Where are the women?

Sindhu.edit
Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

D
ammit, 45 minutes late again. That means I’ll get the cramped elevator for sure. If one more old man stares at my boobs I swear —

“Namaste, madam.”

“Namaste, sirji, how are you?”

“Very good, thank you madam. Where shall I drive you today?”

“The Secretariat — but I’m running late so we have to go very fast, OK?”

(small pause) “Of course, fast. Uh, yes madam.”

Oh wait, my aunt told me to always sit in the backseat. I hope he doesn’t get offended.

“So, is the city always this humid?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever traveled outside of Delhi?”

“Never.”

“Why aren’t there any girls here? I’m always seeing men everywhere — driving, spitting on roads, peeing on roads, working — where are the women?”

“They’re there, madam. We have a lot of, how do you say, fast girls here, don’t think otherwise.”

“I doubt it.”

“No, we do. Much like in the U.S. — they have modern girls there too, no different from yourself.”

“Mhm.”

“They must be having relationships — these girls and boys?”

“Yeah, I’m sure that happens everywhere, though. I mean, it happens all the time, at young ages, old ages, whenever. It’s normal. I presume you are married?”

“Yes, with a son.”

“Great.”

“So, these boys and girls must have sex? Can you give me advice on sex — I mean, does it hurt for a girl?

“Don’t you have a wife?”

“Yeah, but she’ll never say no to me.”

He was everything I hated in a human being. And I still answered. Misunderstanding his intentions as naïve curiosity, I answered every single question.

“You’re getting of age to be married, you’re 19, right? Yeah perfect timing. It would make sense. So, have you had sex? You are from America, you must have at least seen people do it right? Also, here’s my number — call me when you are getting married.”

He was 33 with a wife and son. He was a stranger I met that morning. He was my taxi driver, that was all.

“I really don’t want to talk about this, I’m sorry.”

“But why? Please? I’m your friend, of course you can trust me. Please? Please?”

The intensity of my resentment peaked. I did not utter another word in response, and he, finally comprehending the extent of my rage, didn’t either.

 

F
or a month, my entire existence was public domain. I was the “fast” one you ogle until there’s nothing left to imagine anymore. I was a living portrait the fantasies, stories and judgments were painted on daily by the eyes of others — old, young, administrators, drivers, guards. Predominantly men.

When it comes to heritage, I viciously bite the hands that feed me. Every time I hear of another politician caught institutionalizing prostitution, another scorned lover getting his revenge with an acid attack, a woman found dead with a rod pushed up her vagina, I instinctively react with an aloof insensitivity — of course these things would happen in India. What a great nation — the hub of honor killings, casteism and heightened religious intolerance. The country that thinks it’s OK to disrobe me with their stares.

“Why aren’t there any girls here? I’m always seeing men everywhere — driving, spitting on roads, peeing on roads, working — where are the women?”

My time this past summer working in Delhi only intensified my convictions about India. My enriching interactions with policy makers, ministers, official advisers and other true visionaries were all tainted by the shame I internalized for being a woman in a sea of men. I know to many my experience with the taxi driver may seem trivial. But, to me, it was another embodiment of India’s sexist deluge submerging, drowning, and restricting me. That sexism made me its property and I couldn’t even stop it before it struck.

Interning at the Delhi Secretariat — home of Delhi’s Chief Minister and some of its most imaginative, insightful, magnanimous political geniuses — was, strictly speaking from the perspective of gender dynamics, terrifying. The moment I walked in my first day to pick up my ID, I accepted and relented to the inbred culture people adopted when it came to women — STARE. In fact, when I was even interviewing a professional for my work exploring the status of education in New Delhi, I never even got so much as an acknowledgment or eye contact the whole interview. Only my male partner did. Every time I saw a woman in the street, she was walking briskly.

