Oh Beautiful

Happy belated Fourth of July, everyone!

This holiday has had more meaning for me ever since my semester abroad in Delhi, which is a pretty typical but still understandable reaction to studying abroad. It’s easy to see all of the problems with our country–and important to acknowledge them–but I think it’s valuable to sit back and take stock of what freedoms and possibilities we do have here, many of which we take for granted.

No, I’m not going to lecture you. I’m just going to talk a little bit about the biggest difference I noticed between living in India and living in America, which was (can you believe it?!) the experience of a young woman in both places.

I’ve always been a feminist, and have always maintained that men and women should be able to have the same opportunities, of course. I was always adamant about my friend Sam(antha)’s right to play Little League, for example, and gloried in the chance to be part of the only Girl Scout Troop that stayed overnight on a battleship full of Boy Scouts.

Never really thought much about the right to, say, walk down a street after dark or get on public transportation.

Then one day, I’m wearing a salwar kameez and dupatta (long tunic, full cotton pants, scarf) in Delhi, without a car, trying to plan out how to organize a choreographer, dance instructor, composer, and director who live in different areas so that I can put together a show. And I have to figure out how to do it before it gets dark out, because my risk of abduction and rape rises exponentially after dark.

Suddenly nothing comes taken for granted. The women in my program get groped in the marketplace because, even though we’re completely covered and speaking Hindi and not bothering anyone, we’re American and thus “loose.” We’re highly discouraged from taking the bus if we don’t want to be potentially harassed or assaulted. The men in the program, fewer and further between than the women, take on double duty of person out on the town and bodyguard for every small errand or outing.

I hated it.

I loved Delhi. I loved learning Hindi. I loved the bright colors, the food, the buildings, the history, the people of every kind swarming through and around the city. I loved Kathak dance and raga music and the sound of ghazals swirling from booths with harmoniums and tabla drums. I loved the festivals and I loved making friends. But I absolutely hated feeling restricted because of my sex.

This is a country that has had female prime ministers, that encourages women to go into politics and law and medicine and that gleams with the rhetoric of the honored mother and virtuous wife. At the same time, many people judged women poorly for driving cars, young Western women were often abducted, and sexual harassment on the streets and on the buses even for “properly-“dressed Indian women was a daily concern.

Of course, sexual harassment and assault are not exclusive to other countries. I live in a city now, and I still get hollered at on the street and have to be careful about what neighborhoods I’m in and when. But the fact that wherever I went I could be not only yelled at but groped, and that my transportation was limited because of it, and that I was near-ubiquitously restricted in my movement after dark–this frustrated and saddened me very much.

And with the things I wanted to accomplish, sometimes the sunset curfew just didn’t work. One night a dance rehearsal went late, and it was darkening as I got back to the street that led me to the subway. I hadn’t eaten dinner, I was down to my last few hundred rupees, and our lodgings had been moved to the expensive, touristy part of town, so I decided to get chicken kebabs at a roadside stand at which I’d eaten before. It was a fairly major street, there was decent lighting, and I was within a hundred-yard dash to the raised subway station, so I deemed it safe to order and sit down with a book.

The only people around were men. We were surrounded by auto parts stores and garages, a partitioned highway, and the brand-new, shining subway above us. I started to read. Next to me there was a table of two men, laughing to each other in Hindi. Past them there was another table, and a man there was staring at me. I didn’t look back at him. At this point, heads taller than most of the men there, white and fully clad in salwar kameez, I was used to stares.

Suddenly there’s a person in front of me. I thought he wanted to get by, so I pulled the chair next to me to the side so he could pass. It was the man who’d been staring at me. He asked if he could sit. Startled, I said yes before I could think. He sat down, leaned forward, and told me: “Don’t trust those men next to you. Don’t go anywhere with them. They’ve been talking about you.”

Shaken, I thanked him, and he got up and left. He’d been watching out for me, not staring.

Unfortunately, once it had been established that I would allow an Indian man to sit at my table, the men at the table next to me came over and sat without asking. The men I’d just been warned about.

Remember how I told you about the game, “This is how I’m going to die?” Well, this was probably the least fun time I played that game.

They started to ask me who I was, what I was doing there. I tried to be polite, and used as much Hindi as I could, which astonished them (as it did most people). I explained that I was a dance student. They kept giving each other predatory grins when they thought I wasn’t looking. One man started to talk about how rich Americans are, and how he was very poor and had a little baby to take care of. I smiled as best I could, and told him that yes, some Americans were rich, but I was a poor student. I convinced them that I didn’t have money for them. They changed tactics, asking me if I wanted to visit their shop nearby. Some other day, I told them. Where was I staying? With my fellow students. Did I want to go drive around Delhi with them some time, or have my own personal taxi driver? No, the subway would do fine for me. Finally, they got up, and I tried to catch a shaky breath.

They went to the counter and paid, but then one got his motorcycle out and they sat on it for a long time. Too long of a time. Not talking, not doing much of anything, just waiting. So I waited too. I took as long as I could to eat my dinner, and pretended to be absorbed in my book. At last, they drove away, around a corner. I stood up and went directly to the counter.

“I’m going to the subway right up there,” I said to the friendly cashier. “Will you watch me to make sure that I make it safely?”

“No need, miss,” he said, “it is so close, you will be fine.”

“Even so,” I said, “I’d really like you to watch me and make sure.”

He agreed, and with a deep breath I sprinted to the subway and through the turnstile.

I spent the rest of that night wondering if I’d been followed and if I would wake to a knock on my door at the YWCA only to find those two men outside and no one around to help me.

So now, when the Fourth of July rolls around, I have something new to remember and love about the country in which I live. It’s by no means perfect, and I still get angry about how minorities and women are treated in some areas, but I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky to live here, as someone with female bits who has dreams and doesn’t want to compromise in order to pursue them. There are hours and hours of the day of which I can take advantage, during which many women in other parts of the world aren’t comfortable or safe or allowed to be out. When it’s 105 degrees out, I can wear a tank top and shorts and people will come to my aid if someone tries to cop a feel. I can use public transportation as my primary mode of transit and not worry that I won’t make it home at all.

Someday, I hope, this will be the case for all women in all countries. Until then, we’ll keep working for it.

Until then, God Bless America.


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Filed under Musings, Story Time

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