Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another day...yet another story of harassment in India

(Ellora)

One of my favorite blogs, Diary of a White Indian Housewife has just written a post about her friend Natasha Zarine (Indian citizen), who wrote a letter of complaint about harassed by young men at the tourist site, Ajanta/Ellora. I was not surprised to hear this. We went to Ajanta/Ellora caves & Aurangabad for our honeymoon in 2011 and I witnessed similar events, which I'd like to share. The things I witnessed at Ajanta/Ellora was offensive, aggressive and derogatory. The only other time I felt unsafe in India was when we were traveling to a temple town in rural Andhra Pradesh, but that is another story...

(Indian stepford wife...? At Ajanta)

Being newly married, I was thrilled to finally wear all my symbols of marriage. I wore my salwar kameez outfit, along with my thaali, mangalsutram, sindoor, and toe rings. I was so proud to wear them...after all these years, I could finally wear them...I was incredibly proud to be married. As soon as I put them on in India, I noticed I was treated with more respect - by everyone on the road. The difference was pretty huge. People stared the same, but they were more polite towards me. I wore my symbols for romantic reasons, but it was then that I realized that it also has some kind of weird social status, and I honestly felt protected by my symbols. It was like my good luck charm. (Similarly, even in Canada, in Indian restaurants or Indian grocers, if I'm wearing these symbols I'll be treated with way more respect...kinda weird) I didn't know folks could be more polite! Hmmm...!!!

Anyways, back to my Aurangabad story...the harassment which I witnessed was truly horrific and exactly like the picture that Natasha had posted. It was worse at Ajanta, than Ellora. It is such a coincidence that this story has come up since it has been exactly 2 years (to the day!!) that we were there.

(Me and husband-ji...my super-hot bodyguard! Ajanta caves)

For the Ajanta caves you have to take a big bus up to the site. We were waiting for a bus along with an Indian family, an Italian couple, and a bunch of young rowdy goons men. I thought maybe they were on a school trip, but then there was no teacher there. When we boarded the bus, the young men rushed to sit behind us in such a manner that they toppled over each other to get to the seat. Jesus, I thought, this is really aggressive. I was freaked out that they were going to start saying things to me...we were surrounded. I was frightened. Husband-ji couldn't understand the Marathi they were speaking. They sat behind me and I could feel the intensity of eyes in the back of my head. The patriarch of the Indian family moved his wife and children to the front of the bus. Oh crap. They must've had a good reason to move. Then the young boys yelled at the Italian woman in broken English, "Do you want to sit on my lap?" I cringed. I quietly prayed, with my head down, Please God, don't say anything to me...don't let them ruin our honeymoon. I don't know what it was, but I felt protected. Maybe it was my prayer, maybe it was my symbols of marriage, or maybe it was my intimidating husband with the gigantic Shiva tattoo sleeve that they didn't want to mess with (husband-ji has a raging temper...and for whatever reason, nobody has dared mess with him in his entire life) We walked through the site, and nobody bothered us...we floated through untouched and unharassed. We were able to see the monuments, we were able to hold hands like newlyweds...meanwhile, ALL the other tourists were getting harassed very badly. They were being surrounded by these young men, like a swarm of bees. Getting pictures taken, getting groped, getting offensive derogatory comments shouted at them. The Ajanta path is very wide and open, but the young men were crowding around the tourists so badly that they could not even walk or get away. I observed that the young men weren't even going into the caves, they were just loitering in a particular spot and as soon as a tourist came they would crowd around them, shout abusive language and take pictures of their breasts with their cell phone. Now, you may be thinking this is happening to a tourist woman who is traveling alone - but think again. This was happening to tourist couples (man & woman); and groups of 5+ tourists traveling together. I can't imagine what would have happened if it was a girl alone. What are the tourists' supposed to do, get a bodyguard? In India, with these types of groups of thugs, things can escalate pretty quickly. It is extremely scary to witness. I felt like there was this aura around me, an unknown shield that protected me. Maybe it was all my female ancestors who protected me that day - all my guardian angels that formed this invisible shield. Or maybe I was just lucky...

