If you’ve been following my blog over the last few weeks, you know that I traveled in India, where I ate a lot of food, visited a lot of forts, ate more food, and picked a few fights. I also did a lot of thinking. There’s nothing like a long train journey to trigger introspection. One topic that occupied my thoughts throughout the trip was the brutal gang rape that occurred in Delhi in mid December. If you haven’t read about it, check out this link. We didn’t hear about the case until we arrived in India – we actually (unknowingly) drove by a protest on the way to our hotel. The case was covered extensively in the news throughout our two-week holiday, and the papers were also full of other rape cases. I don’t know what the long-term societal outcome will be, but in the short-term, at least, the case has blown the lid off a cauldron of rage fueled by ongoing violence and discrimination against women.
I first traveled in India when I was 19. I spent part of the 6-month trip traveling alone, and I was invariably harassed by Indian men. I rarely felt that I was in danger – it was more irritating than anything else, and I knew that other Western women experienced the same thing. I was so focused on my own experience, though, that I didn’t spend much time thinking about the experience of Indian women in their own country. This time, however, I was more aware of the women around me. This was in part because of the rape case in the news, and in part because I was accompanied by a man, which made me more socially acceptable, and thus less afraid for my own safety.
On such a short trip, my experiences were purely anecdotal, but I did notice a few disturbing public trends. If you look at the streets of Delhi – a massive urban center – after dark, for example, you will notice only a handful of women. You might see one female for every twenty males, and half these women are accompanied by men. Delhi’s modern subway system has cars that are reserved for women to keep them safe from harassment that might occur in mixed-gender cars. Some women travel in the mixed-gender cars, but they are outnumbered 30 or 40 to 1. The newspapers reported women being harassed in the mixed gender cars, and when other men jumped to their defense, the women were blamed for starting fights – “they should have traveled in the women’s only car.”
These are only a few of the more public examples, but they are by no means the worst. Dowry deaths – in which the husband or husband’s family kills a new wife because the gifts and cash she brought to a marriage were considered inadequate – are still commonplace; the birth ratio of girls to boys is incredibly skewed in certain areas (indicating gender-biased abortions); women and girls are raped and abused by husbands, tutors, teachers, and bus drivers, and when they go to report the case, they are sometimes further assaulted by the police. Untouchable (caste-less) women have perhaps the worst lot in life – newspapers report that they are commonly raped when they go to the forest to use the toilet.
These horrific stories are the most blatant signs of the widespread sexism in Indian society. It touches every element of life: the working world, universities, schools, religious and cultural institutions, and home life. It is not my intention to specifically bash India – other countries certainly see their share of gendered violence and abuse – but when 50% of the population of the world’s largest democracy do not, in fact, fully benefit from that democracy, serious reforms need to take place.
When I was an undergrad, I thought that being a feminist involved not shaving your armpits, fighting to have gendered language removed from textbooks, and viewing political events through a feminist paradigm. I had no interest in calling myself a feminist. It’s not so much that I disagreed with the feminists’ arguments: I just thought they came across as petty and angry. Perhaps I arrogantly thought that I was “above all that.” Traveling in the developing world, though, has made me see that women face issues that are nowhere near petty, and that I cannot ignore. Maybe the feminists in university were hung-up on silly semantics. Or maybe they sensed that women throughout the world have not been given a fair deal. I don’t know. What I do know is that India has made me a feminist.