Attitudes to western women in India
Riding a camel in Rajasthan last month, I passed a tractor pulling a trailer full of locals. Smiles and waves were exchanged but my attention was stolen by the one-handed gestures of a man at the front of the trailer; he was looking at me and making a sideways ‘v’ movement with his middle and fore fingers, dangling his arm just below the top of the trailer, out of sight of the other locals.
In India, this gesture is an invitation to copulation of the least romantic kind. Basically, it means, “You and me, right here, right now, how about it, baby?” I was riding a camel, sitting 3 metres above ground level with the camel driver, as part of a camel train of 10 other camels. Did this man seriously expect me to yell out, “Oh my god, stop! Let me get down! I’ve just received an invitation too good to refuse,” and go with him for a bit of rumpy pumpy behind a sparse desert bush before continuing my journey? The answer, sadly, is yes; many uneducated men and women in India think of western women as loose.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been the recipient of this sort of gesture in India, and many of the western women I met travelling in the country had experienced it too. Other uninvited sexual gesticulations included shaking my hand whilst tickling my palm with a forefinger (this one is familiar from childhood jokes at home and basically means “I want to fuck you”), kissing noises, unashamedly eyeing me up and down, and physical groping (most notably by a man in a mosque who with one hand emphasised his devotion to Allah whilst copping a generous feel of my bottom with the other).
In all of these cases I’ve been with my partner, Craig, and have been dressed appropriately. During the camel incident I was wearing voluminous trousers, a shapeless, long-sleeved top, socks and sandals (camels have fleas and I didn’t want to get bitten around my ankles – that’s my excuse for this otherwise unforgivable fashion faux pas), large sunglasses and even a headscarf wrapped around my head, shoulders and neck. In short, I looked like a baggy mess. My India suitcase contained only loose-fitting, long-sleeved tops, no trousers or skirts that finished above the knee and three headscarves. As far as I was aware, in no way was I encouraging these advances.
So what makes some Indian men think that this behaviour towards western women is acceptable? After all, most of them wouldn’t dare conduct themselves in that way towards the women they live around on a day-to-day basis.
The sad truth is that there’s an unflattering legacy attached to western woman in India. White-skinned females carry connotations that simply refuse to go away. It’s likely that it started with the behaviour of young British gentlemen who came to India under the Raj and had their wicked way with the local women so freely and easily that it must have been hard for the local people to imagine life in Britain being any different. The free love of the hippies who came to India in the 1960s did huge amounts of damage to perceptions of western women (although the feminist in me notes that western men behaved in exactly the same way, yet they are afforded respect…). The insensitivity of today’s female tourists to local dress hasn’t helped either. Topless sunbathing in a country where knees are considered risqué is never going to help change attitudes.
Finally, the media hasn’t helped at all. Porn is hugely popular in India and the majority of female porn stars are from the west. A little less extreme but just as damaging is the insinuating way western dancers are used in music videos – they invariably wear far less than their Indian counterparts. India’s obsession with VIP and celebrity culture is reflected in the considerable amount of column space in reputable newspapers focusing on the sexual freedom and carefree attitude of western celebrities. I read a quotation from Sandra Bullock on the front page of the Hindustan Times, talking about breast implants: “I want to be the bimbo, I want to be looked at as the bimbo, purely as a sexual object. I’ve been working for that for a very long time.” At no point did the snippet say she was joking and as well as tarnishing Sandra’s reputation, it only helped to prop up the unfair, unbalanced and degrading portrayal of western women in the Indian media.
It’s important not to confuse derogatory attitudes with those that are deemed respectful in Indian culture. For example, I found that Indian men frequently talked to Craig rather than to me, even when I asked the question that demanded the response (something I personally found rather frustrating). In restaurants, the bill and change were usually presented to Craig, even when it was clear I had paid for the meal. That is just the way in India; it’s considered rude to approach a man’s wife without first going through him. Craig was approached by people who wanted to have their photograph taken with us. Usually this was fine, but we soon stopped posing with young Indian men – many of them were simply cutting him out of the picture and using the picture to prove to their friends they had a slept with a western woman. (Some men thrust camera phones through windows at me. This I found particularly offensive; when I take a photo of someone I always ask permission first – it’s disrespectful not to, no matter what culture you’re from.)
It’s going to take a while to change these negative attitudes. By no means is the western-woman-as-whore mindset pervasive across all of Indian society but if you’re spending even a short amount of time in India accept that you won’t be able to escape some level of unwanted, unwarranted attention. Roll your eyes and move on. Remember, if you respect someone else’s culture and traditions, it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar level of respect in return.
Advice for women travelling in India
- Never shake the hand of an unknown man if he offers his hand to you first. In India, it’s not usual for a man to offer his hand first. Instead, namaste in return.
- Avoid eye contact and pointedly ignore men who stare at you. Returning a man’s stare can be seen as a come on. (Some men, wherever they’re from, find it difficult to distinguish between and glare and a stare!)
- Cover your knees, elbows and chest. I wore long-sleeved tops, trousers and head scarves where I thought necessary and still got unwanted attention, but it would have been far more intense, not to mention disrespectful, if I’d worn strappy tops and short shorts. At least I had the moral high ground!
- Take a stand. If you do get groped in a public place, don’t let the perpetrator get away with it. Shout out loud, humiliate him. Demonstrate loudly and clearly that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable. The vast majority of the people nearby will support you.
- Don’t let negative attitudes towards western women taint your time in India. Accept that it is an unattractive part of the culture – every culture has its dark side after all – and rise above it. It doesn’t have to spoil what will otherwise be an incredible experience.
- Don’t get paranoid. The idea that fairer skin is beautiful and best is wrongly but irreversibly entrenched in Indian culture – skin whiteners are the country’s best-selling beauty product, with Nivea, Ponds, Garnier, The Body Shop, Jolen, Avon, L’Oreal, Lancôme, Yves Saint-Laurent, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, and Revlon all producing skin-whitening creams. Most of the stares you receive will simply be admiring.