(Husband-ji in the front; behind, the Italian couple who were harassed badly on the bus)

The next day, we visited the Ellora caves. There weren't as many goons men in large groups, but mostly they were in small groups of 2-3. People stared, but it was relatively quiet. There were lots of Indian families. Not like the day before at Ajanta. These cave sites are huge and many have a lot of stairs that you have to walk to. Husband-ji was going crazy photographing the monuments. I was mostly just absorbing the beauty of the site, as well as writing and photographing. Towards the end of our visit, husband-ji wanted to look at one of the caves that was a huge climb and it was 3 levels. I told him I was too tired and I'd wait at the bottom of the steps for him. Are you sure? he said. Yes, yes, go, I said. There are lots of people around. If anything happens, I will scream for you. What a mistake - I'll never do that again! It had been a pretty quiet day, compared to the day before. He hesitated but decided to carry on, as I was confident. I sat at the bottom of the steps, writing my my journal, but always keeping an eye on my surroundings. I saw two goons men walking towards me, and they looked at each other and smiled villainously. They kept approaching and stopped about a foot in front of me. My heart was pounding, was this the moment I'd have to scream? One of the men snarled, "You're looking very Indian, madam". I didn't know what to do. Normally, I would have just kept my head down and pretended I didn't speak any English - my go-to response. But instead, I got an urge to say something. I looked up, looked him straight in the eye, and said boldly, "That's because I have an Indian husband." I held his gaze for about 20 seconds like a tigress, practically burning a hole in his eye... meanwhile, internally I felt like shitting my pants. I looked back down to my journal, hoping they would leave, and tried to remember if I had anything in my purse that could be used as a weapon. They stood there for a few minutes longer and discussed with each other in Marathi, as my heart was pounding. Please God, I prayed, make them go away...please make them respect me. And they left. It truly was a miracle. It was almost as if I had some secret unknown power of witchcraft that had made them go away (did being married change this..? did being confident change this...?) When husband-ji came back, I said what had happened. He said angrily, Where are they? How dare they even approach you! (Oh, yes, husband-ji screams at men if they even look at me...lol) I said, It's fine, nothing happened, they're gone now.

(The difference - what to watch out for)

I was lucky... I was really lucky. It was a miracle. But I felt guilty for the other tourists, I wanted them to feel safe too. I didn't know what it was that I was doing that kept me safe...to this day I still don't understand it. Maybe it was my destiny, to have not been harmed that day. Looking back, I wish I knew the answer. I wish I knew Marathi so I could ask those men why they are doing that. Why harass these tourists, why spare me? Is it because I look like some stupid idea of a respectful Indian stepford wife? Would I have faced the same thing if I had worn jeans? Was it because I have an intimidating Indian husband? I felt guilty that I wasn't brave enough to help them. If I knew what it was, then I could help the other tourists, and take them under my invisible shield. And I wish I knew Marathi so I could tell them that they cannot talk like that to women. 

(A few more at Ellora, but not nearly as bad as Ajanta)

It reminds me of the post I did: India: A dangerous place to be a woman - where the narrator in the video said, as a woman, it's all about how you're perceived. As a Westerner, this is confusing...how the heck am I supposed to know what young Indian rowdy men think of me? I'm not a mind reader! (classic Indian saying...lol) In India, it is respect - not beauty- that is in the eye of the beholder. I don't have a clue what it is that makes a woman look respectful, especially in India. But whatever it was, it worked...But the fact remains, no matter what I was doing/wearing, it should not be happening in the first place...towards anybody!!!

Of course, many women are harassed whether they are foreign/Indian; unmarried/married; wearing Indian clothes & symbols of marriage, or not...These goons do not care. They are ruthless. They just wish to assert their power and victimize. I thank god that I was untouchable to them that day, but at the same time I want to know the reason why...

(Ellora)

It is an absolute shame to have this behaviour happen at such monumental sites. The Ajanta/Ellora caves are magical works of art and history and are so sacred. It is not only the guards' fault for not condoning this behaviour, but it is these young men who think it is acceptable to do this. They should be ashamed to be acting like this. They need to have some respect. There need to be social attitudes about this kind of thing that makes it unacceptable. Do all the young men think that they are entitled to behave this way towards a woman? Maybe not. Maybe only a few did, and the rest were swayed by bad behaviour. Why did they not speak up then? Why don't they say to another, "Dude, that isn't cool..." It is fine to stare, but to make lewd comments and get in someone's personal space so much that they cannot move - especially a tourist visiting, is awful. These bad apples are taking away from Incredible India. I have been to 15 Indian cities and Ajanta/Ellora was the worst I've ever seen. The foreigners are going to remember how scared they were, not how much they enjoyed the heritage site, which they have always dreamed to visit. What are they supposed to do, visit India and just stay in a hotel? When a woman visits India, there is a certain sense of imprisonment that is felt. You have to have a male chaperone, you have to cover up your body, you are not free to express affection, you have to be aware of how you're perceived.

