Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why should women come to India?

Over the past few months I have spent much time posting on sexual harassment, inequality, rapes and other gender-based violence in India. This has caused me a great deal of introspection. My focus throughout most of these posts has been to educate and to caution foreign female travelers about the potential risks and offer tools they can use to protect themselves while traveling. But all the while, I have neglected a question that creeps up from time to time among female friends and colleagues from the US, but also among female companions I have met while traveling in India. Given these issues, why should women come to India in the first place?

Each female traveler who has been to India (who wishes to return) is likely to have a different answer to this. I have heard some answer based on religious or spiritual grounds: such as  “This is the home of the Dalai Lama,” “India is where Buddhism began,” or even “India is the best place to study yoga/meditation/[insert practice here].” I have heard other women respond based on a desire to do meaningful NGO work, whether it be for ecological, educational, or gender-discrimination related issues, or other volunteer-oriented enterprises. Others still, respond from a more pragmatic career-oriented practical perspective, offering reasoning such as “India has the best libraries/institutions/scholars for X field of study.”  For simplicity, I myself have often given the latter of these as the “reason” why I come. Other women may choose to downplay instances of harassment and emphasize the more adventure-based opportunities (exciting, colorful, and noisy festivals, beautiful landscapes, trekking opportunities, etc.).  Most travelers I have talked to would certainly highlight affordability (compared to 1st-world standards) as important for the choice of India.  And many women would probably cite more than one of the above reasons as important for their decision to come to (or return to) India. Many women travelers (whether intentional or not) may travel in groups or with a male companion and thus avoid the bulk of harassment issues, but for the purposes of this article I focus on the experiences of lone female travelers.

All of these above reasons to coming to India have in common one common assumption: the good (the potential benefits gained by visiting Indian) outweighs the bad (harassment, etc.). In other words, harassment and discrimination can be ignored because the opportunities India has to offer outweigh the risks. In other words, experiences of harassment and discrimination are necessarily minimized by female travelers in order to support and justify their reasons for coming/returning. My first post in this blog began with such an instance—a female traveler from Belgium who nearly succeeded in completely blocking out from her memory a recent disturbing experience of sexual harassment and gave a narrative describing India as a place where “harassment isn’t really  a big deal.” I have likewise met numerous female scholars and students who told me that harassment is simply a part of being female in India, a "rite of passage” that foreign women have to experience before eventually feeling ‘comfortable’ in India. Several among these women conveyed to me a certain amount of pride for successfully enduring these experiences. In other words, if you are a female and want to come (let alone return) to India for work/studies, the ability to endure harassment is almost considered a prerequisite; female scholars should toughen up and not let pesky things like harassment bother them. These views function as a sort of defense mechanism, allowing women to temporarily tolerate the experience of harassment in order to do what they came to India to do. But like all defense mechanisms, they are temporary solutions at best and unhealthy in the long-run. In her book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2010),  Holly Kearl devotes several chapters to discussing the context in which harassment occurs (fear of rape, gender inequality, and it's combination with other forms of discrimination) as having a significant impact on how street harassment impacts women.  For anyone inclined to minimize their own or anyone else’s experience of street harassment as “no big deal” and/or something not worth being concerned about, I highly recommend in particular Chapters two and three from this book.

