I came to Lucknow, the capital city of India's Uttar Pradesh region, in hopes of talking to women about rape culture. Uttar Pradesh has been in the spotlight of Western media due to widespread reports of sexual assaults. I hoped to interview women and to give them a voice, but I ran into an interesting problem:
I couldn't find any.
From restaurants to shopping centers, clothes vendors to tea shops, there was hardly a single woman to be found. Friday night in the city, the streets were dominated by a sea of merry-makers, and they were all of the male gender. Even during the daytime, the streets were bustling with men, men, and more men as far as the eye could see.
Men were cooking and men were cleaning. Men served me my dinner and then men washed my dishes. I felt like I'd stumbled onto some kind of penis utopia. When was the holocaust that wiped out their women? My presences seemed alien and unknown to their kind. It was like I had landed on some eerie planet, where the men had been left to fend for themselves.
It reminded me of that Futurama episode where the crew stumbles upon a planet that is populated by exclusively females. The women of the planet are so overwhelmed by the presence of men, that they force them to participate in sexual intercourse. Is rape culture in India like a reverse snoo-snoo? Is the absence of women from everyday culture the reason their purpose is exploited and skewed?
Pallavi Chaturvedi, an Indian woman I met later in Agra, was pleased that I had made this boys' club observation. From the comfort of her home, I asked Pallavi if she thought the absence of women from the public sphere might contribute to the prevalence of rape culture in Uttar Pradesh.
"It's probable," she lamented, "If men aren't used to seeing women in public, they don't know how to act when they actually do."
"It was not like this when I was a girl," added Pallavi's mother (translated from Hindi), "I used to go where I wanted alone. The men have gotten more aggressive since my generation." Pallavi and her mother explained how culture clash between traditional Indian culture and Western influences is a contributing factor to this change in society.
"Western culture has impacted the change," Pallavi remarked, "They [Indians] are trying to copy a culture that doesn't fit with their own. All cultures have good and bad. They [Indians] are only taking the bad qualities of Western culture and not enough good." Pallavi and her family cited the rises of binge drinking and pornography within Indian culture.
Western influence is largely reflected in India's popular media. Since ladies seemed absent from the streets of Lucknow, the only women I encountered were on the television. I was surprised to see multiple Indian music videos, including a love scene from the film "Agneepath", portraying intercourse between a man and a woman in a fairly literal sense. The Indian man always lied on top of the Indian woman in bed, with a bed sheet between them, as he sensually kissed her neck and face. It was portrayed as romantic, and loving, and not at all rapey.
This came as a surprise to me considering India's reputation for having a conservative culture, not unlike many Eastern societies. This kind of intimacy would never be portrayed in a Muslim country like Indonesia, which has anti-pornography laws that prevent acts of love from gracing the airwaves. Even in Thailand, a Buddhist country, it has been considered taboo to show an on screen kiss. According to a source living in Bangkok, a Thai movie was recently released that featured stars locking lips at the end of the film. Unaccustomed to this kind of silver screen affection, the theaters erupted with nervous laughter.
Meanwhile, India's Bollywood music videos amp up the sex appeal. It is also worth noting that while I saw Indian women portrayed as precious objects of affection, the only white women I saw were in a wedding scene. They danced on tables wearing only their underwear, while Indian men sat around them, staring intently. The Indian women in this scene remained fully clothed.
Despite this sexualized portrayal of women in television, accompanied by the absence of women from everyday public interaction, I must admit that the men of Lucknow treated me kindly. The men at my hotel were helpful and respectful, regardless of the fact that I was *literally* the only female guest for my entire stay. The men who ran restaurants welcomed me into their establishments. They offered me the best service possible for no extra charge.
As a Western woman, I often transcend traditional gender roles when I am immersed in foreign cultures. The locals are intrigued and recognize me as foreign. I am invited to socialize in all male settings as much as I'm invited to sit with the women. The ability to to observe both sides of the gender gap is an advantage that male travelers are not allowed.
I walked around by myself, even in the evenings. The men who spoke English were eager to converse. It seemed like everyone from Lucknow reported having a cousin in Miami. The men taught me about food and culinary customs. One elderly man wearing a Star Trek Voyager sweatshirt was so pleased to meet me and practice his English, that he refused to allow me to pay for my Indian breakfast. (Unfortunately, he was not a Voyager fan, but he liked that his sweatshirt looked modern and Western).
Pallavi was intrigued by my positive experience with the men of Lucknow. She explained that it's uncommon for Indian women to be treated so kindly in public.
