Travelling Light

India, Rape, and Street Harassment: Is It Really About Sexism?

Sweet Beach, Arambol, IndiaBefore travelling to India, I was warned to expect intrusive and entitled behaviour from Indian men. It’s a known problem, I heard. There is a lot of gender inequity, and therefore a lot of rape, sexual assault, and street harassment. They are working on it.

My experience was actually relatively benign, perhaps because I spend most of my time in the company of my husband, who provides a measure of protection.

The only thing I really experienced was being asked by complete strangers to be in a photo with them. It’s a thing in India, apparently, when you see a foreigner, to have your friend take a photo of you with them.

Mostly, this is harmless, and we didn’t mind posing.

Arambol Beach, GoaOnce or twice, when I was on the beach in a bikini and sarong, I felt that the interest was more directed toward my exposed shoulders than our general foreignness, and at those times, I generally declined to be photographed. (It was men, ninety nine times out of a hundred, who asked for a photo.)

On one occasion, even though we had said no to a photo, someone stood beside us and their friend snapped a shot, while we ignored them.

It was on the beach at Arambol that an incident occurred which shifted my perception of the problem with Indian culture which ultimately leads to the statistics for rape and sexual assault.

I was on the beach with my husband, and we happened to be talking about how tiring it is to be surrounded by people who infringe on one’s personal space, when a random guy came up and asked my husband if he could have a photo with us.

Arambol Beach, Goa“Actually,” said my husband, “I don’t want to do that.”

“Please sir,” said the man, “Just one photo, if you don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” said my husband. “The answer is no.”

The man waved his friends to come over. “Just one photo,” he repeated.

“No,” said my husband.

“Please sir,” said the man, still waving his friends toward us, “just one photo, if you don’t mind.”

“He said no,” I told the man.

By this time, the four or five friends were getting quite close to us.

“Just one photo,” repeated the man.

Arambol Beach, Goa“No,” said my husband again.

The friends pulled out mobile phones, clearly intending to take photos.

“Let’s go,” I said, not wanting to be in yet another non-consensual photo.

We walked away, and they may or may not have taken photos of our retreating backs (and my exposed shoulders).

Reflecting on the exchange, I realised that my husband had just had exactly the same experience that women report having in India – his “no” was completely disregarded.

But there was nothing sexual in the interaction, and the conversation was one man to another man, so all the explanations involving sexism and misogyny fail to explain what happened in this incident.

While India undoubtedly has a sexism problem, this was something else. I realised that, in addition to its sexism problem, India has a consent problem.

Arambol Beach, GoaOnce I had this framework to consider, I thought back on all the times when people’s behaviour had made me feel uncomfortable or infringed upon.

Crossing the road at traffic lights, while the “WALK” signal is lit, and having a wall of traffic (not just one vehicle, but every single fucking one of them) ignoring the red light and threatening to run me down. After a few such experiences, I took to making eye contact with each driver in turn and screaming at the top of my lungs “You have a RED LIGHT!” and pointing at it, while continuing, slowly, to cross the street.

Waiting in line at a puja (religious ceremony), and having people physically push past me to jump the queue. Not just oblivious teenagers – I am talking well-dressed, manicured, middle-aged women. I learned how to step to the side and perform a body block, making quite serious physical contact. The alternative to being continually pushed backwards in the queue was spending the entire waiting time pressed hard up against an intruder.

Returning mats to the rack at the end of a yoga class, and while I wait for a space to open up for me to step forward and place my mat, several people push past from behind me and crowd hard up against the people who are bent over replacing their mats.

Arambol Beach, GoaWaiting at the counter of a mobile phone shop for the server to finish serving the person in front of me, only to have someone come up behind me, reach over my shoulder with a handful of notes, and shout their order to the server.

