- Posted August 27, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
The Experience of a Woman in India Revisited: The Many Dimensions of Misogyny
India: A Dangerous Place to be a (Foreign) Woman. This is the message implied by the headlines that detail the sexual assaults on foreign women. Lately, there have been blogs, articles, rumors. About the stalking, leering, groping and masturbating being done by Indian men when in contact with Western, mostly white, women. Western women signify to these men: skirts, bare shoulders, jeans, pale skin, pretty, out of reach, sexually loose. Many Westerners who have never been to India romanticize it as a land full of spirituality, colors and culture. And so come these sobering stories to demystify. But sometimes these stories leave out important characters. Like the Indian women, who suffer from daily sexual harassment. Like those Indian men who are feminists, who are friends and concerned fathers. There are the colonial officials and social reformers, the developers, the tourists, the corporations; all have been complicit in creating a system in which patriarchy turns violent. There are other characters, too. The groping, cat-calling men in other countries including those from my home country, the United States. What happens when these characters are left out? Misogyny in India becomes reduced to: the “backwardness” of dark-skinned Third World mobs who covet the universally desirable white-skinned woman.
Misogyny in the United States may be much, much more tame (and different) than it is in India. And yet my experiences with misogyny in the United States have made the harassment I have endured in India and other countries abroad feel the way it feels—my resolve and wonder at the world becoming worn. Growing stale.
When I have been followed, leered at, groped, and molested in India, England, Mexico, Italy, Costa Rica, it wasn’t just the fear and anger from these incidents that I felt after. It was the terror of a friend in college, in the U.S., who had been drugged and then raped at a party, it was the humiliation of a friend who had been forced to perform fellatio and then called an “easy slut” after. The confusion of seeing a middle-aged man masturbate to our thirteen-year-old bodies as we played on the grass at school. The pity I feel for my eleven-year-old self, coerced into flipping through a pornography book by a store employee with an erection. It was the disgust at all those who had taken advantage because they could.
And there are other things that happened, and happen, in the United States too. The things that get brushed aside because, well, at least they’re not rape or molestation.
There are the countless conversations between guys. When asked to describe a girl they’re attracted to—the response? "She’s got a sweet ass." Boasting about fucking two girls in one day, stating preferences for porn stars who don’t look classy. During a lecture at university, when shown a video with a hips-gyrating African woman, guys with their mouths open, the gaze trance-like, as if involuntary, the looks they give each other say, "I’d fuck that." There are the looks, the eyes following lips tits necks legs at a restaurant or in a movie theater. The gazing at the fold between a woman’s buttocks and thighs as she walks by.
There are also the images of women’s bodies as sex everywhere: on the magazine shelves at the liquor store, plastered on the walls of teenage boys. On television there are the voluminous tits or their promise and then a remark, a look, an attempt at fondling. Jessica Rabbit’s Double D’s that make Roger almost as orgasmic as patty cake does. The after-school teenage dramas that feature a boy neighbor watching a girl neighbor undress, and then the moment when her shirt comes off, when the breasts are most desirable, still slightly hidden, nipples almost visible behind a sheer bra. The fathers in T.V. series whose eyes jump from sockets when they get a load of their child’s friend’s mom and her rack ("who knew!?" They wonder, "are they real!?"). Is this display of enthusiasm meant to be a lesson for the little boys watching (this is how to be a man), or a lesson for the girls (this is how to accept)?
Women’s parts, worshipped. The woman herself, insignificant. Reduced to her things, a thing. Unintimidating, that way. Not able to hurt the man, that way. Never a lesson for the girls on how to desire a man’s body, except if it is a lesson on how to love and lust like men, on how to beat them at their own game.
There are the ways women lose themselves for men. The constant wondering if what is worn out that evening will please. The girls who only start liking the guy after they have sex because otherwise the girls will feel used. The girls who don’t feel complete until a guy says you are OK by me. The girls who change their record collections and reading lists to be the one he wants.
There are the women who feel bad about being “typically” feminine: those who feel guilty for wanting to marry, for wanting to “only” be a mom. The shy, unassertive women who don’t know how to speak the language used in the jolly old boys clubs in Academia or at the office. The get-to-the top, fight-to-the-finish language. Humility is for wussies. Cooperation, being second, or third, or not-at-all-the-best is for sissies.
There are also the women who know this language and who look down on those who don’t. The girls who learn how to lift up other girls’ skirts in front of guys for a good laugh, girls who get damn good at sports and math and science ‘cause then they’ll be just as good as men.
All the girls who never think they can do math or science or sports. All the girls who never think they can be just as good as.
How many countries are: A Sad Place to be a Woman.
And then, of course, the guys. Who speak the language that degrades women and femininity simply because it’s a common language, a bond, a way to congratulate each other on manliness. How many of these men out there, unhappy, just pretending?
How many cities are: A Sad Place to be a Man.
When I step outside my apartment in India and the eyes of the men fix on me like a magnet, I don’t just feel those eyes; I also feel the ones I have felt my whole life. And when I turn around a corner and sense the men registering my light skin as something desirable, I think of the dark-skinned women who feel less pretty, the plastic surgery to whiten eyelids, noses. The skin creams that promise to bleach vaginas. The billboards and films that send out the message that light and white are beauty and status. I think of colonialism and all it has done, I think of classism and all it has done. The white women who never get attention in their home countries traveling to Latin America or Southern Italy because there they will be adored. Simply because they have blond hair or blue eyes. Indulging in this praise and at the same time complaining about men who stare at foreigners. Local women noticing local men noticing foreign women. Local women knowing that foreign women are a prize; wondering if foreign women feel superior. Local women wanting to shout, that happens to us, too. The same praise, the same injustice.
When I hear Western women talking about the horrors of Indian misogyny, I can relate. But I know that the picture being painted often lacks perspective. There is an ethical responsibility to make it three-dimensional. To try and understand why we get particular attention as white or foreign women. It is our ethical responsibility to listen to the stories of how Indian women suffer, of how they get the same or worse or a different kind of attention. And it is our ethical responsibility to try and understand how and why women experience misogyny not just in India, but the world over. To learn the histories, the tragedies, the psychologies. To scrutinize our own homes and our own brothers, teachers, friends, nieces. To ask ourselves, how are we complicit in all of this, how do we participate? This is the ethical responsibility of being someone who travels, whether it is down the street or to another country.