This is a Guest Post by KAREN DIAS
The most recent ‘Incredible India’ video ad campaign shows a young woman of seemingly European descent traveling alone through India. She is seen drinking coconut water and being friendly with a man, playing chess with holy men, being helped after a fall by two men, cheering at a snake boat race on a boat filled with men, playing Holi surrounded by more men and strolling on what looks like a deserted beach with a male mahout and his elephant. Sadly, the truth is far from what the video depicts for foreign women traveling in India, and most of them will try their best to not find themselves alone in situations like the ones shown in the video. Stories of foreign women being verbally and sexually harassed are not new in this country and being accompanied by male friends or relatives is almost never a deterrent.
Last year, I decided to celebrate Holi in Varanasi, it would be the first time three of my foreign friends would witness this colorful festival, one they had been looking forward to for many months. Early in the day, crowds of young men were already drunk and misbehaving along the banks of the holy river and out of the corner of my eye I caught two European women get carried away into a mob of frenzied young men who were dancing to loud Bollywood music. It was the beginning of what would soon turn out to be a nightmare. Few minutes later, I saw the girls fighting their way out of the crowd looking disheveled and shocked, one of them with her t-shirt ripped open. I spoke to them and they related how the men surrounded them and groped them all over while they were stuck in the circle. Over the next few minutes, they told me that since the beginning of the day, they had been groped by men who pretended to shake hands with them but instead touched their breasts and walked away. A young boy, not more than twelve, under the pretext of applying color to the girls’ face touched her breasts; she was quick to react and slapped him before he ran away. A group of us huddled close and some of the foreign women joined us as they thought there would be safety in numbers. Soon after, an overweight policeman casually walked up to us and warned us, ‘Please go back to your hotel. It is not safe for you to be out here, men are trying to tear women’s clothes.’ Bemused and taking the cops word seriously, we began to make our way back to our guesthouse realizing the situation was getting out of hand as hordes of men began to surround all the foreign women along the river.
We, hurriedly, made our way back; my female Filipina friend and two other foreign male friends accompanied me. Nearing our guesthouse, the ghats began to look deserted and we didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad one. We soon found out it was the latter. A group of six, obviously drunk men walked towards me wanting to shake hands, I politely refused by joining my hands, which instantly angered them. They began following us and verbally abusing us and in a matter of seconds; one of the men went up to my friend and grabbed her breast going on to call her a slut. She slapped him back which only enraged him and his group of friends further. Our male friends tried to break up the fight but they were larger in number than us and after trying to make peace, they let us go. We began to run in order to find a safe place to hide because we knew they would return and as predicted; few moments later, they returned brandishing sticks, calling out expletives while chasing after us. In the nick of time, we found ourselves at the door of a local family who offered us water and let us wait at their doorstep till we thought it safe to leave. Julie Batula, 29, Filipino, says about the incident, “I realized immediately that they were drunk but I thought they would not dare do anything because we were accompanied by two men but that didn’t stop them. I didn’t think of filing a police complaint. Besides, would the Indian police actually be of any help?”
Many foreign women have recounted experiences where they have been molested on trains and buses and some have even found men groping them while they were asleep on long-distance buses. Thirty-year old Millie Schaden (name changed) from Germany has traveled solo to over 30 countries around the world and has spent four months traveling around India. She came across a rickshaw driver in Jodhpur who told her that he understood that European women like sex before proceeding to show her a pornographic video on his mobile phone. “I yelled at him and told him that that was inappropriate and his understanding of foreign women was well off the mark”, says Millie. Another time, Millie was traveling by train from Haridwar to Jodhpur and was accosted by a man who tried to wedge her near the toilet on the train and continued to grab her breast. She screamed in fright and fled the scene and approached a family who looked out for her and accompanied her to the toilet for the rest of the journey. Millie says, “ I have never encountered such behavior in any of the countries I’ve traveled to and it makes me feel extremely sad and used because I love traveling in India and would love to come back again someday.”
Travelers’ bible, the Lonely Planet online guide for India warns, ‘While there’s no need to be paranoid, you should be aware that your behavior and dress code is under scrutiny and that local men may have a misguided opinion of how foreign women behave. Getting constantly stared at is something you’ll have to get used to.” ‘Getting used to’ seems to the be the most common advice meted out to female travelers on most travel blogs and forums as well, where foreign women are quick to warn their fellow travelers that staring, eve-teasing and groping are not uncommon in the country. The guide goes on to inform women that they must dress in ‘culturally appropriate clothing’. ‘Getting used to’ and ‘dressing appropriately’ is what Indian women are asked to do too as if to suggest that there is no other solution to this problem.
Erica Hobbs, 28, USA spent four months traveling in India and vividly remembers an incident that occurred while she was sitting outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi where a boy who was no more than twelve approached her and told her she was sexy. She asked him if he knew what ‘sexy’ meant, to which he said, “I fuck you” and ran across the road to join his friends where they stared at her and giggled as she walked away. Erica is quick to point out that that she was fully covered as she had just returned from visiting the mosque. “I felt extremely violated and objectified by what happened also saddened upon wondering why a young boy would behave that way and what kind of conditions he is being raised in.” Erica was also molested, again in Delhi, in the Paharganj area, by an Indian motorcyclist who rode by and grabbed her breast and being accompanied by two male friends didn’t deter the perpetrator. “I had already been warned by my friends about sexual harassment in India so I came here expecting it but the incident with the young boy upset me more. I was shocked to hear those words come out of the mouth of a child. Is he representative of the next generation of Indian men? And, if he is, then the problem is not going away, rather it is worse than I originally thought.”
Religious gatherings and festivals are the most common venues where foreign women are hassled. During such festivities, security for women is always at its lowest and groups of men looking for trouble are high. Last Shivratri, thirty-one year old American, Janica Snyder was almost thrown off a bridge into the Ganges in Haridwar by a group of men who surrounded her insisting on taking photographs with her even though she refused them many times. Janica admits being afraid at that moment because she was worried about the crowd mentality especially during large festivals in India. Luckily, a policeman nearby came to her rescue and began to beat the men with a stick who then quickly dispersed. “Although I have been fortunate compared to so many other women, the constant staring and groping and fear of more serious assault has kept me from befriending any men here. I’m less likely to return to India and even if I do, I will not stay for long periods of time which saddens me because there are many beautiful places in the country I would like to explore.”
Traditionally, Indian women are not found or even allowed to travel alone especially on long-distance, overnight trains or buses. The idea of a foreign woman doing the same seems indigestible and this may also be a reason for why they are attacked, as Indian men may perceive this as unacceptable behavior that requires ‘punishment’. In India, foreign and especially white women have long been considered to be of ‘loose character’ and ‘without morals’. Television shows and Bollywood continue to portray foreign women in roles where they are made to dress scantily, holding alcoholic drinks and dancing in clubs, a role that apparently seems unsuitable for Indian women. In a country where the phrase ‘mehman ko bhagwan mante hai’ which roughly translates to ‘A guest is God’ is so commonly used, we do very little to prove that statement holds any truth. In a country which prides itself on being hospitable, we understand very little of how a woman must be treated. For all these women and many more, India is not that incredible after all.