American Woman in India
Picture this: 30 Americans arrive to Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India with incredibly different physical appearances than those around them. Not only did we look physically different, but there were also societal differences that made our group stand out even more so than usual. With the Indian population being considerably more modest and conservative than mainstream U.S. culture, specifically with regards to dress, it was inevitable that we would all get a lot of attention. However, because we were a group with the majority being women in a country with a heavy Muslim influence, the attention we were about to receive was something I do not think any of us could have prepared ourselves for.
As a woman myself, being the constant object of so many people’s gazes on our trip was a very difficult transition for me to get used to. The interesting thing about who was looking at us though was that it was not just men, but also women. Growing up in America, being a woman is not necessarily easy or even equal to the life of a man, but it is evident as to how much easier it is compared to the life of a woman in a place like India. In America we have the opportunity to be strong and independent with easy access to things like basic and higher education, as well as high-status positions in jobs. In fact, women can even be unmarried without children if that is what we choose to do. Although there are still stereotypical norms, and some social stigmas attached with marriage, fertility and educating females, they are becoming less prevalent in American society. However it is not just the different roles women play in Indian society that were so different than what I was used to, but it was the way women are viewed in society that really caught my attention. In Indian society, women are thought of as being a part of a lower status and worth than men. As a result, many times I saw Indian women gazing at me, and I wondered if maybe they were looking up to me; if they were seeing me as something they wished they could be at some point in their life. This made me feel privileged and appreciative for the life that I have and the opportunities I have been given, but it also made me feel sad as to how these women were being treated and viewed in society. However, although this was emotional as a woman to see other women in unfortunate situations, I felt something very different when I was the object of the gaze of the men.
I recently re-read my first journal entry from the trip. I found it interesting because my opinion of how I felt about being the object of the gaze changed by the end of the trip. I saw that I wrote,
“It is amazing the fascination that Indians have with Americans. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other place I have ever been. It is really interesting and I feel like a celebrity, it’s awesome!”
In the beginning of the trip I was flattered by all of the attention, I was so excited that there was a country that was fond of Americans. As we walked by different tourist sites people called us the Spice Girls and even asked us for our autographs at a point. In fact, I am almost positive everyone who lives in Delhi or Hyderabad has a picture of someone from our group on their camera or posted on their wall since we were stopped for so many pictures. However, as the trip progressed, this feeling of flattery and happiness quickly turned to me feeling violated and degraded. As a woman in America I feel a sense of power that I hold where I can control the men who are looking at me to a certain extent. I feel that I can stop them from taking their gaze too far, and I can limit them to how much they affect my daily life and personal space. On the other hand, in India, I felt as if the man who was watching me had the power and control, which is what made me feel so differently. I could tell that when the men were gazing at me, as well as the other women in our group, it was like they were watching our every move as if they were investigating us and memorizing our physical appearances from head to toe. These men were viewing us as objects as opposed to people, which I now know is probably because of the way they see their own wives, sisters, mothers and daughters in society. The truth is, it did not matter how conservatively we dressed in our eyes, because in theirs, because we were not wearing an Indian sari, there were no boundaries in place.
This was such an interesting experience for me to have because it helps me put into perspective the power that I have as a woman in America. After seeing how some women are still being thought of as lower than the men in their communities, it makes me want to stand up for their rights and do something to help. It is hard to see this happening in India because they are considered a democracy where all people should be considered equal, however with the Muslim influence I see that we run into conflict with the recurring theme of “Modernity vs. Tradition.” Although this is something that will hopefully be resolved in the near future, I do not foresee the status of women in society changing positively any time soon. As a result, it seems as if the uncomfortable feelings I had will continue to happen to others because the lack of respect that I felt was there because of the little respect they have for the women that is so embedded in their culture.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.