Travelling while female

This week we had a wonderful guest speaker named Deekpa who told us about her work with a women’s advocacy organization here in Himachal Pradesh. Deekpa told us her story of how she escaped an abusive relationship, despite the social and cultural pressures that often prevent women from doing so. She spoke about the judgement and lack of support that widowed and divorced women, some of whom are survivors of abuse, face in India. As we asked Deekpa questions, Vaila joined in and to ask us how we, as women, feel we’ve been treated here. I have been thinking about this quite a bit since we’ve arrived, and the contributions of my classmates, as well as writing this post, have helped me clarify my thinking on the subject.

When I told family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, that I was coming to India, I received a great deal of unsolicited advice about how to navigate this country as a woman. “Didn’t you hear about that rape in Delhi?”, one man asked, as I tried to explain to him that I simply needed to cancel my gym membership because I would be travelling for a few months. “You’d better be careful. Don’t go anywhere alone and don’t talk to the local men”, a family friend said. At first, I couldn’t pinpoint why these comments bothered me. After some critical reflection, I realize that the reason is twofold: these comments assume that problems of sexual violence are unique to faraway places, and take no account of the privilege I carry with me when I travel.

As Deekpa showed us, India certainly has a unique set of issues perpetuating patriarchal systems, and disempowering women. However, so does Canada. There are global systems that allow sexual violence and discrimination against women to persist, and while I would never minimize important discussions happening about the specific issues faced by women in India, I find it interesting that people can readily recognize these issues abroad, but are discomforted by acknowledging them at home.

Since I’ve been here I have been leered at and have had a few lewd remarks made towards me. However, these incidents have been few and far between; for the most part, people have been very respectful. As a white female traveller, I may experience harassment and be subjected to some inappropriate comments, but I still do not think I will ever be able to understand how local women experience patriarchy and misogyny. Though my white skin often attracts unwanted attention, due to global systems of power and colonial legacies, it also signifies privilege and power that inevitably alters how I am treated. As a white tourist, there will always be a distance and otherness that prevents me from becoming entirely immersed in the locality I’m in, and that makes it impossible for me to experience it as an Indian woman would. I hope to be able to speak to more women like Deekpa and to hear about their lived experiences. When I return home, I also hope to engage in discussions with family and friends about the devastatingly global nature of these issues.

– Maddy

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