Palpable Suffering: On Being A Woman in Mother India

Women’s toilet, Rajasthan

Thursday marked the point in 2013 that I’ve been out of India for as long as I was in. Two months, give or take a couple days for simplicity’s sake. It’s getting to the point that I am healed from the experience. I’ve had enough time to process that romanticization has crept under the door to my brain. It wasn’t that bad, it whispers. You had an adventure! You saw a tiger! You have many beautiful pictures! You like the clothes you kept! In some ways, romanticization has a point. The Indian experience was…what it was. It had great moments.

But what my guest forgets is that there was one aspect of travel in India that cannot be fondly remembered. It was my constant companion, the source of much anxiety, and one of the main reasons that my boyfriend and I decided to pack up early and escape.

Being a woman in India is terrible.

It’s not like I have lived in a feminist paradise my whole life. I’m from the US, not exactly known as a champion of women’s liberation (I’d still like to have access to subsidized birth control, please). I lived in Italy and in South America, stereotyped as places where men attempt to seduce every woman who happens to pass in the street. Incidentally, that’s false. I am six feet tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. I have an hourglass figure. I was between the ages of 19 and 23. If I didn’t catch the worst that Italian and South American machismo had to offer, I’m not sure who would. I lived in South Korea, where Confucian-informed culture still holds women down in the 21st century. Despite a female president, the country ranks with theocratic Muslim ones in the annual gender gap report.

Mural, Fort Cochin
Mural, Fort Cochin

India is different. I find myself repeating this often, when asked to condense two months into a single sentence. When traveling, I find that the narrative and understanding of the journey never truly come together until I tell my stories a few (dozen) times. Only then do the patterns emerge. Only then do I get to what’s important. And India is emerging as uniquely awful from the female perspective.

Now hold on, before you call me a cultural imperialist and a wimp and overly judgmental and out of touch with my Third Eye. I had good reason to believe that travel in India would be a good experience. I spoke to friends of mine who’d been there. They are all female. I researched. I assumed that the negative stories were overblown and that India would turn out to be like Italy and South America, mostly stereotype. A lot of hot air, very little butt-pinching and less street harassment. I am well-versed as a female traveler, and I often travel solo. I believe that women should travel solo. Despite my preparations, I was not prepared.

On International Women’s Day (March 8 each year), I was in a town in the mountains of Kerala called Sulthan Batheri. We had come seeking a look at the wild elephants in a nearby preserve, which happened to be on fire. The usual moveable inferno. Basically, we were stuck in town for two days.

It was in Batheri that I covered for the first time, in the purdah sense of the word. I wore long sleeves and long pants at all times, in the sweltering heat and humidity. As soon as we got on the bus to climb the mountains, I put a scarf over my breasts in the attempt to hide them. I wore my right-hand-ring backwards on my left hand, in the attempt to appear wedded.

The area that surrounds Batheri is heavily religious (Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country,” after all), and known for being a center of Communist and Marxist politics. Lonely Planet calls it “unspoiled,” which is LP speak for underdeveloped. It reminded me of Tacna, Peru. But with paved roads.

It was hot and humid, but I wore a long-sleeved shirt and scarf.
It was hot and humid, but I wore a long-sleeved shirt and scarf to hike this mountain.

I found myself far more comfortable swimming in fabric, with tons of layers and no part of my skin showing. Even while hiking up the sheer side of a mountain, I sweated through my long sleeves and pashmina. Everything in me wanted to walk out of our hotel nude and throw the fact that Russell and I are not married in everyone’s faces. It wasn’t possible. Instead I got to watch the men wandering around in a sort of sarong called a mundu, holding up the corners for a nutsack breeze, and envy their bare legs.

As I struggled to adapt to being so covered in the heat, it dawned on me that covering is a way to pretend one doesn’t have a body. It takes the common human form and anonymizes it, makes it disappear in an artificial cultural apparatus: cloth. I just had to pretend to have no arms, no legs, no butt, no boobs…because if I thought about those parts of me the heat would make me want to rip off my coverings. Just a head and hands, floating around through the kwat-covered streets. I resented it, but I couldn’t bring myself not to do it.

When we went searching for a beer later that night, we found that I couldn’t enter the local bar. There wasn’t a sign above he door saying, “Men Only!” but the courtyard was literally filled with mundu-wearing barflies, wandering about confused and inebriated. At 5Pm.  Clearly unsafe. It was a bad Women’s Day when I had to be a floating head all day and my possession of a vagina prevented me from having a beer.

The way I dressed in India essentially tried to minimize, conceal, and to a certain degree, protect. I also considered it a part of being culturally appropriate. But it didn’t stop the predatory stares, through the windows of other cars in traffic. It didn’t stop the man who groped my breast under the pretext of handing out a flyer in Bangalore. It was a band-aid on a bullet hole, because the problems with being a woman in India run too deeply to be covered up by layers of cotton and an improvised shalwar kameez.

