Trigger warning: This post acknowledges the existence of sexual assault.
Traveling is an incredible privilege and adventure, but it’s not always easy. Especially as a woman.
When I was preparing for my first trip to India, many people expressed concern for my safety, and some even urged me to reconsider. At the time, there were a number of high-profile, terrible cases of sexual assault in the news, and I’ll admit that they did make me feel a bit uneasy. Fortunately, I was also aware of a psychological phenomenon called accessibility bias—the fact that recent events are easier to recall and therefore seem more common (and more scary) than they actually are—so I tried to put these horrible events into perspective. I also knew (and know) that, unfortunately, sexual assault happens everywhere, and in a country with over a billion people there are going to be more assaults, and likely more high-profile assaults.
While this logic helped me reason my way into greater confidence, I knew very well that the risk was real. I wasn’t naive to the fact that India in general has different views on women than I’m used to in Canada, and that a number of cultural practices continue to objectify women and define the boundaries of their lives very narrowly.
Fortunately, the vast majority of this trip and my last were great, without major incidents. However, I’ve experienced ogling, despite my conservative dress (though, unfortunately, that happens everywhere), and had a few incidents of being grabbed or touched in busy crowds or traffic. There were only two times on my last trip when I was properly scared about what might happen, both in Mumbai.
In 2013, on one of my last days in India, I was eating lunch in a small restaurant and having a conversation with the guy who was serving me. It was an awkward time of day (around 2 or 3pm), and I was the only one in the restaurant. After having what I would call a normal conversation, he randomly leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I was very, very freaked out. I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in this restaurant and I had to get out immediately. In exactly the way I was socialized to do, I tried to act like a stranger kissing me uninvited wasn’t a big deal. With my body language I tried to communicate a balance of “that wasn’t ok” with “don’t get mad that I don’t want you”, and asked for the bill. He seemed to suddenly realize that what he’d done wasn’t ok and apologized. “No, no, it’s ok,” I said, hoping not to anger or offend him in any way. I paid, didn’t wait for my change, and quickly exited.
Generally, I think western women (usually thought of as white women in India) are viewed as loose and available. Early on in my first trip to India, I was sitting in a tuk tuk (a small taxi) with the guy I was seeing at the time. The driver asked if we were married, and we said no. He then made some inappropriate remark about me being a loose woman.
Just two days ago in Kathmandu I was sitting in my hostel’s rooftop lounge where a bunch of fellow travelers were hanging out. Two Indian guys (not to pick on India), walked across the room and asked if they could sit with me. Glancing around I noticed that there were a couple other tables they could’ve chosen. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to be a somewhat friendly fellow traveler. Since I was busy working on something anyway, I said that they could join me at my table but that I didn’t want to talk. They sat down and didn’t bother me for a few minutes. Then one of them looked over and offered me some of his beer, to which I said, no thanks. He asked again, and I repeated my answer. He reluctantly turned and started talking to the group of western guys sitting in the corner, and quickly directed the conversation to his current perdicament: he needed a girlfriend. More specifically, he wanted to lose his virginity to a white girl. Presumably out of amusement, curiosity and insensitivity, the western guys played along. The Indian guy insisted that the western guys could get him a girlfriend, and started asking for tips on how to get a white girl. Soon, two white girls from England sat down nearby. He noticed them, and as he called to them across the room I tried to give a signal that they might want to avoid him. But it was dark, and they were nice, and so they started talking.
I wondered to myself if I was overreacting—what’s the big deal if he wants to talk to them? But after a few minutes it was clear they wanted out of the conversation. Again, in a way that was typical to the way women are socialized to behave, they said they were going to bed, opting to remove themselves from a situation that could’ve otherwise been enjoyable in an attempt to protect this guy’s ego. He, rather unbelievably, suggested that he go with them. To bed. They responded with nervous laughter, acting like what he’d said had been a joke, and left.
He immediately turned to the western guys in the corner and started complaining that the white girls had left. They suggested he be more subtle. So he turned, again, to me and asked where I was from. I told him Canada, and he asked another question. At this, I looked at him directly and said, “you should probably give up on me. I’ve heard your whole conversation. I know you just want to sleep with someone, and I’m not interested. Also, I have a boyfriend.” (Having a boyfriend is not a necessary excuse for not being interested, but often helps to give weight to my “no”). He asked me if I could find him a girlfriend, and I said I didn’t have any extras. He insisted that if I wanted to give him one I could, making it clear that my earlier “no” had been rejected. At this point I just stopped responding to his questions, choosing to potentially come off as rude in front of this room full of travelers rather than let this guy think that this conversation was acceptable.
