Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A woman in India

Potter in Jaipur
I returned from my second trip to India a couple of weeks ago. On the plane home, a young woman got on at Frankfurt and asked me where I'd been. She told me about her plans for a big trip to India next year. She was full of questions about what it's like for a woman to travel alone in India. She was 21, excited, and scared, too. Probably a sensible way for a 21-year-old woman to feel about travelling anywhere.

It's not easy to travel in India, and it's probably less easy for a woman travelling alone. I'm old enough to have slightly younger Indian men call me "aunty" (which is an affectionate term for an older woman. I answered, "Who are you calling aunty, uncle?") and younger women call me "Amma" (which technically means 'mother' but is a term of respect something like Ma'am). I wonder if it was partly my age that kept me from being harassed, beyond the normal annoying questions about nationality and offers from touts at the tourist sites.

But I'm not naive and I know that my age can't protect me from a certain kind of contempt towards women who presume to take the same privileges as men, a contempt that is not unique to India. So when an autorickshaw driver took me on a long and winding tour through the crush of metal workers and mechanics shops in a dingy part of Varanasi, I looked out and saw only male faces and I felt nervous. Another day, walking in Mumbai, I found myself leaving the busy streets full of women shopping. Suddenly, there were no more women, just men smoking and gossiping in clusters on the sidewalks. I turned around and walked back the way I came.

While I was staying at Nrityagram, a dance community outside of Bangalore, the dancers were preparing for a trip to Egypt. They received instructions from their hosts about how to dress: no bare arms, no shorts, no cleavage. It was going to be hot. They grumbled about what to bring. Why is it a woman's job to protect the sensibilities of oppressive cultures everywhere? This morning I read this article about modesty on The Feminist Wire. The concept disgusts me, too. And I don't believe that modesty protects anyone either. 

Woman selling spices in Jaipur

One night as I was reading the Bangalore newspaper, which was full of stories about rape, like all the Indian newspapers are these days, an Indian woman and I got into a discussion about how relatively safe the streets are in various parts of the world. Is India more dangerous for women than other places?Are the streets in Canada or the US safer? I don't know. And that's the thing. You never do know.