Everybody knows what women should do to not ‘get molested’ in India.
Here is some more advice for women in India. This is the sort of advice most Indian women – and men, grow up hearing.
“I’ve lived on my own in Mumbai and Delhi ever since I was 22 years old. It’s not that anything untoward has not happened to me because I’m blessed and born under the right stars or safe because I don’t have red hair, blue eyes and white skin. It’s because I’m very careful in the way I behave and dress in public, on the streets. This is the price you pay for living in India – especially as a single woman. You must be constantly vigilant.”
Is this popular advice based on facts? Does being ‘constantly vigilant’ (which most of us always are) keep Indian women safe? Why does this advice fail to work so often?
Maybe because the advice is almost impossible to follow. There is no specific description of what exactly does an Indian molester might consider ‘careless dressing’ or ‘careless behaviour’, but most women spend a lot of time worrying about it. This is what they go through, “Sometimes it seems like every single thing I do has the potential to be something ‘provocative’.” [link]
I have seen women dance with abandon in religious festival, women also dance in wedding processions (baraat) – in the streets, with social sanction. But the rules are not clear, in fact Indian women (and men) spend their entire lives understanding what is appropriate for Indian women to do or not to do without risking their safety.
Women have been told to wear sari with full sleeved blouses in Karnataka, no Salwar Kurta in Andhra, no Jeans in Kanpur – but Blank Noise found women were harassed no matter what they wore, take a look:
An honest look at women’s experiences has shown, time and again, that women are harassed no matter how careful they are. Most Indian women, just like Rose Chasm, try to be ‘careful’. They too carry safety pins and scissors (or whatever they consider careful enough), they try not to offend the molesters’ sensibilities by being too visible (by laughing aloud, whistling or humming in public spaces, or by wearing clothes that make them seem like there are no in laws/parents/spouse/boyfriend/neighbours’ first cousins’ nephews/teachers advising them to ‘remain within their limits’ etc).
Rose Chasm made an effort too, but like most Indian women, she too managed to offend the sensibilities of Indian molesters (and those who support them [link]) by not understanding that she could dance on Indian streets, but only under some conditions – in a wedding possession in North India, she could actually wear a backless choli too, and unless it’s her unlucky day, then in Ganpati celebrations too. I have seen and admired women do that, have envied and wished it was possible to dance with such abandon on Delhi streets too. How did I know it isn’t? Nobody told me, and yet I didn’t even attempt it – why?
It takes growing up in India, or an entire life time, to get a general idea of what Indian street molesters would not be excused for, or not permitted to get away with.
And Indian women still manage to ‘get molested’. I have witnessed and intervened when women were being harassed in traditional attire, one with a child next to her. (The night I was not an easy prey [link]) I wore a skirt once and jeans the other time, the victims wore salwar kurta both the times, and they were not in Andhra Pradesh where salwar kurta is considered ‘fashionable’ (and sexual harassment of fashionably dressed women is seen as expected by most political leaders and the police and the family elders etc, although there is no law permitting such violent but indirect moral policing. How is a foreigner to understand this?)
It seems Indian molesters are wary of women who have a Voice. The ‘man on the street’ also avoids harassing women who appear to have a support system.
No matter how carelessly or carefully women are dressed, if they have a Voice and a Support System, they are not harassed. Because sexual harassment in India thrives on, 1.) The silencing of victims (often by other women too) and 2.) By absolute lack of a support system, including blaming and shaming of the women by the police and the political leaders.
Here is how Rajyasree Sen sees this:
…there is a skewed psychological and sexual dynamic between men and women in the country, and you cannot visit or live in India without keeping this in mind. And you would be a fool to think that you can just ignore it when you visit this country.
Would you say women who are harassed in public spaces in India do it because they fail to keep the risks in mind? Or because if they kept all the risks in mind, they would probably never step out of their homes (although they are not safe at home either [- Study finds 98% of India rape victims knew their attacker.]
And no, the normal man on the street is not used to seeing any woman gyrating or even doing graceful pirouettes next to them during religious festivals.
How did the Indian ‘man on the street’ come to be seen as so invincible and yet so helpless? Maybe because we don’t believe the harassment on the streets can be controlled and so we make no effort? Pubs in Andhra to be officially Reserved For Men?
Forget dancing, they still find it an oddity to see women walking around in market places or checking into hotels alone.
And how do many of us think, should we deal with this?
1. By ensuring that the ‘man on the street’ understands that not-understanding is not an excuse to molest? 2.Or by informing women of the risk they are taking (specially non-Indians) – (what all would you warn them against if they plan to travel?) 3. Or by asking women (and little girls) to anticipate/randomly guess at the man-on-the-street’s lack of understanding and to ‘be careful’?
Which option has been found to work? Why doesn’t ‘being careful’ work for millions of Indian women? Maybe because it’s not the women who can stop the crimes they do not commit.
In some parts of the country it is unacceptable for women to bare their faces in the presence of men they are not married to. This has nothing to do with whether a woman is white or not.
Which is why, you need to be careful in India as a woman. Which is why no sane woman would burst into dance in the middle of a group of men during Ganesh Chaturthi festivals. Whether you’re brown, black, white or blue – you will be stared at.
Blaming, shaming, silencing at work.
It’s normal for ‘sane’ women and men to understand that all fun and partying in India is for men, that if there are fewer or no women dancing that’s because that’s the ‘sane’ thing to do. Common sense!? Maybe for Indian women, who have grown up in India and have been taught this from the day they were born, from when their parents were consoled (at the birth of a girl child) but also reminded that ‘raising a daughter is a very challenging task’. [link]
I frankly find it odd that the University of Chicago gives no briefing to their female students or on the cultural intricacies of India. That this is a country where most men have a skewed psycho-sexual dynamic with women. That you must not stay in dingy hotels in Goa if you’re a bunch of women travelling alone. That you MUST be extra-careful in public places. And do college students of “Civilisations” do NO research on the cultural intricacies of places they visit?
And this is how we deal with it? Blame everybody except the perpetrators, and those who excuse their crimes. Discourage sharing of experiences, and attempt to silence/invalidate the voices that object to being harassed.
But while India is a place where women need to just be a little vigilant, it’s the same as any other city in any other country women visit.
India is not a country friendly to women. Neither is it one spilling over with lecherous potential rapists. But, much like other countries, this is also one in which white/black/brown women need to be careful while travelling through. It is RoseChasm’s shock, surprise and skewed perception of being a “sexual prize” because she’s a white woman which surprises me.
Are you too surprised that RoseChasm saw herself at a greater risk because her white skin and red hair made her more ‘visible’ in a country where being invisible is seen as being careful?
Here’s a response I agree with:
The whole point of Rose Chasm’s article was that despite being a South Asian Studies student and preparing for her visit, she was still shocked by how bad it could get. This is not surprising or unique. It is unfair to dismiss lived experience as “not being prepared enough.”
Here’s how Indian universities deal with sexual harassment, generally, women’s safety is not the issue, their future marriages are.
And some wishful thinking…