"Perhaps they [Indian men] see a Western woman walking alone," she speculated, "[They realize] she came from another country. They think she has guts. [On the other hand], they see an Indian woman walking alone, they think, 'why is she walking alone?' 'Where is she going?' 'Why aren't any family members accompanying her?'"
"It's incredibly difficult for a Western woman to experience what it's like for Indian women who live here," commented Amy Watt, a woman from Scotland now traveling solo in India, "We get treated so differently. It's almost as if we're seen as an entirely different species."
As I conversed with the men of Uttar Pradesh, there was one question that no one seemed to know how to answer.
"Where the ladies at?" I asked (with alternative phrasing).
This inquiry seemed to go right over their heads. A public world without women was all they knew. A living, thriving, sausage fest metropolis is the norm for the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and no one could imagine any alternative.
"[Indian] women are brought up not allowed to interact with others, especially men," Pallavi interpreted, 'They are brought up to be shy and introverted." This explains why most women at the train station got flustered and turned, covering their faces, whenever I tried to say "hello".
I never felt threatened while roaming through Lucknow. The men were friendly and curious, staring at me intently in wonder and inquiry. Perhaps I was a bit naive about the stares. As a traveler, I'm used to standing out in a crowd. Pallavi explained that as a foreign woman in India, the stares were maybe half curiosity. She thinks the other half of the stares were simply perversion. Regardless, the men of Lucknow were eager to pose so I could take photographs, and they never once shamed me for being alone.
This is in contrast to places like East Java, Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo, and most of The Philippines. These are places where I felt threatened, and these are places where I was groped. Perhaps it's worth noting that these are also cultures where sexuality is censored from movies and television, in all senses of the concept, whether loving or violent.
So why all the negative buzz about India? Where was the media when I punched a groper in Panay? India may be crazy and chaotic, and definitely male dominated. However, it doesn't feel rapey for a tourist like myself, despite the seemingly unending, penetrating stares.
I came to India with the anxiety that my experience might be like a 1990's Madonna video. Quite the contrary, nobody in Uttar Pradesh has tried to grope me. Sorry to disprove the handsy reputation (UPDATE: this would change once I got to New Delhi for Holi). However, I am but one individual, living my own unique experience. This does not discredit the thousands of women who have been sexually assaulted in Uttar Pradesh, in India, and in all other places around the world. Sexual assault is a global pandemic. We cannot point fingers at one region alone.
"To me, it [violence against women] is the same all over the world," remarked Pavalli, "It's universal."
It's difficult to speak for the local women of Uttar Pradesh, the ones who struggle to speak out against domestic violence. I get the sense that a lot of the assaults happen at home, behind closed doors and away from the public eye. Perhaps that is why it's so easy for perpetrators to hide. There is no doubt that Lucknow is a big ol' man show, where women must function behind the scenes.
I can imagine why speaking out against rape and sexual assault would be such a challenge in a culture where women almost cease to exist from the public sphere. With so little connection with the outside world, it's no wonder these incidents of violence towards women are efficiently swept right under the carpet. According to Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asian director for Human Right's Watch, it is the community's responsibility to defy isolation and create a means for women to come forward about sexual assault.
"The Uttar Pradesh government needs to urgently create an environment for victims to come forward and seek justice "(Human Rights Watch: 2013).
I finally encountered females while leaving the city, as we packed ourselves into a "women only" train car. Fatima*, a software engineer working in Lucknow, was able to give me some answers. First, I asked her why I hadn't encountered any women walking down the streets or patronizing vendors.
"Why would women want to be on the streets?" she questioned, looking perplexed by the suggestion and incredibly baffled. Fatima told me that women in Lucknow did not go to restaurants because they cooked at home. She also said that the women of Lucknow do like to go shopping, but they wait until the weekends to visit indoor malls. Overall, going for a stroll down the streets of the city wasn't an enjoyable pastime for the women of Lucknow.
"There are too many men with nothing to do, just hanging around all day, passing comments on women" (Washington Post: 2013).
Fatima explained that in Uttar Pradesh, women spend most of their lives existing within domestic settings. Their roles in society are based on tradition. Their cultural purposes are to be good wives and mothers.
"Traditionally India has been a country where the man of the house gets the money and the wife takes care of the house." (Choudhary: 2013).
"A lot of Indian men think that women should have equal rights," commented Kamrul Verama, who runs a Homestay in the city of Agra, which is also located in Uttar Pradesh, "But unfortunately this is a minority opinion."
