India / Southeast Asia

“Have you read that article about Pune?”

Since the article was published on CNN.com a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been asked this question a dozen times. It seems like everyone in Pune has read it and I watched as the article spread like wildfire across my social media sites last week when I had internet access.

In the article, a girl from the University of Chicago talks about her experience studying abroad in Pune last year at this time. She talks about the first weekend spent in Pune, during the Ganpati festival: how the crowd stopped to leer when the American girls started dancing in the street along with everyone else. She describes a man masturbating at her on a public bus. She remembers sobbing on the floor of a hotel room in Goa, afraid that a hotel worker will come in to rape her friend.

Then she talks about returning home after her months in India a changed person. She was diagnosed with a personality disorder at first before discovering she had developed PTSD from her experience abroad. She says this is the story of studying abroad in India that no one wants to hear, but needs to be told.

When I read the article two weeks ago (and I do suggest you read it here), I admit I was a little nervous. Only a few days into my program and this article was taking facebook by storm–not just in India but in America too. In the hotel I read it aloud to my roommates and we talked about how we felt about the whole situation and then I tucked my thoughts neatly into the back of my mind.

A couple of days later my host parents brought it back to the forefront when they asked if I had read it. And the next day the director of our program asked me again at lunch.

“I don’t doubt that what this girl has said is true,” she told us. “But there are certain precautions that should be taken and I want to talk to the whole group about this article next week.”

Sucheta, our program director, planned to meet with the other directors as well to discuss what action they should take this year.

As it turns out, there are quite a few things that might have been approached differently.

First off, the Ganpati Festival (which is coming up next week) is a very crowded and chaotic festival. The girl from the article went to the celebration on her first weekend in Pune which must have been an incredible culture shock. And looking at the article now, it doesn’t seem like she was fully briefed on what the festival would be like.

It seems counter-intuitive and, as someone who considers herself a feminist, it goes against many of my values, but there are certain things you shouldn’t do as a foreigner and as a woman in India. In preparation for the Ganpati festival, we were advised not to dance in the street or draw attention to ourselves and to travel in small groups.

Most years, ACM attends the festival together as a huge group, but this year it will not be an official outing because of this article. Instead we are encouraged to attend with our families if we choose to go and to be very aware of how we present ourselves.

Second, as American women, we create a very interesting dynamic of power in general when we are in public spaces in Pune (and across India). And while Indian women going to work or traveling home at the end of the day have a legitimate reason–according to Indian men–to be in public spaces, our time in them can easily be seen as frivolous and asking for attention.

You would never think of this in the United States, but even looking over and smiling at an Indian man could be misconstrued as an invitation for something more.

Today we had a talk about gender in India and discussed some of the ways we should behave to ensure our safety. The lecturer made the point that if we complained to someone in India that men were leering at us they might very well retort, “How do you know they were leering unless you were looking at them? You brought it on yourself.”

It seems there is an incredibly overt culture of victim shaming here and so quite a bit of responsibility for our own safety as women falls to us. And if we want to ensure our safety there are certain things we should keep in mind.

This is a list I’ve created for myself based on the things that I’ve learned over the past two weeks:

1. Travel in small groups, not huge. Huge groups attract attention, but small groups provide you some security.

2. Travel with a man if possible.

3. Do not travel after dark as places that are safe in the daytime may not be so at night.

4. Don’t pay any mind to people who shout or gesture at you.

The lecturer put it best when she told us what her father used to advise her. “If someone offers you an apple and you say no, it is his apple not yours.” In other words, if you choose not to dignify someone’s cat calling you are leaving it to them instead of taking it onto yourself.

5. Try not to make eye contact or smile at men if you feel you are in a potentially dangerous or vulnerable situation.

6. If you are touched inappropriately or feel very uncomfortable, scream for help as a crowd of people will likely come to your aid.

It’s hard in some ways to hear these things so early in the program, but I am very glad they are being addressed. As I said, as a feminist, it feels wrong to not act based on my morals and values, but instead to moderate myself and my behavior so that I am not objectified or attacked.

And, of course, it is foolish to be afraid of all Indian men–most of whom, I am sure, are very kind and respectful. But we still must take precautions for the ones who are not.

It’s so easy to say that there are lots of cases of violence against women in India. To say, the men here are so sexist. To say the women here don’t stand up for themselves. But there is so much more at play.

Firstly, there are certainly lots of cases of violence against women in India, this is true. But there are also lots of cases of violence against women in America. It becomes very easy for us to forget our own problems in a place that we are so quick to stereotype in the states.

Secondly, saying that Indian men are sexist is an overly simplistic statement. There are complex gender dynamics that have survived through time in India and although many Indian men do feel threatened or challenged by women in public arenas, there are also many who appreciate and respect them as equals.

Thirdly, to say that women here don’t stand up for themselves is uninformed. At the caves last week, I saw three incredibly empowered women stand up for our entire group of American women. And again and again I’ve been told that if I ever come to trouble I should seek help from a woman.

Women here have to work within the system they’ve been provided. It’s all well and good to say you should argue with someone who harasses you. That you should tell him all about equality and respect for everyone. But women here don’t have the luxury of addressing things in the same way that we do in parts of America. So instead, they must make practical choices to avoid unwanted attention and advances.

It takes a very strong and secure woman to recognize her feminist ideology and values of equality and maintain them while also acting in a way that is practical for her safety. And I am daily more impressed by those women, many of whom work in the highest positions of ACM.

I hope to take a leaf from their book over the next few months as I seek to maintain my values and morals while acting in a way that won’t attract the unwanted attention that the article brings into question.

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6 thoughts on ““Have you read that article about Pune?”

  1. This was a thought provoking read. I remember traveling in Turkey about ten years ago and having somebody be like, “Look. You’re blonde. You’re American. You’re a woman. Take a man with you. Cover your hair. Don’t take it upon yourself to evangelize feminism.” Their advice, I think, was good. Though hard to swallow at the time. This is such a tough issue to articulate but you’ve done it very here.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely an odd thing to hear coming from a western culture (especially American culture). I’m glad you feel like this articulated some of your feelings about it as well. It’s an interesting thing to grapple with and I know I’ll keep thinking about these issues for as long as I am in India.

  2. Thoughtful piece. Nothing wrong with taking precautions and recognizing some very deep-seated differences between cultures, without simultaneously having to sacrifice your values.

    Sounds like you’re well prepared!

    • Thanks! I definitely feel like our program, in particular, has prepared us very well for what we’re going to face here. It sometimes seems counter-intuitive to take those precautions but I think they’ll be well worth it for our safety and well-being.

  3. Pingback: Dancing in the Rain | The Penniless Traveler

  4. I’m glad you think that not all Indian men are perverts. When I read that article, I was ashamed & a little hesitant to talk to people in the US; especially women. I really wondered if they would think of me (an Indian) as a creepy lecher.

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