(Ajanta)

We were beyond lucky to have not been targeted, and to enjoy the beauty of these monuments, and to not have anything ruin our honeymoon. What I didn't enjoy was seeing these women being humiliated. They humiliate one...they humiliate us all. The other tourists deserved to see the caves too...but they got so swarmed, I'm sure they didn't even remember the beauty of the place - they just remember how frightened, violated, and helpless they felt. It is an absolute shame. Shame on those young men.

For this post, I asked my top blog consultants (husband-ji, FIL, MIL) for their opinion. Husband-ji (who was there) said that these goons can smell fear, and because we seemed confident, they did not target us. My FIL said that this behaviour is related to these goons' upbringing and also the raging group mentality. My FIL (who has lived abroad, all over the world, for 15 years) said there is eve-teasing everywhere, but in India, eve-teasing is used as a vehicle for personal attacks and humiliation. In the West, an example of eve-teasing is "you sexy baby, you look so good", and in India, it is "you stupid _____, come sit on my lap and ______". My MIL said it can happen to anyone, regardless if their husband is there, and that I just got lucky, but I probably was more protected because of my conservative dress.

I applaud both Sharell and Natasha for raising awareness about this and speaking out. It is a brave thing to do and this kind of treatment is barbaric and should be condoned. The way women get harassed in India is extremely unpleasant. I urge everyone to join and support this cause, and if you are even more interested, please form a group and visit Ajanta/Ellora yourself and help get this behaviour out of there. Help take this disgusting behaviour out of this holy site. Read more about the discrimination of women in my previous posts: Jai ho or bust; and India: A dangerous place to be a woman.

Click HERE to read yesterday's article on CNN about how a student got post-traumatic stress disorder from being systematically sexually harassed in India for 3 months.

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What about you, dear readers? Have any of you been to Ajanta/Ellora and had a similar experience? Any other tourist spots that women need to watch out for?

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14 comments

  1. It is really good that you and Sharell have raised awareness on the issue of harassment in India. One positive thing I have also noticed that since the rape and death of the girl in Delhi that men have become more aware of harassment. They actually look a little scared of been accused of harassment and if I'm bumped my mistake by a male, he will say sorry at least 3 times!
    But then again that is only a small portion of the population...

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    1. Thank god...I really do think things are changing, but it will take time. That's why raising awareness is so important...people need to be moved to change, to treat people the way they want to be treated, etc...

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  2. I'm sorry to hear about your experience, Alexandra.

    I do believe this stuff is all about humiliation, intimidation and fear ; it's a battle of wills.

    Interestingly, I don't know if you saw the movie "Passage to India", but it centers around the agression, real or supposed of a white woman in a cave. (Padparadscha)

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    1. It was really shocking...the guilt I felt for selfishly not helping them, just not wanting to get involved because I didn't want us to be targeted...still haunts me. In a sense watching it happen sort of ruined it for me too...a double edged sword.
      I will check out the movie, I have heard it's good :)

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  3. Im sorry to hear about the experience you and the other tourists had... I feel like I was very lucky in India. We were there for three weeks, and although people stared like crazy and tried to "sneak" photos of me (they were a little obvious), we only actually had one incident, and it was nothing near that bad. Some guy just said "Hey London, how are you?" Because, you know, all white people are from Britain. My MIL freaked out at him, I was even scared of her! Even though there was four of us, the man followed us for 5 minutes afterward, and I was terrified. I believe one of the best ways to protect yourself from these things in India is dressing conservatively, wearing your symbols of marriage, and traveling in groups. Most days I had at least 6-10 of my husbands cousins with us visiting other cities. It helped that his home town is supposedly known for their men, the whole town is warrior caste and I hear they prove themselves quite often lol. Obviously though sometimes things still happen, and it is shameful and makes me sad for other tourists who are made unable to see the beauty of the country.

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    1. Me too, it just takes away from the beauty of the site. Ajanta/Ellora is so magical...it deserves better, tourists deserve better...
      It really helps with a confident walk/talk. Also it is just luck as to whom the mob will target.