The demerits of these kinds of dismissive attitudes are evident. Dismissing harassment as something which women “should” get used to is demeaning. Studies of harassment around the world  (I refer you to Holly Kearls’ book among many others) show that the long-term effects of harassment do not necessarily stem from individual isolated instances of harassment, but from the repetitive and pervasive nature of these experiences and from the fact that harassment occurs in the context of both gender inequality and a pervasive fear of rape. I hope that my personal experience of street harassment can be instructive in this way. Whenever I would initially return to India, I would have a honeymoon phase where everyone seems friendly and even the actions of harassers seem meaningless and trivial. But as the weeks (or sometimes merely days) pass, I would start to feel the impact more and more. I started making small choices designed to minimize harassment, such as limiting how often I would walk alone in public. I found riding a bike to in Sarnath freeing, not as much because of the speed or the exercise (which were both exhilarating), but because it was much more difficult for men to harass you while they also are trying to keep their balance and avoid collisions on a bike! The few attempts to do so resulted in embarrassing near-collisions (on their part—not mine!), which I took to be adequate punishment for attempted harassment. I found myself gradually choosing to avoid walking around in public places and felt relief whenever I realized I did not need to leave the guest house on a given day. From conversations with other women, I know that I was not alone in choosing to react this way. One white foreign woman I know admitted that she grew so tired of harassment that eventually she gave up on going out in public without her husband or family with her. Simply stated, harassment impacts women greatly in the long-run and it is neither practical nor necessarily healthy to minimize experiences of street harassment. So if ignoring or ‘toughening up’ is not necessarily a practical solution then how can we encourage women who travel to come to India?

One female traveler from Germany recently told  me (regarding harassment) “I love India, but I don’t always like Indians.” I have heard this type of response numerous times from female travelers and it is a perspective that at times of great frustration I too have felt affinity for. But embedded in this statement there two fallacious assumptions regarding harassment in India which need to be addressed.

Fallacy # 1 – a large percentage of men in India will harass women.
Actually, in my experience the percentage is quite small. There is undoubtedly a larger percentage of men (left un-addressed here) who may in fact side with victim-blaming attitudes, but among those, very few will openly harass women in public. When I enter a subway train in Delhi, although covered modestly in local clothing, I feel tension from the perception of unwanted stares and glares. But when I look at the percentage of men in a given subway car packed with 70-80 people, maybe only two or three are openly looking at me, and out of those 2-3, if confronted (by me) for their behavior, only one may remain unembarrassed and unapologetic. We are looking at a percentage of men (among Delhi male subway riders) of perhaps under 2%. In Sarnath also, while I was harassed several times daily on the way to and from the university, while 4-5 boys or men may have been the cause, I passed (or was passed by) several hundred more along the way who left me alone. Why then does it seem like a much larger number than it is? One is of course perception. When you become aware of harassment, you feel self-conscious, which increases the intensity of the experience. When harassment becomes a repeated experience, that self-consciousness increases and everyone becomes a potential harasser. At least twice while in Sarnath, I initially ignored people who approached me because I was anticipating harassment. In the first case, it was a kind man who had noticed my headphones had fallen out of my pocket and were dragging on the ground. The second time was actually another foreigner who was asking directions. Both times, I felt embarrassment at having prejudged them (incorrectly). But the point is, I initially ignored them because I had found that to be the safest way to avoid or minimize interactions with harassers—in other words the percentage of harassers felt sufficiently high to warrant antisocial or even rude behavior. The numbers always feel higher than they are.   The other reason is the population of India. Since street harassment is highly understudied, it is difficult to obtain statistics of percentages of men who admit to harassing women, but even if we take a percentage as low as 1% of the male population of India to be harassers, in a country of 628.8 million males (see 2012 census), 1% amounts to 6.28 million persons, which while a small percentage is still a large number of people, especially in larger cities. If we suppose a higher percentage, such as 10%, the number of harassers is of course astounding (62.8 million). While in 2012, reports indicate 78% of women in Delhi were harassed in 2012 (see this report), I would argue that it is unlikely this harassment was conducted by a majority of Delhi’s male residents. Simply put, India has a huge population, so even if a percentage as small as 1% or as large as 10% of men will harass you, it feels like a large percentage because it is a large number of people. Should a country be abandoned because a small minority of men harass women? Certainly these percentages of people engaging in bigotry and mistreatment of others can be found in any western country, the US included. If we consider discrimination and bullying levied at lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender people, Muslims (or even those simply ‘appearing’ Muslim or Arab), people with mental illness, and many other groups, the US doesn’t come out looking so good. For instance, some recent statistics on the bullying of gays in schools indicate that “about 9 out of 10 LGBT teens have reported being bullied at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation. Out of those numbers, almost half have reported being physically harassed followed by another quarter who reported actually being physically assaulted” (see this article). Reports indicate that in the workplace also, 90% of gays received some form of harassment or discrimination on the job in 2011. (see this report ).  But does this mean that gays, Muslims, and other targeted groups should avoid the US out of fear of discrimination or ill-treatment?  If we take the part (male harassers in India) to represent the whole (male population of India) we succumb to the informal fallacy known as “fallacy of composition.” Likewise, if we take the fact that some Indian men harass women to indicate that Indian men in general are horrible people, we commit the logical mistake known as “ecological fallacy.”

