“Sometimes outsiders experience and see things differently than locals who have become so accustomed to it… “
Reading over one of your recent posts about the young woman who was harassed on the Delhi Metro and then blamed for instigating a fight really touched me. One of the most striking things, for me, was that one woman in the comments section mentioned that she felt relief and “uninhibited” when travelling in a woman’s compartment and around other women. Another commenter (a man) said he always felt “uninhibited” walking around in public and didn’t realize women always have to constantly be on their guard. If I may add one of my own personal experiences to this long list of troubling realities about women and public transport in India:
I’m only writing because something happened to me a few hours ago and I can’t seem to shake it from my mind. I was at CP in Delhi waiting to pick up my passport from a visa office located there. I am not from India. I am an American student studying women’s issues in Delhi. I speak okay Hindi and I have a very deep love and respect for India. I was quite obsessed with it for many years, but I am moving to SE Asia soon to explore other interests, though I think women’s issues will always be my abiding passion.
Anyway, I had just gotten my visa and I was very happy to have it in my hands. To me, getting a visa is almost like getting a new lease on life. A chance to explore new things, start over. I was really happy walking out of that building in CP. I flagged down an autorickshaw. Because I was in CP and because I look white (though I am only half-white), I knew he would charge an exorbitant rate. I told him he was crazy (in Hindi) and that eventually got him down to the correct price. I got into the auto.
It’s a peculiar thing about being a foreigner in Delhi. In some places (like say Malviya Nagar or Lajpat Nagar) I don’t have too much trouble with autos. These are not “tourist hotspots” so I usually get a price close to the local rate. When I go to places like CP, Khan Market, or Hauz Khas Village, however, I know I am going to be shafted. It’s just a fact of life. No one expects you to know the real price (because you aren’t Indian) and my Indian friends even complain they never get the ‘true’ price either. Anyway, I’m saying this because this afternoon I was in CP and did expect to be mistaken for a tourist even though I have lived in Delhi for several years.
So, when I got into the auto, he immediately asked if I was from America. I replied (in Hindi) that I was. I am very used to this sort of game now: autos who pick you up in tourist sections will assume you too are a tourist and thus you would naturally love to talk about where you’re from and talk to ‘real’ Indians. And so it was with this autowallah. (Autowallahs in local neighborhoods barely talk to you.) So the game began:
He asked which is better: India or US. I replied I like both. He asked what I liked about India. I said the food. He asked what else. I answered: the people.
Then, he asked the inevitable question they always ask: shaadi ho gyi? I replied ‘yes.’ I am actually not married but in a long-term relationship with an Indian-American, but I have found that saying ‘yes’ to this question makes them immediately back off. A married woman is not to be harassed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case with this driver. He asked when I got married. I said a year ago (I’ve rehearsed this story just for such occasions). He asked if I had children. I said ‘No, it’s only been one year.’
He started to talk about his family, which I liked. I really do like hearing about people’s families. He was from Bihar and had two sons and had been married for fourteen years. I said that was all very nice. He then said something along the lines of (in English) “Yes, my wife is very sexy.” I laughed awkwardly, feeling the direction of the conversation was taking a bad course. To move away from the topic of his wife’s sexiness, I asked if he was from a village in Bihar. He said yes, but his next question is “why don’t you and your husband try for children? Don’t you try?”
I laughed awkwardly again. “Yes, we try but we just don’t want children right now.” The more accurate answer would have been “my boyfriend and I are in the early stages of our career. We aren’t ready to have children yet.” But, I didn’t know how to say that in Hindi!
Next, I truly don’t know what happened. He started say a lot of things in Hindi that I couldn’t understand in a loud, moving autorickshaw on the street. It looked like he had asked me a question (I could see his face in the mirror; he kept turning it to get a better look at me) so I looked up at him politely. He said (in English): “In Delhi there is lots of sex. Sex. Sex. Sex.” I didn’t respond and just looked out the window. Once it became clear to him I wasn’t going to reply, he asked, “Do you like it?” “What?” I snapped. “Sex,” he answered.
I didn’t respond and removed my phone like I was about to call someone. He did not seem alarmed but luckily we were close to my flat and I was very anxious to leave him (I thought about not paying him, but then I knew he might want to follow me if that were the case). All the while, he was muttering “sex, sex, sex,” under his breath while looking back at me in the mirror.
