GUEST BLOGGER Ophelia Balan: The Reality of Sexual Harassment in India

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.

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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6 Comments on “GUEST BLOGGER Ophelia Balan: The Reality of Sexual Harassment in India

  1. Interesting article. However, after living in India – and enduring a lot of the same – for almost 7 years, I’m not sure that I believe a “tidal wave of change” is coming. India is still very much a man’s world and very, very far behind the West in terms of attitudes, equality, etc.

  2. Hello Angela
    I Completely agree with Donna’s comment that change is yet to come..
    i am an indian living in new delhi and have been part of a couple of NGOs here
    I must say that the attitude of people and society towards women is pathetic , although the educated ones ( educated and living in the cities) are different but i must point out that very few people are like that when u compare it with the overall population
    Take the example of delhi , men here has a sick attitude but again not all of them however majority of people here are not those educated and working in those MNCs
    Even my female friends who study in the delhi university tells me about incidents of harassment that have happened in places which they thought to be safe and sometimes during the day when they were hanging out with their friends
    They don’t feel comfortable wearing shorts and skirts ( not mini-skirt)) if someday they have to take a public transport other than metro to go home
    This is the current situation here in india and in delhi
    and i can bet that after reading your article many people here instead of thinking about such incidents and trying to change will get aggressive and giving a knee-jerk reaction that your are racist and biased towards indian
    I know this because when i was associated with an NGO , the same thing happened , people rarely accept that there is something wrong with our society and out of those who do
    Most of them just think about it for a while and forget about it
    instead of doing something to change the situation , well unless until it happens with someone dear to them

  3. “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.)”

    After living in India & Nepal for the last 13 yrs I have to say that –
    Yes, white women do attract A LOT of negative attention from males in India.
    I’ve been stared at, grabbed, groped (breasts, butt, crotch, thighs), had my hair pulled, had lewd & inappropriate comments made to me, mistaken for a prostitute, & once thrown to the ground by 2 drunken bicycle rickshaw drivers.
    (Luckily 2 very large & very helpful Indian males driving by stopped their car, got out, pulled the rickshaw drivers off of me & beat the hell out of the rickshaw drivers.)
    But from what I’ve experienced Indian women suffer far more frequent & brutal harassment from Indian men than white women. Publicly & privately.
    I think Indian women learn early on this is ‘how it is’ in India and a ‘culture of silence’ about the issue is for the most part maintained.
    We white women simply aren’t used to this sort of treatment & are shocked & appalled.
    I’m not certain any great ‘tidal wave of change’ is coming for India any time soon either.
    The Delhi rapists recently convicted and sentenced to death have shown absolutely no remorse for their victim. Apparently they were even laughing during the trial.
    AP Singh, the defence lawyer in the Delhi gang-rape case said, “If my daughter was having premarital sex and moving around at night with her boyfriend, I would have burnt her alive. I would not have let this situation happen. All parents should adopt such an attitude,” referring to the gang-rape case infront of media persons.
    This is unfortunately the way most Indians think.

  4. I have lived in the U.S. and now live in India.

    Theres a massive difference around the question of equality. In the west every one is equal, whether good or bad. Here people judge you based on looks, economy, caste etc. because this country has a lot of ethnic and cultural variations which the west does not have.

    I see that as Westerners find it difficult to understand that the psychology of this country is rooted on ethnic and cultural differences and one has to handle people accordingly. For instance meeting strangers in small shop vs a restaurant you have to act slightly differently. You don’t want to be overly polite to small shop keepers typically.

    We need to learn a lot from westerners and hopefully get everyone on a even level without losing our cultural identities.

  5. Thank you everyone who has read and commented on my article!

    Donna – I really hope that these changes, that seem small, will grow into much bigger ones with time – this reaction to the Delhi rape has shown us all that the outrage is there, and therefore the motivation for change!

    @Pulkit – the reaction has been greatly positive to this post so far, so hopefully this will continue 🙂

    @Bibi – the reaction of the older generation is quite depressing, and I sincerely hope that this will change soon. Education and exposure are the ways forward to teach the younger generation that no matter what a woman wears or does, she is NEVER ‘asking for it’!!

    @Deepak – the culture differences are so massive, that even I struggle to explain them to friends and family, despite having lived here so long!

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