Before I went on a recent trip to Gurgaon, India, just outside of New Delhi, I got a lot of warnings about things to watch out for. Don’t drink the water, people told me. Don’t eat raw vegetables. Watch out for mobs (this from the State Department website). Get vaccinated against polio and typhoid, and take your anti-malaria pills.
Oh yeah, and another thing? “Gurgaon's really unsafe for women, so do be careful, especially after it gets dark,” an Indian journalist wrote me in an email. “I know I sound paranoid, but you can't miss it when you're here :).” Somehow, the smiley emoticon made her warning even more unsettling.
I’ve lived in New York City for most of my life, and so I’ve dealt with my fair share of verbal harassment from guys on the street. Any woman in any American city has. Walk along a rural roadside on your own, and you might well get the same treatment.
Sometimes, things have escalated beyond words. When I lived in Berkeley, California, I got groped by a guy on a BART train and called him out on it in front of a platform full of people. When he fled the station, utterly ashamed, it was one of the most satisfying moments I ever had on public transportation.
So I felt prepared for whatever might happen. Still, my trip to India was going to be my first encounter with a society where everyone advised me that it was best to wear “modest dress” – shoulders and chest covered, long skirts or loose pants – not only in places of worship, but wherever I went. And I had read plenty about the problem of what Indians call, with a mind-bending euphemism, “Eve-teasing.” That’s their name for quotidian sexual harassment, and it can sometimes turn ugly. I knew that the streets of Gurgaon and Delhi might feel quite different from the streets of New York.
In the end, I didn’t experience too many problems from guys (the traffic was scarier). I’m not as young as I once was, and that probably gave me some protection. And the outfits I brought along with me were modest, all right, to the point of being shapeless.
What I didn’t anticipate was the way that being in a culture where women are routinely separated from men -- by their clothing and in all sorts of other ways – would make me feel.
It started at the airport, when I was filling out a government form that was required for me to buy a SIM card for my phone. A little dazed from the 14-plus-hour flight, I had to look twice to make sure I understood it properly: I was being asked to give the name of my “husband or father” in order to complete the application.
I looked at the young man behind the counter, a guy who spoke fluent English and seemed like someone I could just as easily have met in New York. “I have to put in the name of my husband or father?” I asked, incredulous. He laughed and shrugged. “It’s just a formality,” he said.
Just a formality, sure. But a formality that made it quite clear that I was somehow being held apart from regular people – that is to say, men – who could fill out the form without having to cite any sponsoring authority. What if I didn’t have a husband or a father? I asked. The man behind the phone counter gave me a look that said, just fill out the form so we can get on with this. So I did.
In the days that followed, I kept bumping into the sensation that I was being quietly but definitely segregated from men, put in a special class that was weaker and needed protection. This was particularly incongruous since so many of the people I was meeting were well-educated women who ran their own businesses, employed many people, and drove their own cars with aplomb through some of the most harrowing conditions that I have ever witnessed.
And yet these women, all the women I saw, rich or poor, live under a widely acknowledged shadow. It is the threat of sexual violence, and it is borne out by statistics: in the state of Haryana, where Gurgaon is located, there were an average of 61 rapes a month in 2011 in a population of 25 million, and there’s been a 9 percent rise in that rate in the first nine months of 2012.
Many of the victims are poorer women of the Dalit caste living under village governments, and some political leaders give them little sympathy despite widespread popular protests against the situation. The solution proposed by one local village council, to lower the marriage age to 16 from 18, would be laughable if it weren't so sad. Then there was Mamata Banerjee, the female chief minister of West Bengal, who blamed the nation’s rising rape rate on the fact that women and men mix more than they used to.
“Earlier if men and women would hold hands, they would get caught by parents and reprimanded but now everything is so open. It's like an open market with open options," she was quoted as saying.
The implication that women of all classes must be segregated or under male protection to be safe is tacitly acknowledged by the women-only cars on the Delhi Metro, and the seats that are supposed to be reserved for women on the mixed cars.
Having read accounts of some nasty harassment on Indian public transport, I was happy to make use of the female facilities. But I have to admit, I was unnerved at what it felt like to ride one in practice. The car’s far end was open to the mixed car just behind us. As the women around me chatted, or listened to music, or talked on their phones, the men on the other side of the boundary stood and stared, slack-jawed, as if we were exotic creatures in some zoo. As if they had not, just minutes before, been mingling with us on the streets and in the station. I found myself agreeing with an Indian woman who wrote, on the Delhi Hollaback! site,“Segregating men and women will never help anyone develop tolerance and respect for others’ PERSONAL SPACE.”
It’s not just the trains that have women-only facilities for safety reasons. As in many other cities around the world, such as Moscow and Dubai, there are “pink taxis” with women drivers who are "well-trained not only in driving but also in martial arts," equipped with "panic button in case of catastrophe" (although I did not actually see any of these cabs on the streets).
And at Lucia, an upscale Gurgaon club (the city is famous for its hard-partying nightlife) no single men are allowed entry. "With rise of unruly incidents against women, Lucia has taken special measures to ensure safety of its women guests," according to an article in the local magazine Suburb. According to Lucia’s (male) owner, "The concept was initiated to reduce the phobia of women in Gurgaon to party alone…. Stags are strictly not allowed to enter the premise…. We at Lucia have tried to create an atmosphere where ladies can be comfortable without any worry of being stalked or being daunted by the onlookers." That atmosphere includes female security guards.
I can see the attraction of eliminating the "Eve-teasing" problem by banning "stags." But I prefer the idea that women can move freely through society, that men can act responsibly -- and that, as I’ve written before, the rule of law can protect women better than segregation ever would.
Top image: Flickr user zoonabar, via creative commons