My Experience being a Woman in India
When I first got the news I was going on exchange to India, the reaction I received from others was definitely different from the reaction I got when I found out I was going to Austria. Most people were aware that India is a lot different than the US, and the main concern from others was that I would be going there alone as a young woman. I shrugged off this recurring concern from friends and loved ones at first, but in my last weeks before leaving La Crosse I reached out to a few martial arts institutions in the area and took a short self-defense class, just in case. When I was still choosing which country I wanted to go to, some people also warned me that it might be hard to live in India as a feminist, and accept a country with such different views.
So the burning question is – is India really as unsafe as people made it seem, especially for women? And how are women seen in society here? I will try my best to address this question here.
This is probably the hardest blog post I’ve had to write, because I know many people (from India, America, and beyond) will be reading this and I don’t want to misinterpret or give false information on such a complex topic. As you read, please remember that India is a huge and diverse country, with vast differences depending on which part you are in. For example, the south of India is known for being a bit more ‘modern’ or liberal in its views toward women, compared to the North (I am situated in the middle, more towards the North). Also keep in mind that these are my personal experiences here, and might not be the same for everyone. Many factors go into each of the topics I’m going to discuss. Treatment of women can vary on a lot of things such as area, family, age, and even caste.
The city I live in, Surat, is generally pretty safe, at least in comparison to other big cities in India. There are different areas of the city, like ‘districts,’ and some are known to be safer than others. Unsurprisingly, the wealthier and well-educated areas are generally safer. In the first location I lived in, I was allowed to walk around alone, even in the evening and after dark while coming home from my evening dance classes. My second host, living in a different district, also has allowed me to do this without an issue. I never once felt scared, afraid, or threatened while walking alone here, but of course I’m still always aware of my surroundings and on guard. I also always dress conservatively and respectfully in public, no matter the weather. I don’t wear tank tops, low cut shirts, or shorts. I know the parts of the city I shouldn’t visit alone or at night, and my auto-Rickshaw transportation is normally done through a booked service (yes, there’s Uber for rickshaws) where my driver has the responsibility to take me to the right place. I do have a curfew, but it’s not too early and has never been a problem for me. I try not to be naive, because I know terrible things happen in India (and everywhere in the world, actually) but as long as I follow the precautions I mentioned, I feel quite secure here. I also know Rotary would not send me to a place which would be dangerous to me, and I try my best to use common sense to avoid potentially bad situations.
I love many aspects of India, but one thing I’ve noticed here is more uniform behavior or lifestyle among women. There is a strong and distinct societal expectation placed on women. Of course, we have this in the United States as well, but with less pressure as many don’t follow it. The US allows for more individualism in this sense. Here, it’s expected to perform well in school, and many women move on to higher education as well. At some point they are married off (most marriages are arranged marriages which, as any Indian will tell you, are much better than they sound) and begin their married lives. From what I’ve seen, this consists of bearing children, staying at home while the husband is at work, taking care of the house and kids, and spending the day rolling beautifully round rotis and making home cooked meals and chai for the family. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, and of course there are exceptions and many working and businesswoman here as well, but generally the gender roles are much more prevalent. There is also an unspoken societal exclusion if these norms aren’t followed, as well as disgrace and bad reputation brought onto the entire family. Divorce or not getting married at all are looked down upon and generally not accepted. As long as women follow the societal guidelines though, there is no problem. A typical Indian wife’s day may consist of waking up early to perform puja (Hindu prayer at a home temple), cutting vegetables and preparing lunch, taking a nap for a few hours after lunch, running necessary errands, gossiping with the neighbors, making dinner, and watching Bollywood movies before bed.
The fact that I’m even writing about this may be a little uncomfortable for some Indians, as this is somewhat of a ‘taboo’ and secretive topic here. However, for my western friends and family, this is a very interesting cultural difference which deserves to be mentioned here.
If you know me, you know I am a very open person, especially about topics others are not as comfortable with. My openness has allowed me to feel comfortable with myself, my body, and its natural processes. However, many Indians see menstruation as something shameful, and women are generally considered ‘unclean’ during this time of the month. This is something that varies a ton from family to family in India. Some girls don’t go to school during this time, some aren’t allowed to touch certain things or enter the kitchen. While I personally never experienced anything this extreme, a few general rules prevailed for me. First and foremost, I am not allowed to enter or even go near a temple during the first four days of my period. This includes home temples, which are small sanctuaries of worship inside most Hindu homes. Trash produced during this week is also to be placed in a separate, discreet bag and disposed of in a discreet way. The discretion and secrecy of this just adds to the shame of something which is really just natural and normal in my opinion. Speaking of my opinion, that leads me to my final point.
Feminism in India
For those of you who aren’t good with definitions, feminism is basically the idea that women and men are equals and should be treated as such. This idea and movement is gaining momentum worldwide, and many youth are adopting it, acting on it, educating others, and hoping one day that gender inequality is a thing of the past. However, that is precisely the reason why things are moving a bit slower here in India. Indian civilization has been thriving for thousands of years, and the differing treatment of women has always been part of the culture, as well as social hierarchy in general. Many people here, often of the older generations, believe that this is India’s tradition and it shouldn’t be altered to fit new ideals. I try my best to understand this, but I also think some traditions are better left in the past, and evolving with society can bring good. And this is where the true exchange experience of culture shock and ‘what is my role here?’ comes into play. I have had conversations with people who genuinely believe that men are superior to women, and I have had to decide in the moment whether I should put in my two cents, or leave it be. While I can’t bring myself to ever verbally agree, in this situation I would just nod and try my best to understand the points the other person is making. After all, there are over a billion people in this country and I did not come here to change how an entire subcontinent thinks.
As for the people who warned me it would be hard here as a feminist, I can definitely agree it hasn’t always been the easiest. However I have learned a lot and, once I accepted that I cannot change anything, it has become quite interesting to see the differences in how people think here. And don’t get me wrong – India is definitely changing..slowly but surely. Many of my local friends have been influenced by social media and feminist movements taking place in other countries, so the younger generation is much more liberal than their elders, and are fighting for change. It will be interesting to see how India evolves in future years.
I really hope I did this difficult topic justice! On a lighter note, I have a lot more time on my hands lately and am considering making some videos where I freely answer questions and talk about my life here. If you have any questions for me about this post, or anything in general, feel free to comment them below or email/message them to me and I will make sure to answer them in a future video or blog. Thanks for reading!