Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I am Woman, Hear Me Roar


Nowhere else I’ve ever travelled have I been so conscious of being “female” as here in India.  In many places in the world, I think it’s a different experience travelling as a woman than it would be for a man, whether it’s the incessant flirting of Italian men, the macho strutting of Argentinos, or the casual sexism towards “sheilas” in the Aussie Outback. 

It can be challenging, too, travelling as a solo woman.  North Africa was definitely an experience — but I’m not sure whether the incessant attention was a result of me being female, or being specifically a Canadian female (they all want to move to Canada, so I got lots of marriage proposals).  I imagine it’s infinitely more difficult, probably impossible in parts, to travel as a solo woman in much of the Middle East; that’s the major reason it’s not top of my list of places to travel.

But, that aside, most places I’ve been I haven’t found it actually harder for women, except that we have to be more careful about personal safety — but then that’s true even when I’m back home in Toronto.

Here in India, though, It is harder, I think.  It doesn’t stop women from coming here — most of the solo travellers I’ve met have been women, mostly around my age — but their opinions are nearly universal that it’s a tougher slog for us than for our solo male brethren. 

For one thing, there’s the non-stop, 24/7 attention.  (You may have read about my experience with this in my “Rock Star” post.)  Women walking alone down the street get stared at, followed, hailed by all and sundry, engaged in conversations, flattered and otherwise demonstrably noticed to a degree I haven’t seen anywhere else.  Worse, they might get touched and grabbed and groped (hasn’t happened to me, though).  I’ve seen obviously-foreign men walking down the street, alone, with barely a glance from passers-by.

And sometimes, this constant attention makes it hard to judge when that line of personal safety needs to be drawn.  You get so used to attention, to people being overtly and actively friendly, that you take it for granted, and respond in kind.  Often, though — particularly with Indian men — this friendliness on your part gets misinterpreted; I’ve felt like telling a few of the pushier guys I’ve encountered that no, just because I said “hello” and smiled, doesn’t mean I actually want to have sex with you.

It’s not dangerous, generally, and I haven’t ever felt threatened here.  But I have talked to women who have been groped on night buses, who have been “accidentally” brushed against on crowded city trains, who have been surrounded by groups of men on the beach and had to get physical to break out; this goes beyond mere “friendliness” or curiosity about foreigners, and becomes downright harassment.  It’s called “Eve-teasing” here (sexual harassment, I mean), which might tell you volumes about how seriously it’s taken.

I try to be forgiving when yet another man makes assumptions about me; I think maybe they’re often confused by foreign women.  Indian women don’t travel alone; they don’t wear T-shirts and form-fitting pants; they don’t respond to conversational overtures from strange men; and they don’t have physical relationships before marriage (if they’re traditional, anyway).  Foreign women do, sometimes, and they don’t know what to make of this freedom.  What’s more, we have that tantalizing “Western” allure fed through Hollywood movies and other popular culture, that tells Indian men that a white woman they meet has probably had boyfriends before, even lovers, and if he plays his cards right he just might get to  be one of them.  So they try.

It gets old, fast.  So I’ve stopped being friendly to guys who try to strike up conversations with me on the street; I hate to miss out on the chance to meet local people, but the often-ensuing hassle just isn’t worth it.  At least, being female, I can talk to local women freely, which your average foreign guy can’t do without incurring extreme displeasure from local men.

I think it’s harder dealing with the day-to-day practicalities of travel here, too.  I get quoted prices that are invariably higher than those of the guys I’ve compared notes with, I get told about the more expensive alternatives but never about the cheaper options (unless I am very persistent in continuing to ask), and on occasion the hotel manager or ticket agent or shop-keeper will ignore what I’ve actually asked for and instead try to foist upon me what HE thinks I need instead, whether that’s the room with air-conditioning, the larger bottle of water, or the rickshaw ride that includes stops at a dozen shops on the way to my hotel. 

Service in restaurants is different, too.  I wrote a separate post about my experiences of customer service here, so I won’t repeat it all.  Suffice to say, the odds of you getting your order taken, delivered correctly and your bill presented to you promptly afterwards are significantly higher if you have XY chromosomes instead of XX.

Travelling with a guy can solve some of these problems, I think, but creates others.   I’ve met a few women here who are travelling with husbands or boyfriends, or who have met a fellow countrymen on the road and travelled with him for a while.  They say it is easier, in some respects; if you’re demonstrably “with” a man, you’re deemed to belong to him and other men leave you alone, unwilling to try their luck with another man’s property. 

But, they say, you also become invisible, largely; shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers and ticket agents at train stations talk to HIM, look to HIM for the decisions, even if you’re the one who negotiating to buy the clothes or purchase the train tickets.  Surely a woman can’t have the last say; better to check with the man who really counts.

For local women in India — as in some other parts of the world — I know that their lives are more circumscribed, generally, than their male counterparts.  Biology truly is destiny, sometimes, if you’re born female in the wrong country; your opportunities in life are more limited, you’re less likely to be educated, you have lesser access to health care, and you’re more likely to die young.  Even in Western nations, depending where you live and where you work, you might find your options more limited than your brother’s; this is why it irks me so much when intelligent women my own age refuse to identify themselves as feminist, treating it as a dirty word.  (We’re not done yet, people!)

But, of course, Canada is pretty good, and I’m glad to be a woman living in such a place.  And one of my maxims of foreign travel is holding up, yet again:  the more I travel, and the more places I go, the more I appreciate Canadian men.  So thanks, guys ... it turns out that you’re pretty good, after all.

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