Note from Angela: I find the writer’s references to Bollywood films interesting and her manner of conveying her own negative experiences to be without any hint of self pity. She is a friend of mine and she conveys the facts and her feelings beautifully.}
It was with sympathy and understanding that I read Michaela Cross’s account of her time in India, which was widely reported on CNN and International News. Michaela Cross, is an American student at The University of Chicago and came to India on a study abroad programme. While in India, she struggled with the blatant staring and sexual harassment that she experienced, and after two rape attempts by Indian men to women on her course, begged for help. She has since apparently been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a white woman living in India, I have been in similar situations, and know how it feels to be treated like a sexual object by men in India. I have been groped, stared at, masturbated over, inappropriately spoken to, sexually objectified and made to feel like I am a body, only worth of sexual misuse, not a person.
I was surprised therefore, to read some responses to her article. One article written by another girl who was on the same programme claimed that sexual abuse and rape was a problem the world over, and not one that was only experienced by women in India. Her article claimed that Michaela Cross sensationalised the issue of sexual abuse against white women in India, and that the same issues were the same, if not worse in other countries. They also mentioned that social networking sites and platforms such as Snapchat violate everyone who uses them. I think this is a load of trash, and spoken of one who has not lived in India and seen the true reality of sexual harassment here.
How many countries have a widely accepted word for sexual harassment against women, which sounds gentle and connotes friendly banter? ‘Eve-teasing’ in India is the word used to describe harassment of women, whether verbal or physical, but always sexual. How many countries have famous film stars who have acted in 100 movies and have done 80 rape scenes? How many countries have films which perpetuate the message that if a woman says no or runs away coyly from her romantic pursuer, then lots of persistence and a quick song and dance scene with suggestive moves is enough to win her around? How many countries condone arranged marriages and treat women like property to be bought and sold?
Michaela Cross is a tourist in India, and the culture shock she experienced is not one I would wish on any visitor to India. India is a country filled with positivity, hope, opportunities and generous, kind-hearted people, but we cannot brush negative issues under the carpet, try and cloak them in a politically correct banner or compare their issues with women to other Western countries where rape is also a serious issue. India and the US are countries with vastly different social attitudes, but one thing that unites them is the fact that rapists are active in both. India has a serious problem in its treatment of women, and particularly towards white women (which, considering the dire situation of the average Indian woman, is really saying something.)
But where have these attitudes towards women, and particularly white women come from? If you look at the presentation of women in Bollywood films (which is sometimes the only reference point that the average Indian man has) the white woman are those gyrating in the background, scantily clad and always with wide sexy smiles and sultry dance moves. White women are seen as free and easy in India. They can ‘teach you good sex’ before marriage (yes, that is a direct quotation from an Indian man whom I questioned on the topic) and are generally great for fun and frolics, before settling with a nice homely Indian wife. The obsession with white skin is, of course, a huge appeal for many men, and if you wander down any chemist’s isle in India, you will find row upon row of whitening creams, and even vaginal bleaching to make you more like your sexier Western counterparts.
Me? I live here. I am married to an Indian man and a resident of India with a 20 year visa. I am not going anywhere any time soon, but I identified with every single incident that she wrote about in her article. I have felt the way she felt – the deep anger, frustration, and the fear. Michaela only had to manage with these attitudes for a short period of time, but for me, this is my life. For my own mental preservation, I have developed a thicker skin and a harder shell since living in Bangalore, but I am constantly made to be painfully conscious and aware of my body – how much space my breasts take up, exactly what the angle from waist to hip is in a tight top, and how comfortable or exposed certain (often conservative) clothes make me feel. I miss being able to walk down the street and get a kick out of being sexy, rather than worrying that a kick in the knees and a groping hand is going to be the only recognition of the care and consideration I took in my dressing this morning.
So, do I languish in self-pity and stay in my house all day? NO! I drive my own car, go out at whichever time suits me in the evening, and if it goes wrong, I pick myself up and move on. I stare every man in the face and challenge him as to why he thinks it’s ok to leer at me with lust on his face. Although there are times when I have felt scared, threatened, weak, and question my decision to live in this turbulent country, I have received such huge support and encouragement through my blog to fight back against the crippling attitudes against women. Because of this, I know the lecherous, underbelly of male Indian society doesn’t stand a chance against this tidal wave of change which is coming for India. This wave, in its turn, has been helped by brave people like Michaela, who have the voice, unlike many women here, to speak out about their experiences and bring attention to issues which India should not be allowed to sweep away with the dust any more.
This article is also published on CNN’s iReport page here.
ABOUT the GUEST BLOGGER: Hi! I’m Ophelia, and my blog This is Expat India is my blog about my life living, working and loving in South India. I’m married to my beautiful Indian husband and have been travelling backwards and forwards to India for the past five years while studying. Living two lives has been hard, but now I’m settled in India, I wish to share my experiences of Loving an Indian, and how this has enriched my life.
© 2013 Ophelia Balan. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce any part of this article without the author’s permission.