Monday, November 5, 2012

Finding the balance between immersion and self-expression

The more I talk with female (foreign) travelers about this subject, the more I come to realize there is a dichotomy in ways of approaching traveling in places like India as a woman. Most women that I have talked with seem to fall into one of two camps.  The degree of nuance in the arguments from either camp may vary, but the essence is clear.

One camp, which I will call the ‘Western-feminist’ camp argues things such as the following:
Regardless of of differences in cultural norms, women should be respected. Things such as wearing local clothing and obeying outdated gendered conventions concerning appropriate body language, appropriate conversations with Indian men,  appropriate social behaviors (smoking, drinking, etc.) simply to please Indians is counterproductive because it communicates that it is acceptable to continue to treat their women (and us) as objects and does not help women gain respect and independence. We should be free to do what we like, and express ourselves just as we would in our home country. They have to learn to respect us. Dressing locally does not truly ‘earn’ respect, therefore it may be better to simply dress respectfully but comfortably.

All of the above statements may not pertain to everyone in this camp, but you get the general idea. The other camp, which I will term the ‘Pro-local’ camp, argues things such as the following:

We are guests in there country, therefore it is best and most respectful to immerse ourselves by behaving exactly as local women would behave. We should dress like them,  and only engage in behaviors that are considered by socially acceptable for our gender. We should avoid doing anything that local women wouldn’t do, such as conversing with Indian men (strangers), going out after dark, walking alone, smoking or drinking. By doing this we earn the respect of Indians and eventually others from our home countries will be respected like us.  Women who dress and behave ‘western’ perpetuate the problem of lack of respect for foreigners.

Likewise, everyone in the ‘Pro-local’ approach may not agree with every statement here. However I think it is fair to say that most female travelers I have encountered tend to lean heavily towards one side or the other. Sometimes the side of the continuum to which they hold may change after travel, or they may eventually gravitate towards the center on one side or another, but to me it is striking how passionate female travelers I have spoken with talk about these issues.  I have seen and heard both approaches advocated by women of various educational backgrounds and various degrees of experience as travelers. I will say that I have noticed female scholars tend to lean more heavily towards the ‘Pro-local’ side of the spectrum, whereas other travelers (such as tourists) who may be more interested in personal comfort and less interested in interacting with locals throughout their travels often lean towards the opposite spectrum, though that is certainly not always the case.

Both views I think are problematic.  From a social-scientific and historical perspective, it is clear that the ‘Western-feminist’ approach has it’s problems. Countries such as India with a history of colonialist rule are not likely to respond well to critiques from western women, especially white women.  Even in the areas of India less affected by colonialism, suggestions made by westerners, no matter how well-intended, will be distrusted by enough people that they will not make a significant difference. Change in post-colonial developing nations such as India, has to come from within, as it did in the case of Gandhi’s movement. There is currently a lot of support for ‘modernization’ of India, meaning developing of India’s infrastructure and educational systems, and progress in certain social issues such as women’s rights in a direction that is modeled after those in Western developed countries. There is also a strong resistance to this development by many politicians, scholars, and individuals who argue that to change the system is to lose what is essentially “Indian” and replace it with “Western” values.  These opponents argue that Modernization/Globalization is leading to a deterioration of family values and social norms which is needed in India to maintain a moral  society. This is exemplified in the post I made 2 weeks ago about Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee’s responses to the increase of rapes in West Bengal. She stopped just short of blaming “modern permissive society” (i.e. western-influenced changing gender norms and norms governing dating) for the incidents of rape. In this case,  we, as foreigners wearing western clothing and behaving “inappropriately” simply serves to illustrate the “problem.” If foreign ways are considered counter to Indian culture, then foreigners exemplifying this does not necessarily help Indian women advocating this cause. In other words, dressing and behaving ‘western’ may in fact be harmful to the cause already underway by Indian women.  When a foreigner dresses “inappropriately” (not covering one’s legs, shoulders, and chest), it does not convey solidarity, it conveys disrespect.  In short, the situation in India is complex. Indians (including Indian women) are fighting on both sides of this issue. Given its colonial past, many Indians are (understandably) resistant  to ‘Western’ (i.e. ‘white’) ways of thinking and governing.  But is the ‘Pro-local’ approach better?

I think there are ways in which the ‘Pro-local’ approach may also be problematic from a women’s rights perspective. It is evident that many women in India want to see India become a place more hospitable to women. Where women can go out past dusk (currently 6pm) without fear of assault. Where women (Indian and foreign alike) can walk the streets alone without fear of harassment. Where they can wear what they please and work whatever job they prefer. In Delhi in particular there has been a huge movement towards this. July 31, 2001 “Slutwalk” reached Delhi. While less risque in dress than it’s US counterparts, it clearly sent a message. The Chief instructor for the Noida branch of Seido Karate informs me that every time there is a rise in reports of assaults in Delhi, all the Delhi martial arts instructors are sought after by individuals and businesses alike for self-defense seminars for their female workers. In more urban cities such as Delhi and Jaipur, I have seen many middle class and upper-middle class Indian women (like Indian men) wear Western clothing or  alternatively hybrids outfits consisting of a Kurta or Kamize shirt over jeans.  In places where Indian women wear Western clothing or hybrid clothing, what is conveyed by a foreigner wearing a salwar kamize? In places where Indian women are struggling for their independence by defying their own norms by walking alone and behaving in non-traditional ways, what does it convey when a foreigner acts more  “Indian” than the Indian women themselves. Are we not then undermining the defiant actions of the same women we claim to be imitating?

