Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alone, white and female in India

On a travel forum recently, a young Polish woman asked: "I am planning to go to India and would be grateful if you could tell me whether it is safe for me to go there alone. If someone has any experience in travelling on his/her own, please post your comments"

Lots of people offered her advice; most of which centred around dressing modestly (preferably in a salwar kameez!), not getting too familiar with strangers, avoiding isolated areas and dark alleys, and so on. Among the many people who offered advice, there was one gentleman who suggested she carry pepper-spray. This led to a protest by some others - What?? Pepper spray!!?? Why are you scaring tourists away from India?? - and so on.

Co-incidentally, I had just been reading a city magazine, a 'Women's Special', with a whole page devoted to staying safe in cities - and among the five things they listed was pepper spray!

So what's the right advice for this lady? Should she stick to big cities? Are they safer, or are they more dangerous than smaller towns? Are some states safer than others? As I heard various points of view, I felt obliged to conclude that there is no single truth when it comes to female safety in India.

But that doesn't mean there are no conclusions to be drawn! I travel alone, frequently, to different parts of the country, and from my own interactions with men, I find that some parts of the country are disconcertingly hostile to women and disparaging of their bodies, whereas other places are a delight.

I was in Orissa recently, and I have to say I did not encounter one single lecherous man; it was a fantastic experience. I have spent two years in Calcutta, again, without so much as a single nasty incident in spite of late nights and odd hours.

I would rank Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi among my list of difficult places for solo women travellers. (I have not been to Bihar, but I confess I have no great expectations from the state that produced Laloo Prasad Yadav). Other than Orissa and Bengal, I would rank Kerala among my nicest travel experiences, followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa (in no particular order). I have no experience of the north-eastern states.

Of course, this is all based on personal and anecdotal stuff, and is therefore open to bias, but I suspect many Indian women would agree with me. If you don't agree, that's fine too. There is no necessity for consensus here. Irrespective of which state is better and which is worse, what I'm trying to say is that there seem to be some regional trends in the behaviour of men towards women.

I am puzzled by these differences. Surely we are all not that different from each other? Maybe it’s just that places which are more hidebound and stuck in the dark ages are more difficult for women? With a social structure that does not value women, it is that much more difficult to get the basic respect you deserve. But Tamil Nadu with its high female foeticide doesn't value women it's hard to explain why I feel safer in Chennai than in Delhi. Again, this is also a sweeping generalisation. Some parts of Delhi (and I am writing this sitting in Delhi) are extremely safe and very nice to be, and some very nice guys I know are from Delhi. But I don't feel the same "body freedom" in the crowded lanes of Chandni Chowk as I do in the equally crowded Pondy Bazaar or Bhuleshwar or Gariahaat markets. Why? I wish I knew.

Sigh - so - going back to the young Polish woman - while there is no single truth about the Indian men she will encounter, the fact remains that she is likely to go through some not-so-pleasant experiences if she is travelling solo. Let's face it, this is a difficult country for single white women to travel. The average Indian man assumes that white women are alley cats and are potentially available - why else would they flaunt their bodies in public places, right? To add to this is the depressingly common lesson which most young men receive at the hands of their older friends - that's it's perfectly alright to ogle and whistle and grope and treat women badly. Indeed, it is very *masculine* to do so, as Hindi movies so brilliantly illustrate. It's not just white women who get the lecherous idiocy - the same disgusting treatment is accorded to very modestly dressed local women as well. It's a grim story, and one that always makes me want to decimate the entire male race :)

To the lady who asked the original question, I say, pack that pepper spray, girl! You may not need it, but you'll feel better with it in your purse.


Anonymous said...

I am a Gora, married to a (Westernized) Desi. Recently we visited his home state of Orissa and also took a trip through the 'golden triangle'; each city feels different. But, no one was rude in any city.

However, Orissa is the most conservative place. Though no one said anything, everyone stared. I finally realized: my knee length skirts exposed too much leg. Next time, I'm wearing the Indian pant suit, or doing like my sister in laws and wearing a saree. (even though figuring out a saree makes my palms sweat)

One final note, a few times I took walks through the cities alone and I didn’t feel scared. No one did anything threatening. But, India is so different from home (California) that my own sense of alarm (internally) was set off; simply because it is so different. There are no big guys with out of control hair walking in lungis (sp?) in my neighborhood. There are in Puri. Some of them were scary to me. But, it turns out many were holy.

What did I learn from this trip? I must find a way to blend in as much as my paleness will allow. For me that means getting rid of the western clothes.

Deepa said...

That is very insightful - especially about how your internal 'antennae' were on alert because things were different. I met an American girl recently who seemed to have no antennae at all. No alarm bells rang for her when some strange guy she had met at a monument invited her for a drink and to "his uncle's shop".

I agree with you it is easier when you blend in.

Shobna said...

My masseuse tells me of the childlike simplicity/ innocence of foreign visitors to India. She is trained in ayurvedic massage therapy in Kottakal, Kerala where the therapists often encounter foreign patients. The patients would go through therapy in a topless state and go out to sunbathe by the pool, just like that. Many of the male therapists would choose to walk past at that time. The patients would sit on lounge chairs and call out to the slouching (sic)masseurs by name and greet them. When the female therapists advised the patients to avoid calling out, the reply would be, 'Why? they are our friends'. No prizes for guessing what the men thought.

Then again, is this a 'female' thing? Remember the British tourist who was found strung up on a tree in a village just a short distance away from Mumbai? There is a French cyclist who has disappeared without a trace. There was a BBC show about two British men who went through spiritual experiences at Haridwar and found themselves captured by a group of jihadis in Delhi. They had befriended the leader during the Haridwar trip. Danger appears in friendly attire.

The good thing is that the lady tourist asked.

robin987d said...

I think there is a percentage of men , who are real jerks in every society , every country. Let's say in India , 5% of Indian men (IDIOTS)think that it is easy to approach a white tourist for "sex" .

A small section of these 5% (let's say 1%) would take the initiative to approach the white lady.They may make all sorts of suggestive comments; conversations..etc..etc.

This would happen in all the cities in India;

So at the end of her trip to India; if you see from a white Lady's perspective - most of the Indian men who approached her in the bar/restaurant/car/taxi .. etc
were really nasty ; and unfortuanately the tourists(who are actually India's guests) get a a bad impression

But the fact is in India , most men are respectful towards ladies;

But the ppl who are there to approach white tourists are:
1) Beggars who ask for money;
2) Hotel staff - expecting dollar tips
3) Drug mafia; They think just because someone is a foreigner ; they would need drugs
4) Idiot Indian men (5%) - who think white ladies are loose

5) finally may be some good blokes who can step in to sort out language issues ; directions; or other information