This is how women in Kochi dress to go to the beach.
This is how women in Kochi dress to go to the beach.

Everyone heard about the gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi last December, and that case brought focus on the problem of sexual assault in India. There were several more high-profile cases while we were there, but what grated on me were the daily reports in local newspapers about abuse, rape, and murder of women and girls. Even that is only the most visible and visceral; the focus on rape glosses over the real issues. India is missing around 100 million women, according to some estimates. Due to female infanticide, “honour” killings, dowry murders, and childbirth they die at rates far higher than men. Sex-selective abortion is rampant, and in some areas there are only nine girls born for every ten boys. Female children in India are more likely to suffer everyday neglect in favour of male children’s welfare, even if they are from a wealthy family. Not to mention the cult of feminine purity that encompasses all classes  and all religions.

I know that readers have heard those things a thousand times. More than a few probably had their eyes glaze over due to the familiarity. I can’t truly express how different it is to experience it firsthand. Obviously, I never personally experienced violence at the hands of my family or boyfriend. I never had someone try to sell me. I never had to worry about whether my dowry would be satisfactory. But those things were never far away, and not one day went by that something horrific didn’t happen to women in whatever area we happened to be in.

Fully clothed in strategic black for swimming in the Ganga.
Fully clothed in strategic black for swimming in the Ganga.

I never felt safe in India. I’m a big strong woman, but I felt cowed. Men talked only to Russell, leaving me out of conversations every day. I didn’t feel comfortable going to the toilet alone. I felt my heart rate go up any time a group of bachelors on vacation went by, and they are everywhere. Even pretending to be married and walking with a 6’6″ brazilian jiu-jitsu-practicing boyfriend did nothing. Men looked at me like they could do anything they wanted to me, and never face consequences. Although nothing terrible happened to me, I felt ceaselessly uncomfortable. I even began talking in my sleep about strange men staring at me, so there was no escape even in private.

While in the oldest book shop in Bangalore, a new book caught my eye. “The End of Men,” it blared in pink and yellow. It was all about how women are taking over the world, breaking patriarchal traditions by having more money and more education. Women are making the decisions, and men are on the way out.

Anyone who as spent 10 seconds in India knows that is bullshit. It might be true that women my age are making big strides in the US and other countries, but not in India. In fact, the more freedom that women in other parts of the world enjoy, the more it seems that women in developing nations and patriarchal societies suffer. Men and women who want to keep traditions that hold women down alive can cherrypick their examples of what damage liberation can do, and all the while blame Western influence and imperialism for corrupting their cultures. The more liberation women enjoy elsewhere, the harder those who seek to control women in these areas cling to their dominance.

Art installation, Fort Cochin Biennale
Art installation, Fort Cochin Biennale

The women in many parts of India are still bought and sold, and worked too hard. The are adorned from head to foot to nose to finger, but they are often gaunt and scarred from multiple pregnancies. They can’t trust the police. They can’t protect their children. They often can’t even read.

And their eyes. Women in India have the eyes of those who know suffering. Who see it as an inevitable companion. North, South, rich, poor, “developed,” “undeveloped”…it made little difference. Women and girls were constantly suffering all around me. It was palpable.

As a non-Indian tourist, I only saw a tiny portion of what being a woman in India is about. I cannot speak for the women who suffer far worse than I ever did while there (and who can never hope to escape to somewhere better), but I did suffer. I’ve never been somewhere that made me feel more hated simply for my gender. That’s the key to understanding being a woman in India. Institutionalized, open, cultural, religious, and personal hatred for half the population of Earth. The consequences of this hatred speak for themselves.

I cannot offer many ideas for how to change the situation, either. It’s not my place to do so. I am an outsider, and the problems that women and girls in India face are not ones that outsiders should (or even could) fix. It’s also not my place to tell Indian women how they should go about their own liberations. That ends in cultural imperialism and state-sponsored discrimination, as seen in France’s burqa ban and its consequences.

Men are also trapped by the current culture of gender in India.
Men are also trapped by the current culture of gender in India.

Cultural and societal issues can only be improved by those who live within them, and there are some strides being made. Many people across India are working diligently to improve women’s standing, and this post is not meant to diminish the important work that they do. However, it is important to me to address my own experiences and recognize the immense problems they are chipping away at.

