“First, let me make one thing clear, I love India. The amazing food, music, spiritual philosophies, mountains, beaches, yoga, ethnic and religious diversity and all the other reasons tourists flock there, make India a place worthy of visiting again and again. But for a woman it is often dangerous and restrictive. My life in Europe is a hundred times freer, safer, healthier, anonymous and happier than living in India.” – Jaago Re
As a white, British woman living, studying and working in India over the last seven years it cannot be denied that I benefited from white and economic privilege there. As this First Post article correctly points out:
“The reality is that the average Indian woman — many of whom are poor, lower caste or rural — is far more unsafe in India than any white person.”
Much has been written about the South Asian obsession with pale skin already and I will not explore that here. I am also not going to discuss the derogatory, sexist and racist stereotyping of white women and western culture in India either; Hollywood Should Feel Offended By Bollywood does a very good job of dealing with those issues.
What I am going to raise here is the oft-repeated claim of moral equivalence, that India is somehow ‘the same’ as (or worse than) developed, western countries in terms of how it treats females. Study after study, millions of ‘disappeared’ females, the legality of marital rape, the incessant attacks on young girls and women of all ages so on and so forth confirm that India is one of the worst places for females to live. Yet, many Indian nationalists, religious fundamentalists, patriarchs, and even ‘liberal’, educated types go into full denial mode when these disparities are mentioned. One story in particular appears to unite all these people in their Occidentalist scorn, the personal testimony of white women in India.
First, let me make one thing clear, I love India. The amazing food, music, spiritual philosophies, mountains, beaches, yoga, ethnic and religious diversity and all the other reasons tourists flock there, make India a place worthy of visiting again and again. But for a woman it is often dangerous and restrictive. My life in Europe is a hundred times freer, safer, healthier, anonymous and happier than living in India. If you don’t believe me, here are just a few of the things I experienced in India that I never experienced in Europe:
- Being followed, stared at, verbally abused and commented on wherever I went, alone or with my young son;
- Being in Jammu, where there were hardly any females out in public day or night, and having policemen knock on my hotel door late at night demanding to see marriage papers for the man I was with;
- Being required to give only my father’s name and never my mother’s name on official forms;
- Being blamed for male harassment and inappropriate behaviour towards me;
- Being told not to go out late (after 8 pm) on my own;
- Having racist, sexist and ageist abuse shouted at me in the street by a woman for being in an interracial relationship;
- Being aggressively sexually propositioned twice, by supposedly educated and intelligent men, who refused to take my first, second and several ‘No’s for an answer;
- Being unable to sit or go alone anywhere without attracting male stares or comments;
- Sitting on night buses worried that the man next to me would molest me in my sleep;
- Sitting in women-only carriages due to concerns for safety and privacy;
- Meeting a woman who had been married off by her family to a complete stranger who treated her like a slave;
- Seeing brave, intelligent women alienated and hounded out of their communities for daring to writing about sexism and injustice towards women;
- Reading a women’s NGO research report in which one field staff member blamed a woman for staying in an abusive relationship.
And NO, Europe is not perfect and YES, misogyny and sexism exists there too. BUT I have yet to experience any of these things personally there. It is no conspiracy or mistake that European nations are consistently rated the best countries in the world for females.
Why have I written this? I was asked to do so, several times. By an Indian woman who is tired of the lies, denial and fantasies of Indian nationalists, post-colonialists and patriarchs. Who knows the reality of living in India. Who is alienated by white Liberal ‘friends’ propping up her oppressors and deniers with long words and sophisticated political theories making claims of moral equivalence where there is none. I write it in solidarity with Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross), Ophelia Balan, Sarah Webb and others who have spoken out about their experiences in India and faced not only a deafening silence from white women but also a hateful backlash from those who take any opportunity to attack white women, especially ‘feminists’. I write in solidarity with Japleen Pasricha who bravely wrote about her brief taste of freedom after five months living in Germany and with Swati Parashar, who rightly says ‘It’s time more western feminists spoke up against the violence women in countries like India face repeatedly and every day.’
Women’s personal testimonies and ‘lived’ experiences should never be silenced or belittled based on their skin colour or nationality. Basic human rights are women’s rights and no amount of cultural relativism, ‘victim mentality’, post colonialism or hysterical cries of ‘white imperialism’ will ever change the truth of that. – Jaago Re, February 2015
» The author is a British writer and activist who has worked and travelled extensively in India, Nepal, Europe and North America.