No amount of advice about the necessity of maintaining a modest appearance, could possibly have prepared me for being in India as a single lady. I saw a side, those who focus on Goddess worship as evidence that women are revered there, are in total denial, or ignorance of. The culture, supported by religious edicts, stresses purity and withdrawal from public life for Good Girls, a term used repeatedly in the 2015 documentary India’s Daughter.
The film recounts a savage attack that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh. Jyoti had just completed medical school, and wanted to take in a movie to celebrate with a friend. On the way home they got on a rogue bus operated by disenfranchised young men, one of whom recounted to the director off camera, previously raping a four year -old. For the transgression of being out at night, rather then at home where she belonged, the punishment of rape was seen as justified by the assailants. Her friend was harmed for his futile attempts to protect her. Having trained as a criminal psychologist specializing in sexual homicide,such extreme violence was not new to me, though heartbreaking; even hardened investigators were aghast at the internal damage done.
In one harrowing hour watching the film illicitly on my phone in Delhi where this outrage happened, my dedication to gender justice became radicalized.I was not alone.The government had decried the documentary as misleading and disrespectful to women.It was being censored-no one was supposed to view it- yet Millions did ,and took to the streets in protest. It was the attorneys though who drew the most outrage from viewers. With callous casualness, their comments revealed how even educated professionals accept the misogyny that begins at birth,with celebrations only on the arrival of a boy baby. Almost worse then the perpetrators of rape -homicide themselves, was hearing one of their advocates say, “We have the best culture in the world, but,there is no place for a woman in it. If that was My daughter [daring to go out in public with a male friend not a family member] I would take her out to the barn and set her on fire myself.” The other, only slightly more subtle, used the analogy of a flower to illustrate how fragile the female reputation is, so it must be protected from being soiled, tended to,and admired only privately.
Segregation is solidified in the guise of such so called safe guarding. Women are discouraged from mingling in the public sphere. Sexaul harassment necessitates sperate waiting rooms in spaces such as train stations. Until recently all rickshaw or taxi drivers were male. Although some women do drive the ubiquitous scooters, wearing pants, those in saris must ride side saddle behind. Not once in three months-all but one week in the north- did I see a woman driving alone.A Victorian sensibility has been superimposed on the Hindu traditions around sexuality. Most striking is what body parts are proscribed from being uncovered, such as shoulders and ankles, while bellies are bared and deep cleavage is also permissible. Beautiful beyond belief Bollywood stars in bikinis, are featured daily in the newspapers, and myriad magazines are devoted to them. Yet on the rare day I wore jeans with a loose top that fell only to cover hips or mid thigh, rather then knees, without fail a concierge or clerk was certain to say admiringly,, “Madame is Looking Particularly Lovely Today!” At one ashram we were warned never to go beyond a certain point, and to appease locals were under strict orders to cover up even more then usual. Even in sophisticated Kolkutta a gaggle of teen boys followed me while walking aournd the National Art Museum. I finally confronted them saying, “I am not part of the exhibit.” More genteel men would inevitably approach beginning with words like, Might I Inquire if…at which point I would interrupt and firmly say,” No you may not,” leaving them astonished at my assertiveness. It was tiresome, though nowhere near as intimidating as some encounters, others report regularly.
To balance this out I must also say that there are an abundance of wonderful people in this complex country who care deeply. As the sole westerner on two 30 hour train rides, a protective porter was always accessible. I never felt in any danger from the men in my compartment either, though had heard of many subjected to unwanted touching. Being a tough New Yorker who had worked in prisons and psychiatric facilities, deflecting unwanted attention came easily. Being cautious, I also avoided injury. Reports were rampant though of young women- particularly those who wanted to have experiences with Saddhus or holy men- being raped or simply beaten up. The local crime reports were bizarre even for me, as there was so much family, tribal or clan involvement in enforced prostitituion.Land disputes seemed to be the leading cause of sexual subjecation or murder, even of children. The family structure that commands obedience especially for girls,is so strictly conditioned and enforced, that even when their own happiness is at stake, daughters cede to demands to marry or give up pursuing a career.
There is a deep concern that what is greatest about india, could be lost if modernization, including feminism, continues at the rapid pace already in progress. Some make a direct connection between wardrobe choices and decadent westernized society being a touchstone for losing touch with tradition. That this once again is all about Values attached to suppression of female sexuality and public interaction is obvious. If the culture is tied to this, then indeed it needs to change. That so many men seem incapable of being aournd women without verbally or physically assailing us demonstrates where the real problem lies. Starting at birth as pointed out earlier, boys are celebrated and told they are Superior.They are treated like princes even in the poorest of families, unless abused and cast out, which is a whole other issue. It is this Pride, arrogance and need to exert some form of Control, when they may have so little power in other parts of their lives, that reinforces and sustains such attitudes. It is aided by even the greatest of female Gurus and saints such as Anadaamayi Ma who advised her female followers that men are helpless to contain their appetites without our assistance ,which includes marriage at a young age, veiling and keeping eyes down cast so they never meet those of any adult male outside of family. This is also thought to be a sign of submission and respect.The amount of sexual violence and shaming of victims, is far worse then it ever was here in the 1950’s, which some like to compare the current climate there to.
For me the hardest part were the proscriptions against being out at night. To get round this, some travelers hire driver/companions, but it was not something I felt comfortable with.Western men evoked intense jealousy posting photos on Facebook of themselves at gatherings and sacred ceremonies,I who had studied Yoga for 40 years, could only dream of. Those who go with a group, stay in Amma’s ashram, or places like Goa and Rishikesh, have a screened pre-selected experience of partying or spiritual seclusion.
Despite all this, I long to go back -just not by myself. It is an amazing country with unique cuisine,art, architechture, landscapes, traditions, wildlife, music ,design, medicine and so much more. Vibrant, magical and transforming ,India contains unparalleled people,palaces and plants, Confronting challenges was a choice I made deliberately to get unstuck and it worked. The only regret is not having contributed more in some way while there.The changes I have been able to make in my own life though have enabled me to step up and speak out. By doing so now, I join the global conversation and commit to supporting gender justice as I vowed to do in that hotel room silently shaking and screaming in rage over what had been done to Jyoti, and is still happening every hour of every day to my sisters around the world.