I felt really weak, helpless and dirty. And yet, I had done nothing wrong. I hadn’t even wanted to talk on this ride. I had just gotten my visa and wanted to revel in the fact that I would be going somewhere new. I had been very happy. And here this man was asking about sex in a creepy and perverted way. I didn’t know him. It was none of his business if I liked sex or didn’t. This leads me to another assumption that some Indian men make about foreign women. They assume we are all obsessed with sex. Maybe it’s from all those bollywood music videos that show blonde women gyrating behind the hero, but for some reason it’s like men think we have one-night-stands with different men every night.
By this point I was very uncomfortable as he pulled into my neighborhood. I asked him to stop the auto. I would walk the extra block to my house. As I was pulling out my money, he asked: “Did you like me talking about sex? Did you like it?”
I replied: “No. It was very wrong.” (My Hindi gets worse with anger. I wanted to shout at him that he was very disrespectful, that you can’t treat any woman like that. Not even one you know. You need to wash your dirty mouth.) He put on a fake contrite expression, saying “sorry madam.” You could tell he was not sorry at all. He had got his fun today.
You may ask, why did I even talk to him in the first place? You’ve been in India long enough to know that autos are not the safest transport for women, especially at night. Simply don’t engage with them. The answer to that is, usually I DO NOT engage with them. But in tourist areas they always ask friendly questions about where you are from, etc, etc. In those instances, it seems rude not to answer. Sometimes, I have chosen not to answer such questions and they say something like, “Okay. I understand madam. You don’t like talking to real Indians. We are beneath you.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wouldn’t have chosen to move to India if I disliked the culture or the people. It’s only in the moments where such men feel they can treat you with disrespect and force their perverted nature on you that I dislike living here.
Many people have said on your blog, IHM, that women do not encounter any harassment when using public transport in the West. This is entirely true in my experience on the Boston, NYC, and Washington DC metro systems. (I have also lived in Taipei, Taiwan. Again, not a single instance of feeling uncomfortable.) Everyone minds their own business. Staring would be considered very rude. Even striking up a conversation would be a little odd. That may be because we are very individualistic in the West and don’t engage with people (I’m not in support of that) but it also has to do with basic respect of personal boundaries. That no one should be able to threaten you, make you uncomfortable, or make you feel dirty (a particular problem for women in cases of sexual harassment).
My experience in the auto this afternoon is not a lone event, unfortunately. I’ve received things like joking marriage proposals. Another auto asked whether I knew if he could be addicted to sex and would I help him with his problem? The worst was when an auto I was in pulled up on the side of the road and the driver started masturbating while staring at me in the mirror. I shouted at him to stop and get going or he wouldn’t get any money. Again, the same smirk and lack of remorse. Again, I am the one feeling dirty, as if I have done something wrong. [In case you care to know (even though it should not matter at all!) I dress very conservatively in Delhi. Today I was wearing a kurta, full jeans, and a dupatta]
I don’t know why I chose to write all this, IHM. I know as a foreign woman maybe my opinion carries less weight because, of course, I can leave India at anytime I want. I don’t have to stand to live in such a blatantly patriarchal country. My passport is my ticket out. But as an outsider (and sometimes outsiders experience and see things differently than locals who have become so accustomed to it) I can say that this is a truly horrible state of affairs. From you posts, it’s clear women don’t feel comfortable 1) riding scooters alone, 2) driving a car alone, 3) riding the metro in the general compartment, 4) riding buses, 5) riding in autos and 6) even walking alone. What is there left for women if even our feet fail us?
All this does is conspire against the free movement of all women in India. Keeping them confined in the home and dependent on male relatives who are free to walk out of the house as they please. It’s daunting for me (as an American, who is used to driving my own car and walking around late at night) to live in such circumstances, but my respect for India remains. There’s so much good about this country that outweighs these dehumanizing experiences, but that doesn’t mean I like experiencing them in the first place.
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I know I have the extra barrier of language that keeps me from fully expressing myself in cases of harassment like this. I just wanted to lend my perspective to show that misogyny has no limits. It’ll go after anyone it thinks is weak from a lone Indian girl walking home to a white woman.
A loyal American reader.