of respecting women, which quite frankly makes it clear what we think of them and their self-control. That’s disrespecting them and their potential as human beings. We should expect more.
In the giant scheme of things, you always have to walk the line between putting up with the inevitably unpleasant things in life and actually standing up for yourself because no one should be harassed. Travel has put into perspective an issue that I have also experienced in the States. It is not inherent to a certain ethnicity or nationality, but the high level of incidence here has forced me to think more about it, because it is everywhere. Funnily enough, the experience on the bus to Alleppey actually made me feel much more empowered once I had decided that I wasn’t going to tolerate any attention, subtle or not. Even though it sounds simple, it was immensely difficult to override the instinct to ignore those signals, and I’m glad I did. The next time this happens, and you can be sure it will happen again, I will feel more confident in saying no and push back.
The title of this post (which sounds very dramatic, I know) is a concept that comes from the famous book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” by Hannah Arendt, one of my favorite writers from my core readings at UChicago. The Wikipedia article does a better job of explaining her book, which is unrelated to my entry. But I thought of the concept that she introduced when I thought of the small incidents that have marred my time here — the banality of evil suggests that evil is not exceptional or sociopathic. Terrible acts can be perpetrated by ordinary people if they believe what they do to be normal or acceptable, and thus normalizes and trivializes the actual harm that they inflict. Arendt believes there is a moral choice to be made, even when one has little political power individually. For me, being treated like this in India has been an outrage, but for people here, it is everyday life. This is my way of speaking out about these experiences and expressing my belief that we can do better.