This is certainly a complex topic and I am not advocating one approach or another. How to behave and dress while traveling must be a personal decision. Every woman, foreigner or Indian, has the right to feel safe and secure and live free from harassment. From that perspective the ‘Pro-local’ approach is certainly more pragmatic. From personal experience, I can attest that dressing locally and behaving as is expected of Indian women in a given region does cut down on harassment. But is it always the right thing to do?  As female travelers, I think it is essential to make informed decisions about how we want to dress and behave throughout our travels. That decision will certainly be influenced by what regions we will visit, how we travel within a city (alone or in groups, by foot or by rickshaw/auto) and what our purpose is there (tourism, research, study, work, etc.). I  would add that our decision-making process should be informed by another consideration, and that is:

We should decide for ourselves what is our priority when  we are “traveling while female.” Is it to be an ally for Indian women? Is it to live as safely and harassment-free as possible? Is it to make contacts and forge networks with Indians? In other words, I suggest that our dress and behaviors should be consistent with our individual goal(s) as a traveler in India.

If we are researchers, women seeking the respect of members of various communities in order to do our work, then the more immersion-focused 'Pro-local' approach is understandably more favorable. If we are traveling for a particular project, especially one that requires consent and respect of established members of a community, then adhering to gendered behavioral norms is more likely to allow us access to what we need as researchers. Likewise if as researchers and workers, we are in India for a long time, then comfort (such as living as harassment-free as possible) is naturally preferable.  But there are still problems with this approach. While many female scholars and female workers in India have earned the respect due their gender, it is often only the case *after* they have married. I myself have recently experienced how being an (apparently) unmarried female scholar may result in you being less respected. While this is starting to change, in traditional Indian culture, if you are not yet married, then you belong to your father, and therefore you are not yet an adult. An unmarried scholar is then in some ways a contradiction of terms. A child cannot be a scholar. Therefore your credibility may be challenged.  I’m beginning to think that perceived singleness is a larger factor in street harassment than I previously understood. Walking about alone will often mark you as ‘single’ whether or not that is the case. There are certain things that can mark you as ‘married’ (such as mangala sutra necklaces, the red hair dye in the part of your hair and matching toe-rings on the middle toe) and I have been told that people who do those things (in particular the mangala sutra necklace) experience less harassment once those signs of marriage are visible. Though I am currently unmarried, it has been suggested that I too adopt one or more of those marriage indicators to cut down on harassment.

But for me the issue is where does the performance end? How ‘local’ is ‘local enough’?  Where does one draw the line with dress and behavior? Do I stay at home unless escorted by a male friend or colleague? Do I travel only by rickshaw or auto?  I have personally taken the stand that as an unmarried woman, I will not wear something indicating me to be married. I choose to dress locally in whatever way is appropriate to the place I am staying in, but I draw the line at faking a marriage to gain acceptance and ‘respect.’ But that is my personal stance.  Others may (understandably!) prefer to appear as ‘respectable’ as possible to make their stay less uncomfortable and I wholeheartedly support them. But for me, although I will continue to encourage foreign women to dress as local as they feel comfortable doing for their own protection (and for some may even recommend faking signs of marriage), I know there are problems with this practice. In Varanasi and Jaipur, I wear Salwar-kamize. In more tourist-inhabited places like Delhi (and while traveling on AC class trains and tourist buses) I may wear (loose-fitting) western pants under a Kamize/kurta and may wear the dupatta draped over my shoulders but not my head. And in places like Dharamsala, heavily populated by foreigners and exiled Tibetans, I may forego the dupatta altogether.  I make this clothing adjustment willingly, intentionally, and knowingly. I am also aware that these choices may result in potentially increased incidents of street harassment in the areas where I choose to ‘compromise’ on clothing.   But that is my informed decision. Likewise, I choose to walk —only during the day—but nonetheless I walk alone (un-escorted) to my destinations rather than take rickshaws, tempos or autos. I personally can’t justify paying money for a journey that I can easily do on foot. And I appreciate the exercise of walking.  I sacrifice some personal comfort for it, but again this is my informed decision. I make these choices consciously, choosing *not* to completely immerse myself the entirety of a trip.  But since I have only so far traveled in northern areas of India and only in mostly urban cities (large and small) and urban towns, I have this luxury. Perhaps if I were living in a village I would feel differently. 

Obviously this is a controversial issue as many of my friends, colleagues and classmates in the past have quite vocally advocated one particular mode of dress/behavior over another. So I open this up for discussion: What are your thoughts? Where do you personally draw the line between immersion and self-expression through dress and behavior while traveling in places like India? 

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