Fallacy #2 – Harassment is simply an accepted part of Indian culture
Next is the assumption that India and it’s residents (male included) want India to remain this way. Anyone who paid attention to International news in December and January will have noted that countless Indians across the country rallied for weeks, protesting the Delhi gang rape, and clamoring for greater enforcement of (and revision of rules) concerning sexual harassment and sexual assault.  The citizens care. That much is certain. While there are plenty of people in power (including religious clergy and politicians) granted air-time and/or print-space in media who espouse victim-blaming attitudes, recent protests and recent handling of these types of statements in media has shown that these views are controversial and no longer necessarily the majority view. Even before this incident, in numerous cities there have been women’s right’s organizations and other NGOs working to combat street harassment and sexual assault (Safe Delhi, Blank Noise, among others come to mind). Several of these NGOs exist to educate the public and to give women tools to combat discrimination, harassment and even sexual assault. In Delhi, there are women-only train cars for subways and there is a move to create women-only taxis as well. I have recently served as a coordinator between Thousand Waves’s Violence Prevention program  in Chicago, IL  and Seido Karate Noida’s  Violence Prevention and outreach programs in Noida and other parts of Delhi. Programs like this exist in India just as they do in the US and are growing. So why haven’t these reform movements ‘fixed’ the problem? There are numerous challenges that make reform difficult.  India is a vastly diverse place. Over 75% of the population still live in villages, rather than cities, and have less access to TV, computers, and other media which enable reform movements to impact a society quickly. Secondly, India is still very much a region-based country. I have often commented that going to a different state India feels like going to a new country. With various regions and regional identities competing for power, any country-wide change will be slow. However if we take the slowness to be an indicator that people do not want change, we dis-empower those individuals who are working hard to create the change us foreigners speak of. By misrepresenting and mis-characterizing India as a whole in this way, we fall into the fallacy of the “Straw Man” argument.

But perhaps those two counter-arguments are insufficient. A female traveler could argue that even given all this, if a woman knows her experience in India may be uncomfortable and she is almost guaranteed to face harassment of some sort, then why should she go to India? Why not another place? Why is India worth the risk?

For this, I only offer my own anecdotal response. Other women will doubtlessly have different answers. But mine is this: While some may choose to avoid India because of the people, for me, the best reason to come to India is because of the people. The relationships I have formed with individuals and families here in India alone to me makes it worth it. When I returned to India this trip (Sept 2012) and realized I was bringing as many gifts for friends here in India as I imagined I’d be bringing back to the US, I had the realization that India too has become my home, and I have “family” here as well. In all these cases, my family was 'earned' without a male companion. I have never been mistreated or discriminated against in any way by these people on the basis of my gender, nor do I believe I ever will be. For me, travel is always about the people—learning about the language and the culture through interacting with people. The amount of hospitality, kindness and generosity that I have experienced in India far exceeds the amount of harassment, and mistreatment I have experienced. For me, I would in fact argue that the good outweighs the bad—statistically and otherwise. But for me this is not about minimizing the experience of harassment, it is about accepting that there is a problem and having open, honest discussions about these issues with other people (domestic and foreign) in order to create change. I also choose to work in other ways towards change by coordinating with local violence prevention programs and by teaching individual women skills along the way. I choose to have discussions with other foreign tourists to provide the space for them to share and process their experiences. And I choose to write publicly  to share the experiences of myself and others, to give victims a voice and a safe space to process. 

