Being a woman in India

An Indian woman covered head to toe in 40 degree heat 

I’ve always hated India. From the time I was tiny, I fervently believed that one day I would be able to escape its clutches. I never fitted in, even when I was young. Indian girls are supposed to be short, skinny, pale and docile, subservient to the wishes of men and elders. I was never any of those things. It was a society that rejected me, and in turn, I rejected it. After I finished high school, I worked on minimising my contact with Indian society as much as I could. I spoke to no one outside my very small circle of friends (usually numbering 2 or 3 people), I didn’t use public transport, and I never went out anywhere. In 2008, I dropped out of my MA course and relegated myself to my attic room, cutting off all contact with the outside world and spending my days smoking pot with my then-girlfriend. I spent two years doing nothing else. I was completely isolated. I had come to a point in my life where even my limited contact with Indian society as a fat, tall, outspoken woman had eroded my self confidence to nothing. In order to get something of myself back, I needed utter solitude.

And it worked. By 2010, I was confident in my body and even believed that guys would want to date me – something that was impossible in India. When I went to the UK that October,  I was ready to finally begin my life. In the end it turned out that I never actually began the life I had dreamed of, seeing as I remained introverted as ever, but so many things happened that I never thought could happen. I had a blog which was actually read by people and appreciated, I could dress in the clothes I had always wanted to dress in and not feel uncomfortable, I met other fat people like me and felt a sense of community for the first time in my life, and I even had a relationship with a guy. A relationship where I was happy, where I felt sexy and desired and loved. It felt like the culmination of all my dreams, like I was finally being rewarded for all the awfulness I had gone through. But eventually that ended, and a while later, so did my time in the UK. And now I am back in India, and navigating the terrain in a way I have never done before.

I can’t hide in my attic room any longer. My ex-girlfriend who I used to hide with is getting married and I have to work for a living. Every morning I get up at 8 and take the tube and 3 autos to work. The tube ride is something I have to brace myself for every. single. time. It’s not the crowds, although those are bad enough. Indian people violently lack in civic decency, so it’s usually a case of shoving someone out of the way to get on the train and being shoved aside by someone on the way out. That’s not the worst part though. The worst part is what happens on the train. India is a severely, wretchedly misogynistic society. If you have grown up in the west, it’s hard to envision the sheer scale of violence that is practiced against women here. A woman in India has no human rights. Let me repeat that. A woman in India has no human rights. There are half a billion of us living here and we have to literally wrest out some sort of life from the clutches of the patriarchy on a daily basis. You will be lucky to escape rape in India if you are a woman. To Indian men, a woman is no more than a sentient piece of meat designed solely for their gratification. Indian men don’t know how to look at women without mentally undressing them. Your body is not your own. It belongs to the public. It is the sole life aim of every single Indian woman to pass undetected under the radar and at the end of the day thank one of the 300 million gods that she wasn’t raped or harassed that day. We believe that our bodies are somehow “indecent” and can “provoke” men if not covered from head to toe at all points. So in 40 degree heat, we go around in full sleeves and trousers, holding our bags in front of our chests, trying to avoid eye contact with any man. I am lucky. I am bigger and taller than most Indian men, and so they avoid harassing me. I don’t escape the attention of the women though.

Today was the second time in less than a week that I was fat and slut shamed on the tube. It was a woman who did it, just as it was a woman who did it the first time around. Let me elaborate. In India, I don’t dress the way I did in the UK. My work attire is a plain cotton tee and a pair of baggy, shapeless jeans and flip flops. It’s the most unobtrusive outfit I could think of, without going into salwar kameez territory, because I’d rather immolate myself than wear one of those. But even an innocuous t shirt and pair of jeans is not demure enough for the Indian public. The women, they call out to me loudly, and tell me to cover myself up and append that statement with something on the lines of “one woman’s shame is every woman’s shame” or “we feel ashamed to look at you”. And the worst part? They act like they are doing you a favour. Maybe they really think they are. Maybe they think they are helping you not get raped by “provoking” men in such slutty clothes. It’s the way things always have been. The patriarchy has the country in its iron grip and the women collude with it. To speak out is to live a life of singular daily harassment and eventually die a terrible, violent death. We don’t question it. We stick to our “traditions”, traditions which dictate that female fetuses be routinely aborted and female newborns murdered, transwomen spend their lives on the streets, begging for a living and 2 and 4 year olds raped, disembowelled and left to die on train tracks. And that’s just scratching the surface. All this happens because women in India are no better than chattel. We, and our bodies belong only to the men in our lives, and if they want to brutally rape and murder us, well then, that’s just “tradition”.

