Sunday, August 3, 2008

Women and Men

I feel like on this trip, I only got an introduction to the status of women in India. It feels very different than in Africa. In the African countries I have been to, life is very hard for women, but it is easy to connect as most will smile back if you smile or say hello. In India, half the time you just didn't see the women (in businesses, stores, hotels, etc) and when you did, many either didn't look at you, or stared at you but did not return your smile (a few did). There were other more private settings where I met women (in the wedding, in the haveli), and the interactions were warm and personal, but I felt that these opportunities were rare. For the most part, the women seem invisible. I need to ask Anita more about this, because I was only there for 2 weeks, and I was on the tourist trail, so maybe that affected my experience.

The interactions with men were strange, too. In other countries, there is a chivalry I never noticed until I realized it was missing in India. I am no damsel-in-distress, but I appreciate the respect implied when someone helps me lift my bag out of a trunk, or hands me something I dropped, or offers polite directions when I ask. Traveling alone, as a woman, sometimes engenders more respect or sympathy from people - the most recent example that comes to mind is Uganda, where scores of Ugandan people went out of their way to help me determine my bus stop or race to catch a plane or prevent me from getting cheated by a moto driver. And so even though it is nerve-wracking to be alone and female sometimes, I am surprised by how many people are willing to help me.

In India, things were a little different. I did find help or sympathy at times, but I found it to be less frequent, and usually only when I requested it. Rickshaw drivers did not help me with my bag - not that I need it, but it is a nice gesture. In interacting with men, I sometimes found a veneer of contempt. Once, on the train, I accidentally dropped my ticket onto the floor from the upper bunk. The four businessmen sitting on lower bunks below looked up at me scowling. Three did not move, and one reluctantly picked it up, turned his head in the opposite direction and handed it to me without looking at me again. It was such a strange interaction.

I don't know how much of it was gender and how much was cultural, but it was odd. I also found that men in stores felt liberated to be quite verbally aggressive to the point of insulting, and I wondered if they were quite as domineering with male foreigners. I wondered if this was my own oversensitive interpretation, but when I asked other travelers, they had sensed a similar strangeness that is hard to verbalize.

Then I contrast that with the warmth and graciousness with which I was received at the wedding. Everyone, male or female, greeted me earnestly. I got lots of stares, but they turned into smiles as soon as I smiled first or said "namaste." People who had never met me before, like Mrs. Sharda, went out of their way to help me find my way among the many customs (saris, shopping, wedding traditions, food). So maybe part of what I had sensed was the cynicism of the tourist trail. It seemed that everyone I met wanted something from me. I also think of the man who managed my car on the train to Delhi - he looked me in the eye, was repsonsive, respectful and helpful. There are several examples like this - the camel driver in Jaisalmer, the occasional normal rickshaw driver (ie. didn't talk my ear off, propose marriage or try to get me to go to some tourist trap souvenir shop), the hotel owner in Jaisalmer, the leather notebook seller in Udaipur and the old man selling textiles in Delhi. Their professionalism made me realize what had been missing the rest of the time.

I am reluctant to post this because I don't mean to label all of India or even imply that my experience is demonstrative. I was there for 2 weeks in some of the most tourist-dense locations for very short periods of time in which I had no chance to get comfortable. It's possible that if I had a longer stay in one place, I would come to understand better how things work, and I would be less uncomfortable. I suppose the fact that much of it was mixed with the gender issue, and it was hard for me to figure out what was what. I think it was just an introduction to Something, and I haven't put my finger on what that Something is yet.

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