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  4. Sorry to hear you had to deal with these goons.
    I've been living in India for 10 years, never had it that bad as those tourist you describe, but I never went to these caves.
    These goons are essentially cowards who find strength in number and think they can get away with their disgusting attitude (and sadly...do). Frankly in 10 years in India I have been cat called at, and passed dirty comments at regardless of what I was wearing, it has nothing to do it it. But men tend to chicken out seeing you are with an Indian man, especially if you and said man are walking with a strong confident walk.
    They do what they do for the thrill of being in power, refuse to give them that and they mellow instantly. I've never been gropped thankfully, not that some men didn't try, I can spot that lust in their posture from affar, but coming nearer to me and my assertive bold strong "I own this place" attitude they suddenly jump out of the way. I am a firm believer that you as a woman have the choice on how you are going to take this abuse "passively and suffering it" or "adjust your body language in order to mean "Try if you dare, but I won't go down easy". Things in Idnia are starting to change, slowly, but the Delhi gang rape last December acted as the last straw, that moment people do not want to sweep the problem under the rug anymore whcih is a big positive. Until about 2-3 years ago, crime against women were rarely getting any media space, people knew they existed, but prefered ignoring them or go victim blaming...a think people are fed up with nowaday.

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    1. Yeah, I don't think it had anything to do with clothes, as so many Indian women are also targeted. Such a crazy mob mentality...they get high off the power and humiliation, and that too because there are no consequences. I even hate the term "eve teasing" when it is really "sexual harassment". I was so happy about all the protests and the laws, and the ongoing discussion in the media after Jyothi's death...I think it's the starting point. She was the same age as 3 of my husband's sisters, and whenever I watch "the life of pi" I think of that girl. And being on a moving bus, as we also were to Ajanta with those thugs - you're trapped.

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    2. I agree Cyn, the attitude and confidence of women makes all the difference. But not all women are empowered. Some women seem to think it is "unladylike" to stand up.

      I have observed the mellowing you mention, it is really impressive. (Padparadscha)

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  5. I am sorry you had this. Living inthe mumbai suburbs my husband is more fearful for me than I am but I fear like crazy for my kids. I have held the "shorts under a skirt " rule for my daughter since she was out of diapers (18 or.so months old). In the US that is slightly extreme perhaps. Here.... she is 5 and men take her photos and videos if we walk on the boardwalk.... even with my mil there! Hiw can I worry about me when I have her and my son to worry about.

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    1. OMG...I can't imagine...now since becoming a mother I am also worrying for my daughter too.
      We are planning to visit India next year, and my daughter is quite shy. Here in Canada, when we go out with her, we get stopped all the time because people think she is good-looking. I don't want people to concentrate on her appearance so much, or for her to be self-conscious. I just want her to feel free.
      I can't imagine what it will be like when we go! All of our relatives are going crazy over her looks with the "fairness" etc. I'm not really looking forward to it, to be honest. We are only going for the extended family so they can meet her, but I wonder what it will be like on the street. I'm praying for a positive experience!!!

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  6. So glad you wrote about your experience in this detail. (Side note: You are really well dressed as a tourist in India).

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    1. Thanks. I felt bad I could not do anything about it.
      I try to dress like the locals do.

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  7. Originally I was looking for information about Ellora and Ajanta, thinking I might go there and somehow landed on your blog info.... so glad I read your information.
    I'm a woman and did travel to India in 2007. Half of the trip was by myself and the other half with a male. I travelled around India for about 1 1/2 months. Originally I was nervous because I hadn't been there before and was scared travelling as a woman. But like you I had no problems. But I didn't even see anything scary. I noticed the little street girls climbed all over me and patted me down to try to find something to steal... smiling all the while.
    I recently worked with a young woman from India, here in Canada to go to school. She said it's not safe to go on the trains by yourself. I also watched a travel show that said women of any nationality, locals or foreigners, will get harassed on trains. I took a train from 3 hours east of Kochi to Delhi by myself and stayed very safe. Like you I felt very protected, but unlike you I was really, really stupid to do that alone. I don't know what I was thinking. Before I went I was scared to go alone as a woman. Once I got there I felt sort of fearless. Hard to explain.
    My trip was a holy trip, maybe that's what made the difference for me? An american woman told me I looked like a barbie doll and should not be walking around, but still I carried on.

    Now I wanted to visit the caves and do a holy trip to Tiruvanamali, but I'm not so sure I should do that now.
    Do you know anything about Sri Lanka? If that's a safe country on the whole?
    Thanks so much and your daughter is gorgeous, just like mama. )

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