He eventually gave up on me, and started a conversation with the western guys about how much a woman would “cost”. Again, they humoured him, talking about the challenges of finding women in Nepal as compared to a place like Thailand. I found myself hoping that this guy was not in my mixed gender dorm room. Thankfully, he wasn’t.
Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scenario. Of course, most guys aren’t like this. And it might be easy to dismiss what he was doing as part of a harmless pursuit of sex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hook up with someone, but the approach he took clearly demonstrated that he saw (white) women as interchangeable objects of desire, rather than humans with lives and preferences, worthy of being treating with dignity. Worse than that, his aggressiveness and inability or unwillingness to pick up on social cues and listen to an outright “no” was scary. And I bet you any money that he had no idea he was scaring anyone.
The second problem with this scenario is that the western guys, a group of five or six, decided to humour him in his actions. This is not ok. In an age where “locker room talk” by Donald Trump had no obvious effect on his eligibility for president, it’s more important than ever to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, especially if you’re the guy the creepy dude turns to for validation (ya, Billy Bush, that’s why you got fired). The parts of our culture that make sexual assault possible and permissible are more often subtle than they are overt. You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour.
The above examples are exactly why I’ve said that being a woman is my biggest barrier to really experiencing the world. But while safety is a major concern, cultural differences between myself and well-intentioned, nice guys can also be a challenge. This is where I struggle to balance my feminism (and self-worth) with my desire to experience and enjoy other cultures.
For example, I just got back from an eight-day trek. It was supposed to be me, three others and our trekking guide. Instead, it was just two of us and our guide when we set out, and the the other trekker went back to Kathmandu on the morning of day four because he was sick. Spending more than a week straight with another person can be really frustrating if you’re not well-matched, and indeed, by a few days in, I was starting to feel irritated. The thing is, my guide was objectively incredibly nice. He offered to do things for me like get me water or carry my bag. Like most Nepali people, he prided himself on “treating his guests like gods”. Sounds nice, right?
Problem is, I’ve never wanted to be treated like a princess. If you know me, you know that I insist on carrying my own bag, opening my own door, and generally being treated with the assumption that I can do whatever a man can do. More importantly, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you that I can do something myself. In fact, listen to me in general. Yes, I’m sure. I’ve said no three times. No means no, every time. Here are some things I said and thought over the course of eight days:
- No, I don’t want to stop for a break. No, really. Really.
- Yes, I want my own room rather than sharing a private room with a man I barely know. Don’t look disappointed.
- If you wouldn’t mind, stop coddling and micromanaging me.
- Oh, I get it, you’re manipulating me.
- Look at me with respect, goddammit.
- I’d like to understand what’s going on rather than just being told what to do.
- Stop looking at me like you’re waiting for me to just give in and make this easy for you.
- No, I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful.
Now, I’m used to shit like men taking up more space, and making myself small on public transit, and, let’s face it, in general. But the small aggressions that make me feel less valuable, capable and respected because I’m a woman can be crazy-making. Especially because most of these feel invisible, particularly to men, and it gets even more complicated when the intention is very likely hospitality and respect.
To be clear, I don’t want to discourage any woman from taking on the world like the badass and/or debutante she is. You can absolutely do it, and you deserve that adventure just as much as any man. But unfortunately, it can be difficult out there, so my intention with this post is to tell you that, more than likely, you’re not crazy. If you feel unsure about a situation, there’s probably good reason. The morning after the incident with the creepy Indian dude and the western guys in my hostel, one of those western guys commended my spidey senses on responding to the Indian guy when he first asked to sit with me. “Thanks,” I said, “It’s a skill I’ve been working on my entire life.”
But as many before me have argued, this is not just a women’s issue. (And of course, safety is a huge issue for transgender women and men, POCs, and other minorities, which I haven’t written about here specifically but definitely want to acknowledge.) This is also a call to action to those western dudes in my hostel and all other men to be more attentive to, and put an end to, conversations that belittle and objectify women. This is your problem too.
What do you think? Do you agree, or does this come off to you as being overly sensitive? Do you think it’s a traveler’s job to adapt to the culture they’re in, absorbing what feels like disrespect in an effort to be easygoing?
Author’s Note: The last sentence of the 12th paragraph has been updated to better reflect my intentions. It used to read: “You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but you’d do better (as men and women) to consider how you might be enabling rape culture through your permissive bystander behaviour.” The sentence now reads: “You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour.”