What are your thoughts on this issue?

17 comments:

  1. Hi Erin! I am an white, female PhD student doing my research in Delhi and I just wanted to say that your experiences resonate very closely with mine. I am here by myself (though sharing a flat with another videshi), and I have been receiving a lot of street harassment (catcalls, following). Fortunately, I haven't had anything too serious happen (not even groping), but there are a few situations where I think, if I hadn't responded the right way, something could have happened. Thanks for bringing out in the open something which is an issue and shouldn't be minimized. All in all, because my research is going so well here, this is the positive that outweighs the negative. And I am grateful that all of my research associates have been been protective of me. But everyday is a challenge. I look forward to reading future updates.

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    1. Hi marcy_b,
      Thank you for your feedback. I am always grateful when other women reach out to share their experiences with me and thank me for this work. I've come to realize that even if the majority of the harassment someone experiences is relatively low on the violence spectrum (such as leering or catcalling as opposed to groping or worse), it is the cumulative effects that can be most harmful. As women, I think we often have a tendency to internalize negative experiences and forget that others too suffer as we do. For me, sharing my experiences with others has been necessary, and also a very empowering process. By reaching out to others and realizing we are not alone, we collectively empower one another. So for me, this act of blogging is in part about providing educational resources for others, but also a way to share with other women (some of whom don't feel they can talk publicly) to realize they aren't alone. Thank you for your support. I am working on several ideas for updates, including one on the concept of "sharing" your experience with others (and conversely being a good listener), and an additional update based on what I learned from experiences I had assisting for a Self Defense Course taught in Delhi.

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    2. Very very disappointed at the behaviour of my own countrymen.Its absolutely disgraceful.Much of the blame goes to IPL and bollywood who portray you foreigners as whores.What a shame!Its the other side of indian racism.''The whiter you are ,the better'' notion.And my countrymen need a good education along western classical music and art lines like i have been.Then they will learn to control their raw sexual instincts.Even my own SISTER cant go out alone because she is ALBINO and looks like a foreigner with flushed cheeks and blonde hair.I am now in Calcutta being a bengali but stay in TURIN ,italy to study engineering(really enjoying italy,the lingue,the calcio,the mercato,the limonata,the pizza margerita )but i am really worried about my sister.She is just 16 and some of the locals openly abuse her and call her names.Moreover my mother wont let me marry my baeutiful italian girlfriend with black beady hair and eyes because she isnt white enough.Can you believe that!!!!This is the hypocrisy of Indian society.What a shame!!SUPERVERGOGNA E MERDA.Anyways i love the job you are doing.Girls need to b warned about what really goes on here

      In Bocca al lupo!!!!!!

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    3. Hi Erin, thanks for the reply. Yes, it's definitely the microagressions plus what's been in the media that really get to me. It's not necessarily that I think I will be assaulted, but it's the daily struggle of, "what's going to happen to me today" whenever I leave my house. I also do get the sense that other women I meet here downplay their own experiences, relying on too much cultural relativism (as you say, harassment is NOT culturally accepted) and also relying on stereotypes of Indians (or other South Asian cultures) as "spiritual" and "peaceful." I agree with your analysis that it's the "bad eggs" and the obviously Indians (or Indian men) cannot be lumped into one category. But before my arrival to India, I feel that the daily struggle I would face was in no way clear to me from travel books and even popular websites like IndiaMike.com. Other travelers/researchers might want to be aware and prepared for exactly what they might face, without sensationalizing it in either direction.

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    Population of India

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    1. Thank you for the feedback! And I'm glad to hear this blog has inspired and helped you in this way.