Mother India is a terrible place to be a woman. The experience of traveling there for two months made me realize how much more work there is to be done until women can truly be considered free. No matter how good I have it personally, and no matter how much liberation women win in my own country, it will all be for naught if the women and girls of India are left behind. I read a great piece on feminism on The Outlier Collective this week, and this quote especially resonated when it comes to my experience with being a woman in India.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” -Audre Lorde


I would love to hear your opinions on this long and complex piece. What was your experience as a woman in India? Do women in India have it truly worse than women in the US or in your own country? Am I full of shit? Tell me in the comments. 

9 thoughts on “Palpable Suffering: On Being A Woman in Mother India

  1. You are definitely NOT full of shit. You are very courageous to attack this issue. You are right by saying that as outsiders, our hands are somewhat tied, you are right to mention the imperialistic position we could easily fall into, but your testimony is essential for most of us who don’t dare to say anything by fear of being politically incorrect or culturally indelicate, or religiously intolerant. If we don’t face the issues, if we continue to turn our faces from realities, we are indeed hurting all of us.
    But again, what to do but educating?
    Thank you for this testimony

    1. Feel free to share this other places. As I said, I would love to hear perspectives on this piece since it is long and highly negative.

  2. I appreciate the amount of research and passion that went into writing this; and I don’t think you are overly exaggerating the situation in India. I too am a champion of women and women’s right — in fact, my birthday is March 8, International Women’s Day.

    The only thing missing is the recognition that the world is perceived through the eyes of the perceiver. There is no “objective” perceiver. You say you saw suffering when you looked in women’s eyes. When I think of the women I met in India, I see beauty, joy and love reflected in their eyes.

    That DOES not make me superior; it just means we see the world differently.

    I have made it a point to travel in India suspending as much judgement as possible. I also love it there, so that colours my experiences and perceptions, and I readily admit it. I have a degree in Journalism but I have never practised it because I do not believe in objectivity. I am a creative non-fiction writer for a reason; i think everything is personal and everything is subjective.

    India IS a difficult place to travel in. It holds up a mirror; and sometimes we don’t like what we see in the mirror. But it can be very worthwhile to process what we learn about ourselves and the world WITHOUT judgment while travelling in India.

    1. As a trained anthropologist (who is also not using her degree due to reasons similar to yours) and one who travels for depth, not breadth, I understand fully that objectivity is impossible. That’s not the point of this piece.

      I’m not sure if you have read the other stories from India on this blog or the main piece pulling from my journals, but I would hope that I showed my awareness of bias and explored it in depth. It took me months to process what happened in India and to wrestle with my own experiences in terms of how I was raised, where I come from, what my worldview includes, and how I applied that to the situation. I am not setting myself out as superior, or suggest that my experiences were not coloured by my perspective.

      However, the combination of my subjective experiences in India and the facts about what circumstances women face there provided the fodder for this piece. I cannot discount the facts in the face of subjective experiences and anecdotes that differ from them.

      I disagree that suspending all judgment is worthwhile. It is not even possible. I disagree that India holds up a mirror. To me, India is the distillation of humanity, in it’s entirety. You blame of those of us who don’t get along with Mother India as a symptom of something wrong with us. India has much wrong with herself. I found it important to put my perspective out there in addition to those who praise India, as a balance. I had only ever heard positive things about traveling there, and felt alienated when it was not right for me.

      I wish that those who like and revere India would stop blaming those who don’t for shortcomings that may simply not be there, or for being too judgmental (judge not lest ye be judged, in the least religious way possible), or for just not liking the place they revere so highly. For reasons I do not discuss publicly, it was a great feat of self-mastery for me to ever set foot in India, much less backpack on the fly for two months.

      It’s clear we see India differently, and at times I wish I could share your view. But my experience is just as valid.

  3. I loved your column about South Korea. But having been born and lived in India, I think this column is biased and highly misleading to tourists as you seek to impose your expectations on a different culture. While I agree that women aren’t given equal opportunities in India, your obsession over the fact that you had to fully cover yourself wherever you went amuses me.

    1. Firstly, I assume you are a man who was born and raised in India. That may alter your perspective somewhat. Secondly, I am of course a product of my own upbringing and origin. Where I was raised, the issues for women are different (but mind you, there are still issues).

      It was my experience and I own it. I do not claim to represent a perspective from someone who has spent long periods of time there. I felt uncomfortable if I was not covered up, but even when I was I got horrible looks and threatening behaviour from men. Keep in mind that I am over six feet tall, extremely pale, and blonde. These factors made it more difficult not to garner a lot of attention, especially in the areas not familiar with tourists.

      I covered up because the local women were covered up. This is a strategy not unique to India; I dress like local women everywhere in the world. In India’s case, it was fairly uncomfortable in the heat. One good thing is that I now can wear long sleeves in 40C heat without issue!

      Frankly, if don’t like my perspective on being a woman in India, maybe India should change how women are expected to dress, act, and live. But that is not mine to change. It’s yours.

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