So naturally, my stream of consciousness played one phrase on constant loop: I was insanely fortunate to be an Indian American. Because of my American upbringing, I engaged with individuals who respected and validated me. I have been made uncomfortable by overwhelming stares, but never by twenty men at one time. I wear shorts without subjecting myself to the advances of men old enough to be my dad. I walk on the street with utter and complete self-assurance as well as confidence. I feel safe.

It was only when I came back to start my sophomore year in college that I realized how duplicitous I was. My first gender studies class of the year, Gender and Women’s Studies 102, peeled my eyes open from their lids of ignorance.

I was so convinced of India’s explicit villainous maltreatment of females that I actively ignored my home’s own setbacks. GWS 102 forced me to realize that we as a country are not distinct from the so-called “less educated, poor, female-abusing, other” countries of the world. While we just wear a different color of misogyny, we haven’t separated from the brand altogether. We tend to constantly exclude ourselves when discussing extreme international travesties such as sex trafficking rings but adopting an unbiased, novel vantage point compelled me really to take a hard look at ourselves and our own campus.

As women, we are, somewhere along the societal and educational pipeline, instructed to restrain and sacrifice ourselves here. I realize now that on every Mother’s Day card I gave my Amma, all that it acknowledged was her sacrifice and altruism. Where are the cards telling our women instead to be powerful, assertive people who grab what they want? Women are subjected to sexual harassment in the most renowned workplaces — be it law, medicine, government, administration. In fact, India is the country that had the longest expanses of time with a woman in power (Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led for 16 years) — that’s more than the United States can ever claim to have done.

So naturally, my stream of consciousness played one phrase on constant loop: I was insanely fortunate to be an Indian American.

I attend a university, one of the best in the world, that only this year revealed that 19 employees — including six faculty members or academic staff — were found to be in violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policies since 2011. I live in a country where a presidential nominee, Donald Trump, can spew vitriolic rhetoric against women. As the head of the Miss America pageant, Trump would publicly rate women based on beauty before allowing them in his pageants, according to the Huffington Post.

In the tech industry, women are still subjected to all sorts of hurdles. According to Newsweek’s Steven Jennings, “Silicon Valley has never produced a female Gates, Zuckerberg or Kalanick.” There exists a deeply rooted “bro community” in the Silicon Valley’s tech industry, which has been often described as “savagely misogynistic.”

For example, Jennings writes,  “There was the young executive of a company valued at $250 million who got up in front of an audience at a conference billed as diverse and joked about “gang-bang interviews” and how he got his start by sending elusive CEOs whose attention he needed “bikini shots” from a “nudie calendar” he’d made of college women.”

This only reflects my own experience in mathematics classes, which were primarily run by males, and there are five girls in my entire honors math course, reflecting the active push I have always felt not to pursue STEM. That means the whole time I was criticizing another country for its overt displays of female subjugation, I was subscribing to my homeland’s own culture of deeply entrenched, implicit female degradation. I was ignoring the deeply established, dethroning of female power and strength.

As women, we are often seen as mechanisms and devices of subordination, regardless of whether we are in third-world or first-world nations. You cannot compartmentalize the injustices being done to you. That is to say, you simply cannot label it as an “Indian” problem, a “Hindu” problem, a “third-world” problem. It’s just there, everywhere, as a systematic part of our history and future. I faced the same misogyny here as I did in my mother country, just in different forms. And while it is a sobering thought, at least now I know never to rely on the excuse of “that stuff just happens abroad.” I have to be aware of it to muster the strength to fight it.

I understand now that I have forgiven the way I have been treated because I have been blinded by the brilliance, opportunity and diversity of the United States. It has given me so much, enough that I was willing to sacrifice myself. But so has India. Within the same hour I insult my ancestral and cultural home, I pray to its gods in times of need. I speak in Telugu, an Indian language. I wear clothes made by Indian women. I am part of India’s fabric. Just like it’s part of mine. While still recognizing where it fails women, I need to appreciate its beauty, much like I did with America.

 

Sindhu Ravuri is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her [email protected]