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  3. Thanks for your blog, it's really good to have a personal perspective that isn't all negative. You might like to check out my piece in the ANU's South Asia Masala blog, which I wrote in response to what I saw as too many western women demonising the country because of some bad experiences: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2013/03/13/shattering-the-stereotypes-the-delhi-gang-rape-and-the-need-for-nuance/

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    1. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful piece. I am very glad to realize others are writing about this issue. I'd be very interested to read any other work you've done on gender-based violence (in the past or in the future!).

      As soon as I figure out how to do so, I'm going to add your piece to a recommended links list for my blog.

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  4. For bus journeys and other public forays in crowded places in India, a European woman I know developed the technique of carrying a pin in her hand. When a man groped her, she would stick the pin into his hand. It was extremely effective in stopping the gropers, and never led to any retaliation.

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    1. That is a technique I have heard recommended before and I too have heard it is quite effective. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. Just for the record, males get harassed in South Asia too, albeit not sexually. I have had the same experience of dreading leaving my guest house or entering a tourist district because of harassment. Ignoring people on the street as a defense mechanism also rings true for me. Is my masculinity in question now that I've admitted this?

    Once I was walking down a packed ally in Kathmandu with my young daughter on my shoulders and a motorcyclist behind us repeatedly ran into my legs with his front tire, finally resulting in my child falling and cutting her lip, which required stitches. The taxi driver taking my bloody-faced kid and me to the clinic had no qualms about demanding three times the regular fare.

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    1. I am very sorry to hear about your experience. Thank you for sharing. And I know that following such an incident, dealing with a greedy taxi driver can't have been pleasant. I have heard from other women that some men do get harassed in India as well, and I suspect that harassment of men is under-reported. I know that many of the men who report being harassed admit that they do not conform to expected gender norms of how their gender behaves in India, though that is no reason for you to question your own masculinity!

      Like with rape, harassment is not about lust and it isn't ultimately about 'gender' per se. Violence is about power. The reason it often manifests as men targeting women is because we all (not just South Asia but the US and most European countries as well) live in rigidly male-dominated societies. Where there is gender inequality, there will be gender-based harassment. Where there is inequality with regards to class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, there will be harassment based on those issues as well. But ultimately it is about one person wanting control over another. Sometimes foreigners (regardless of gender) might be targeted in South Asia because of perceived wealth (compared to S Asian standards). Whenever people feel disenfranchised, there is the danger they will react violently. I suspect this is part of the problem behind gender-based violence in India--the perceived threat of jobs being taken by women newly entering the workforce. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience. The male experience of harassment is one that I don't hear often. I would be interested to hear more about your experiences through private email (esquared09@gmail.com) if you are interested in sharing further.

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    2. Your balanced understanding of this is appreciated. I agree that it is worth it to go to South Asia and live there, even after some dreadful experiences. It has the best and the worst of many things, people included.

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  6. I was searching in google India Tours Packages and I have seen your blog, Very nicely written post. Your blog is very beneficial for every reader including me. Keep doing the great work so that people like me can learn some nice and new things. I would love to read more posts on your site.

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  7. Greetings! I have used your words from this blog post as a quotation to provide accompaniment to a song, on my facebook page. I just wanted to bring this to your notice, so I am commenting here. I hope you're fine with this?

    https://www.facebook.com/jlpians/posts/1639102469643197

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    1. Greetings Backward Traveler!

      That is quite flattering! Thank you for telling me. Yes, I am fine with this. As long as any quotes are attributed to me (preferably with the blog url attached), I have no problems with this. Thank you for sharing these powerful messages to your followers!

      Best,
      Erin

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    2. Thanks for the appreciation, Erin. I mistakenly commented on this blog post. It was from here that I culled your words:
      http://travelingwhilefemale.blogspot.in/2012/11/being-ally-for-victims-of-sexual.html
      Regards, from India.

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