Living in India as a Western Woman

Posted by Esther Motullo • Monday, May 10. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
I came as a woman to India, my choice of destination for fulfilling the next endeavors…

… and guess what, I’m still in India and believe or not: I am still a woman!

What is it like to be a woman from Germany living in India? What a simple and complex question at the same time! Let’s begin with the daily routine, pulling the bicycle out of the garage, preparing for the regular ride to work. This seemingly not worth mentioning act is today welcomed by a burst into heart full laughter of the by now well-known neighbor. Shortly after he asks in Hindi at least for the third time, what in the world I’m up to. Despite all the attempts of the most obvious explanations, ranging from the enjoyment of riding a bike, exploring the new city, saving money, looking for an exercise - to mention a few - he still seems to bang his head on what to make of this shockingly awkward picture. I will come across this almost paradigmatic reaction several times more on my way to work. I don’t mind, not the least, because it adds a significant amount of entertainment to my daily routine. I am grinning over some of the ones out there, bumping into each other or on good days crashing into street lights while staring towards the cycle lane.

© by Biswarup Ganguly

This has on the other hand been the initiator to learn about the notorious “German Stare”, I was not even aware of before. The Internet offers a whole literature on how Germans have a serious staring problem! Either a grandmother from the balcony on the second floor or the guy next to the other passengers in the subway, we prefer to take a real close look at the scenario around us - not to be forgotten, the tempting foreign look of non-Germans, who we here and there thoroughly stare at. For me this is personally a fruitful inter-cultural learning experience. Nonetheless this morning I’m left alone with a number of thoughts while riding among the almost exclusively male cyclers. These thoughts slowly but surely evolve into a recognizable pattern, circling around the questions, what is it then really like and how does it actually feel, to be a ‘Western’ female undertaking the attempt to settle in India.

Let’s keep the general and quite evident cultural differences between Germany and India aside. Being a woman that has developed her ideas, habits and understanding within something called the European value system and that is now searching for her role within another part of this world, does adjoin a very unique character to the experience and daily inter-cultural lessons.

The public sphere of Indian society is still highly dominated by men. This in itself requests a number of adjustments by a woman trying to find a spot within societal life. There is the daily task, probably known to almost all the females visiting from outside (and who are not just throwing themselves into Goan fashion): the task of finding an appropriate outfit equivalent to the common dress code for women in India. Sadly enough, but since the wonderfully comfortable sari is still not my choice of look yet, it becomes a mission of creativity to properly cover tempting parts of the female body and at the same time breaking the conservative manner of how women are supposed to dress themselves – a brilliant and enjoyable task in a country like India, offering an unbeaten inspiration to use color and comfort in designing clothes. To this our casual Friday looks like a rainy afternoon. Not to be neglected - that is important to add here – is the encouragement of India’s young women of today. Particularly in the drastically modern realms, such as some districts in the metropolises Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore, she is strongly demanding for acceptance of her own style and individual taste. And this is not restricted to fashion only. The fashion revolt though can be witnessed by the untrained eye somewhere between the lines of modern alterations of the traditional Indian salwar kameez and beautiful Indian inventions of the familiar Western style look, if such one exists (yes, also including high heels, miniskirts and jeans with tank top). It’s evident that the need for adjustment and compromise doesn’t mean you are left without choices!

On top of that, the “white factor” seems to open up interesting new money-making opportunities. As recently discovered by a Delhi based newspaper: being a hot white woman in itself has founded a new industry branch in the field of event management. The presence of firang babes at parties is supposedly a sign of a new trend in Delhi, where a bevy of sexy blondes are hired to add glamour to the evening — be it a high profile cricket match after-party, a posh club launch or an upscale wedding. Depending on whether these women act as hostesses and bartenders or simply offer a sight of their beauty – all there to raise the glamour factor – they seem to get paid starting at thousands of Rupees per night, with significant room for a raise. What a stunning career opportunity compared to the rather boring standard job of being a civil servant at your embassy or engaging in development projects for the civil society. The journalist had an interesting headline for this and called it the white mischief.

The fact that Delhi is the top scorer when it comes to unsafe conditions of women in the public sphere – especially working in nightshifts and walking outside after sunset – doesn’t necessarily make the prosperous job more attractive. Delhi is shortly followed by Bangalore on this award scale. By taking a closer look at the National Crime Records Bureau findings, the whole fame aspect of being a woman (let it be white) loses its glamour effect. Harassment in public spaces is perhaps a problem faced by every second woman in Delhi, no need to differ between Western and Indian. There are many reasons that the still very deprived status of women exists with regards to freedom and safety. Major reason can be traced to the poor urban environment: dark or badly lighted streets, empty lots, badly maintained public spaces, and a lack of public toilets. Also insufficient presence and unresponsive attitudes of police, civic authorities or the neighbor next door choosing to look away are some of the key factors. Sadly enough this holds especially true for Indian women, whereas Western women in many of the cases receive a privileged and very responsible attention. Other factors could be a traditional notion of privacy and refusal to intervene in situations of harassment or violence on women. Here ideas and beliefs about appropriate behavior could be leading to reluctance to protest openly. The impact of patriarchal structures is very evident and still seems to feed the lack of respect towards women and women’s rights. Each individual taking part in the public sphere can be a victim and is given the opportunity of making a difference at the same time.

There is still a long ways to go until we woman will be accepted as a truly equal part of public live in India, but as much this is evident here, it also holds true in many more societies in this world, including my own. India is undertaking some serious efforts in the government sector as well as within civil society to achieve this change. This struggle deserves a much broader coverage than can be provided here. Meanwhile I’m continuing to find my way between comprise, inspiration for change and the actual threats to personal integrity, which can hardly be accepted as cultural perks.

Let’s continue the journey…
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  1. Esther-
    Great piece and great job touching on the complex conundrum of race and gender in India. I have always harbored mixed feelings over my role as a white woman in India; it might be the only time I envy men in the world, for the freedom I sometimes perceive and the extra layer of caution that can be left behind. However, at the end of the day, I feel privileged to having been given access to the beautiful world of women in India and other foreign countries that I know a man would never be allowed into. Years ago I found myself playing dress up with 3 generations of women in a tiny one-room apartment in an out of the way and unpaved neighborhood of Bangalore. I felt like a conspirator in this apartment building of women- no men lived there, and thus we were free to giggle together.

    Other times, working alongside young girls in a mustard field in Rajasthan, playing the name game in Hindi and English, I know that I can get behind these young girls' shyness because of our deeply shared feminine bond.

    I have been guilty of pushing to the front of queues and of booting men from the top train birth, and not felt guilty in the least despite the knowledge that my gender and skin color make these emboldened acts possible. It's strange to move through a world where I feel worshiped in one moment, objectified and despised in the next.

    Mostly at the end of the day what I say to others is, "It's complicated, but I wouldn't want to be anyone else."
    -Kate

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