The apparent inability of some people in India to speak in hushed tones when they are near sleeping people. Even when asked to be quiet, and having said “sorry”. More than once. This is particularly common in ashrams and hostels, and in “sleeper cars” on trains, which are anything but. (To be fair, we were told that this behaviour is less common in the areas with higher levels of education, such as Kerala.)

The people who decided that, since the traffic on the road was moving too slowly for their liking, they would take their motorcycles on the footpath and ride as fast as possible, beeping at the pedestrians to get out of the way.

What all these situations have in common is a singular focus on what the individual wants to accomplish, and a complete lack of thought about the impact of their behaviour on others.

Small children are naturally egotistical, and are unable to put themselves in someone else’s position. However, even a child of two of three years can be taught to make sure someone likes what they are doing to them, to take turns, and to consider whether something is “fair for everyone”.

Somehow, somewhere, teaching is not being delivered to a significant proportion of children in India. Not just disadvantaged children; wealthy, privileged, middle-class, and working-class people have all been involved in this type of incident with me, in just the three or four months I have been in India.

Arambol Beach, GoaThe general principle seems to be that people will do as they please, and if it bothers you, you need to make a fuss. A big fuss, because a polite comment will be disregarded. You have to get angry, and raise your voice, or push. Unless it goes that far, people will continue to do as they please.

This, India, is a problem. A big problem.

I don’t want to invalidate all the wonderful, warm-hearted people I have met in India, who have shown me amazing hospitality and become good friends.

I don’t want to suggest that this is being done deliberately, with malice.

At the same time, when you have grown up with it, it can be hard to imagine anything else. I am saying that there IS something else, and the something else is called consent culture.

So many things in India are currently set up on a model of domination culture, where you have to push back constantly against other people who are doing what they please without considering you. It will take a long time, and a lot of education, to have people behave in a more humane way.

It is important to remember that almost every individual participating in this kind of behaviour is, on some level, innocent.

That chap on the beach simply had no way to process that somebody had said “no” to him. His previous life experience had not prepared him to deal with that situation, so he pretended it wasn’t happening.

Arambol Beach, GoaHe didn’t mean to be invasive, or rude, or irritating, or frightening. He probably didn’t even realise that he was, because he was completely oblivious to how we might be feeling. He had never been taught to NOTICE how somebody else feels about what he is doing.

He had the innocent egotism of a small child.

But he was a fully-grown man, in an adult’s body, capable of doing far more harm than any small child could do.

If he were alone with a woman, and she said “no” to his sexual advances, what would be the likely outcome?

You can’t be surprised that rapes, sexual assault, and street harassment are rife, when the necessary foundations for respecting the human rights of others are not laid down in childhood.

The men who commit rapes, assaults, and harassment are, on the whole, not bad men. They are, like this fellow on the beach, innocently self-centred. They have just never learned to be any other way.  They assault and rape women because they have never learned how to hear “no”, or how to respond appropriately when they hear it.

They should have learned all these things by the age of seven or eight. As this delightful story shows, children are completely capable of understanding these things by the age of seven or eight.

There are some promising initiatives under way, such as a mentoring program for young men in Pune, run by the Equal Community Foundation, which will be expanding to other cities in 2016 after showing good results in Pune.

But there is a long way to go. Any person who routinely inconveniences others is part of the problem, especially if they are doing so from a position of power (for example, being in good physical health and pushing in front of people, driving/riding a vehicle and invading pedestrian space, being in a car while others are on scooters and bicycles and breaking the road rules).

Arambol BeachFor India to become a safe place, the average person, man or woman, will need to give up their habit of doing what benefits themselves, and start to consider what they should do to benefit all.

It is not impossible. But it will take time, education, and the widespread willingness to give up getting things at the expense of someone else.

Want to push past someone? Get their consent.

Want to enter an intersection before someone else? Get their consent.

Want to be served before someone else who is already waiting? Get their consent.

Want a photo with someone? Get their consent.

And, most importantly, if you don’t get the consent, don’t do the thing.