I don’t know how to fight back against this. I don’t even know if anyone is fighting back against this. The only Indian feminist I know is currently in Binghamton and due to move back to India end of the month and justifiably apprehensive about it. As for me, I just dream of escape. When I was 17, I tried dating Indian guys and was so traumatized by the experience that I stopped talking to guys altogether for 7 years. I spent the years counting down to the day I could go to the UK. And now I’m back in the same position again, counting the days till I can do my TEFL course and escape to Europe/Australia/South America/ North America/ anywhere but Asia, obviously never to come back. Could I stay and fight for my basic human rights? Yes, I could, but that is not the life I want. I don’t want to wake up everyday to a world where simply existing is a constant struggle, and compounding that struggle by speaking up against the things people take for granted around me. Some people aren’t meant to be activists – some people don’t have the spoons and only really want a quiet, happy life with a loving partner and children. Both of which I will be denied if I stay in India. So I’m running away again, as I once did.

I’ve been back for barely 2 months, and in that short time I feel like I have been reduced to a shell. It’s hard to find peace; the only things I look forward to every day are my joint and my wank. Those are the only times I can feel somewhat content. Every time I venture out of the house, I feel like India is eroding away at what little is left of me. I have no more self esteem anymore. I don’t wear nice clothes, or makeup. I put on the same clothes everyday, clothes in which I try to hide and fail, scrimp my hair back, shoulder my backpack and pretend to be invisible. I feel like Arya in Game of Thrones when she was at Harrenhal – a wolf turned into a mouse. If I continue to live in India, I will soon be a ghost of my former self. I don’t know how other Indian women do it. I see my best friend living here happily, and my sister, and I marvel at them. I don’t doubt that they are happy, because I can clearly see that they are, but I do wonder what it is that makes me so different to them. They have lived here all their lives and they have thrived. I, on the other hand, have barely survived, and that too by isolating myself. Yes, not everything was great in the UK, and I had plenty of reasons to complain – mostly because of the racism woven into the very fabric of society there. But it wasn’t relentless. I never felt like I was being annihilated. Yeah, university made me feel stupid, I was pretty lonely, and a vein of subtle racism ran through it all, but I was allowed to be myself. And I wasn’t punished for it. In India, you are punished severely if you deviate from the norm even a little bit. It’s the reason we produce vast quantities of engineers but no scientists.

I used to hate NRIs – Non Resident Indians, or what Indians living outside India are called. They always seemed to be to be the very worst examples of humanity. They are the kind of people who would come back to “the motherland” laden with duty free crap and pretend that they were bringing gifts from the very gods, and go on about how wonderful the west is at every opportunity, showing off their consumer durables and clothes, and drinking only bottled water. I still hate them. And by extension, I hate myself. Because I seem to have turned into one of them. I studied postcolonial theory because I thought it would help me understand these things better. But I am no wiser now than I was when I first entered university at the age of 19. I still don’t have answers to the questions I had back then. Why do we, as a culture, reject the concept of personal autonomy? Why do we rape/abuse/kill our women at unprecedented rates? Why are we so corrupt? So incurious about the world? I don’t have an answer to any of this, and the questions just keep on piling. So I just try to shut out the world and plan my escape. It’s the only way I can survive. Fly across a continent, an ocean or two and never, ever look back. I have that option because I’m middle class, well-educated and speak better English than most speakers of English on the planet. I’m selfish and likely a hypocrite. It’s people like me who are one of the biggest reasons behind India’s misery and privation – instead of trying to make things better, we plan our escape routes as soon as we can. Escape is seductive. Escape is the dream of a world of untold luxuries, populated by the people we have been trying to be like since they first colonized us. I will escape. But most of the half a billion women I will leave behind here never will. Maybe they don’t want to escape though. Maybe their experiences are different. Maybe they are thicker skinned, more resilient, or maybe they have just given up hope. Maybe they are fighters. And maybe I’m just a twisted product of a postcolonial culture, brimming with self loathing, anxiety and trauma, and trying to patch up things in my head by rejecting what’s my own.

I don’t know. I don’t have any handy answers. All I can do is run away and keep running.

ETA: I’m disabling comments on this post because I am in NO mood to be flamed by Indian people who believe that I’m symbolic of everything that is wrong with the country.

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