3/19/13

India's gender and sexuality issues

International attention to women's civil and social rights in India has long been overdue. I am glad to see the progression since last December, and am gratified that new laws have been passed today that makes the consequences of rape more severe.
I spent five days in India, and cannot therefore make any kind of definitive statements regarding its culture or people. However, I had two experiences that brought India's gender and sexuality issues glaringly into my consciousness. The first happened while I was in Chennai. Two of my girlfriends and I wanted to visit a temple outside the city limits. Taxi drivers lined up beyond the dock, waiting for the students to employ them. We hopped in the first car that was open, and showed the driver (who spoke English) where we wanted to go on the map. "No problem, no problem." About fifteen minutes into the drive, we realized we had not gotten closer to our destination, and in fact were driving right out of the city in the opposite direction. We pointed this out to the driver, who said he was taking us where we needed to go. We started getting nervous at this point, and kept questioning him, but he was tight-lipped. Thirty minutes later, one of my friends started to panic. We were being driven somewhere we did not want to go, with no idea where we really were. She told the driver if he did not bring us back to the ship, she would open the door while he was driving and jump out. He didn't believe her, and kept driving. So she opened the door, and we all jumped out. The driver left us there, with no parting words.
We were pretty scared at that point; we were on a dirt road, far away from the ship or any landmarks. We started walking, it was then that a Lexus pulled up, and an Indian man speaking impeccable English asked us why we were there, and offered us a ride to the ship. We took him up on it. After we explained what had happened to our taxi, he got very angry. "I apologize for my countrymen....The men here are boars." He drove us all the way to our ship, concerned we did not leave his country with a negative opinion of its people.
The second experience was much scarier. We were in a small village outside of Agra, going to see the Taj Mahal the next day. Our bus pulled into our hotel late in the evening, and drove right past a street festival. I was never going to let a cultural experience pass me by, so I rallied a few other girls to walk down to watch the stage plays. Once we were there, I noticed that the actors on stage were all men, and it eventually dawned on us that so was every single member of the audience. We were the only women in eye shot. Some of the teenage and middle-aged men in the crowd had created a circle around us, and started taunting, poking, and even pulled at one of the girl's shirts. Again, we were saved by a surprise appearance, this time one of my friends from the ship. He was a six-foot tall, beefy red head from Chicago, and he broke their circle and walked us back to the hotel. He said he had just had a 'feeling' he should come after us.
In the classes I took preparing us for India before we ported, everything was covered from malaria pills to the trains. But no one mentioned once that women should be extremely cautious, or that it would be a good idea to bring a fella along with you. Its not the kind of advice palatable to a western audience. But I wish I had been warned.

This, of course, points to much bigger social and cultural problems in India. In my opinion, nothing short of a national revolution can cause the kind of change that is needed. Society needs to be taken apart and put back together. I'm interpreting these recent developments as a move in the right direction, and I am ardently rooting for those in India who are making change in society. I hope it gains even greater momentum.
*The photographs are all ones I took during my trip; they aren't that related to the text, but I gotta use them whenever an opportunity arises!

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