"Traditional gender roles are a part of our culture," Fatima described.
"However, rape is not cultural," Pallavi later clarified. She insisted that sexual violence must not be valued as something that is culturally acceptable, no matter what society is being considered.
As with many traditional social structures, if a woman in Uttar Pradesh becomes a victim of rape or sexual assault, it can jeopardize her prospects for marriage. This puts her societal role into limbo - it can destroy her future and entire well being. Those who speak out against sexual assault in Uttar Pradesh are oftentimes outcast from their villages, along with their families, only to face the hardships of homelessness in this poverty-stricken nation. According to The Tribune Express,
"She [the victim of sexual assault] will be branded as dirty and will be thrown out of our own community...For these women, rape is something to be ashamed of" (AFP: 2013).
It is crucial that survivors of sexual assault have a network of support on the path to recovery. For many survivors, it is important to validate their traumatic experience so they can makes sense of it all and begin to move forward. Thereby, the practice of victim shaming and social exile is far from proactive within this society which stigmatizes victims into a painful silence.
"If a girl is harassed," explained Pallavi, "The families [currently] do not support her. The families, even society, should support her. They should not be outcast."
I asked Pallavi how India can move forward with regards to their existing rape culture. Just like I discovered in Indonesia, the resolution to violence against women in India lies in the need for more education.
"Education is important," Pallavi declared, "It [rape] is considered most sensitive and most cheap that women don't want to talk about it. Women should be encouraged to have some courage, and they shouldn't feel shy to talk about it. [India must] encourage women to speak up, go out, and learn how to handle social situations.
"Cultural shifts come from education. This doesn't mean fancy degrees. It means changing your way of thinking. Women need to be educated how to work and how to protect themselves." Pallavi went on to describe that this must happen gradually, as more and more Indian women enter the workforce.
"Work places give men and women a chance to learn how to interact with one another in a public setting," remarked Fatima, who estimated that half of her co-workers were of the opposite sex. This is likely close to accurate considering that Fatima works in the field of internet technology. Her approximation is comparable to a statistic provided by The Mint, a subsidiary of The Wallstreet Journal, which states that forty percent of India's IT and BPO employees are female (Chaudhary: 2013).
The economic benefits of women joining the workforce are immense. According to an article released by The National, this trend is likely to result in making India twelve percent more wealthy by 2015, and twenty-five percent more wealthy by 2025 (Heikkila: 2012). This increase in financial stability will lead to improved standards of living across the nation, which is a huge win for this developing country.
Some argue that women's evolving roles in society, along with their increased presence within the work force, have actually been aggravates to India's rape culture. This is because some men see women gaining independence and interpret it as a threat to traditional gender roles. After all, rape is not always a crime of passion. It is often used as a tool of oppression. It can be used as a means for reaffirming masculinity by intimidating women back into their places. Purnima Nagaraja, a psychiatrist who works with women in Uttar Pradesh, explained this further.
"In India, men rape because it's a manly thing to subjugate the weaker sex...Our culture puts so much emphasis on being 'a man', which creates huge insecurities for men as they see women's status rising in society" (Gowen: 2013).
It is important to clarify that not all Indian men are horrible rapists, and that plenty of them sympathize with the progressive movement. The concept to take away here is that Indian culture is definitely evolving, both economically and socially, whether the traditionalist manly-men like it or not. Pia Heikkila of The National writes,
"The immense growth is attributed to socioeconomic and cultural shifts taking place in India...Indian companies are noting the growing female literacy rate, growing working women population, growing social freedom, growing social media networking and the increasing female consumption, and overall it will challenge old male bastions and biases in society...Indian women's freedom to make their own decisions has also gone up" (Heikkila: 2012).
Fatima believes that women in the workforce pose no threat to traditional values. She described that women like herself typically return home to care for their families immediately after their shifts. That is why women are absent from other parts of the public sphere. They are far too busy juggling their careers and their households to be loitering around tea shops all night. Most Indian women are reportedly doing a superior job of multitasking their lives, too. According to The Mint,
"Data indicates that women are doing a great balancing act between work and family responsibilities...juggling family and work commitments" (Choudhary: 2013).
It must be noted that the Lucknow sausage fest phenomenon is not entirely typical throughout all of India. This country is incredibly large and diverse, with numerous sub-cultures and castes to consider. There are many more regions and traditions to explore. In the meantime, here's to no future gropings! *knocks on wood*
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*Name has been changed