Throwback Travels: India and the ugly topic of sexual harassment

This post was originally published on my previous blog this pink is the new black on Sunday, June 24, 2012

India: the ugly topic of sexual harassment

Oh my goodness – I’ve just come from Delhi to Adelaide, resulting in a four hour time difference, and a forty degree temperature difference. I’ve gone from 45 to 5 degrees Celsius and my body is not liking it!

In this blog post I’ll be addressing the serious issue of sexual harassment in what I would potentially call the “ugly” side of Indian society. Being a young, white female I am perceived by a lot of men in India as “easy”. I blame Hollywood film culture for this portrayal, but that’s probably just my prejudiced nature towards the American film industry. Of course, not all men are like this, I have met a number of lovely males, but the number of occasions that myself and other volunteers were harassed by locals was phenomenal, and I believe that this issue needs addressing.

Main cities were the major locations of harassment. A number of men would grab their crotch as we’d walk past, raise an eyebrow, make kissy noises in our direction or just make an offensive comment. Some of the other girls would be subjected to groping (I myself got felt up on the Delhi metro), and in one instance a girl was kissed in the street by a random passerby! It would seem that there are no boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

I’d like to draw attention to two personal examples (of the many incidents) of sexual harassment that happened to me, which really could have turned out worse.

1. In Manali a group of us were staying in a hotel together. Everyone else had gone out for celebratory birthday drinks, and I stayed back at our room because I was ill. We had arranged to sort out all the paperwork the next morning. When I am ill, I tend to be a very sound sleeper, I generally won’t wake up for anything. Knowing this, I naively left the door unlocked with the intention of the girls being able to let themselves in, so they wouldn’t be locked out as I slept through their knocking. In the early morning hours (I’m guessing around one or two) a man let himself into my bedroom, turned on the light and sat on the edge of my bed. Knowing something was wrong, I begrudgingly woke up and found myself face-to-face with a man I had never seen before, claiming to be one of the owners of the hotel (he actually was, but that wasn’t the point). As he introduced himself I could smell beer on him. I explained that we’d spoken to someone who  said we could sort out the paperwork tomorrow. He continued talking to me and helped himself to my kindle, which he looked through without asking. He then turned to me and asked if I’d like him to leave, or if I’d like his company (I later figured out what he really meant). I politely explained that he let himself into my room while I was sleeping and woke me up and asked that he’d leave. Before doing so he took the liberty of kissing me on the cheek, leaving me in shock for the next few minutes as I tried to comprehend what had just happened.

2. Whilst we were in Amritsar (location of the Golden Temple) we visited the communal kitchen, or the Guru-Ka-Langar for dinner. This dining hall feeds between 60,000 and 80,000 pilgrims per day, and with our luck ended up there at peak dinner hour. We were in a crowd in literally about a thousand people (luckily we  were near the front) all waiting to be fed. We were all packed in tightly. Behind me was one man who thought that it was okay to rub up against me from behind and readjust himself. He also tried to get pretty close, attempting to wrap his legs around mine – he recoiled when I stamped on his foot. Then with his metal plate started fanning himself, hitting me on the head with it at the same time. When I turned around to scold him, he looked at me as if to say “well, what do you want?”

My point is, to many men Western women are merely sexual idols – simply objects for their enjoyment; hence the rude language and unwanted advances. Compared to others, I didn’t have it too badly, but I won’t go into that. Some men are prone to sexual harassment also – one of the boys I met was felt up on a train. Unfortunately there are many instances of sexual harassment that a lot of people get away with; and not just foreigners travelling in India. Sexual harassment is a serious issue that happens under a number of circumstances worldwide. Sometimes it happens too quickly for you to react.

The unfortunate part about sexual harassment in India is that the victim is often the one shamed, not the culprit. India needs to reverse this concept of victim-blaming, and instill the idea that sexual harassment is not acceptable under any circumstances, and should not be taken lightheartedly.

Down with sexual harassment, and down with victim blaming!


Throwback travels: India faux pas

This was originally posted on my previous blog this pink is the new black on Monday, June 25, 2012.

India: Faux pas

My time in India was characterized by a large number of misunderstandings. Having not learned Hindi, I was at a disadvantage. Whilst the schools I taught at were English medium schools – I could usually have proper conversations with my students, when I stepped out of the campus and into the village I was at a loss. Shivpuri, the location of my first teaching placement was in a sense fairly rural. The nearest big town Gwalior was a two hour bus ride away. The locals all spoke Hindi, with a very limited English vocabulary in most cases.

I’d like to share with you a story that I refer to as the infamous 15 loaves incident – Whilst Liv was still at our placement, she and I decided to attempt braving the street stalls of Shivpuri to do our food shopping. We visited one shop where we bought most of the food that we needed (butter, bread, juice etc.) The shop owner (who didn’t speak enough English to formulate a full sentence) announced “15” when we asked for some bread, which we assumed to be the price in Indian rupees. What he actually meant was that he wanted to sell us 15 loaves of bread, which he didn’t bring out until later. We paid for our groceries, which the shop owner insisted that we were to leave at the shop while we bought fruit across the road. Our driver had organised a rickshaw to take us back to the school, and had put our shopping into the rickshaw. As the rickshaw drove off I noticed a large box of bread sitting beside me and then it hit me – the shopkeeper meant 15 loaves, not 15 rupees! Too hot and tired from our endeavor to return (It was about 42 degrees) we took the bread home, laughing at our misunderstanding. It cost us just over $3 AUD, and we did make our way through most of loaves, or gave them away.

Another problem that we encountered was to comply with the social etiquette and customs that apply in Indian culture.

In India it is common practice to refrain from using your left hand to eat food, as in the lower castes the left is used for toilet purposes and any similar dirty jobs. For this reason when a severe crime or theft was committed the culprit would have their right hand cut off so that they were forced to eat with their “toilet hand”. During my time in India I made it a habit to use my right hand when eating in public, whereas in our room I would eat however I pleased. At La Montessori School in Kullu I would occasionally be required to assist in tutoring some of the students. In my free time I bought some chocolate, which got on my left hand. Not noticing, I went down for the tutoring session. It wasn’t until one of the students pointed out that I had something on my hand that I realised, and spent the next five minutes reassuring them that it actually was chocolate.

I am the primary source of my own embarrassment.