Thursday, January 3, 2013

Women, India, and the nature of solidarity

Not sure if I've used this picture before, but it's my left ear, taken during Holi in Delhi. Imagine the rest of me.

So today is a tough one. Possibly the toughest one, because we’re going to talk about hate, and ignorance, and inequality, and violence. A lot to talk about, especially considering I haven’t exactly been chatty these last few months.*

If you’ve been hanging out here long enough, you know that I spent some in India a couple of years ago. And I fell in love with it – everything that has been written a million times about the colors, and the smell of incense everywhere, and the spiritual talismans that become part of people’s everyday backdrop… it’s a one-of-a-kind place. And it’s highly diverse – I spent time on the quietest beach in the world on the west coast, visited the high-tech mecca that is Infosys in Bangalore, and I got thoroughly exhausted and overwhelmed in Delhi.

In fact, I happened to be in Delhi during Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. What an amazing time to be in India, right? People are throwing colored powder in the air, and making conversation with strangers, and everyone is giving thanks for spring. And yet, a festival that should have been life-affirming and fun became incredibly scary, incredibly fast. It prompted one of my first posts on this website, and resulted in destroyed clothing, hiding (literally) in a public park from a roving gang of young men, and bribing a server at the hostel to bring us beer in a teapot because they didn’t have a liquor license and I sorely needed a drink.

I came into Mumbai feeling refreshed, after being in Cairo, to see women moving about and showing skin and wearing colors and making noise. But by the time I left, I angry - more than angry. I was wounded.

My memories of Holi, my memories of rickshaw drivers picking me up for free because they told me I wasn’t safe on the street, my memories of a stranger coming up behind me, covering my mouth, and running his hand all over my chest and butt – well, those memories stuck with me. And they crowded out my many more numerous good memories, staining how I think of the entire nation of India.

I chalked it up to being foreign. I was fair-skinned, with blue eyes and light hair, travelling with an even fairer female friend. We attracted attention everywhere, and I assumed our clothing and foreignness and lack of Hindi were what attracted trouble to us wherever we went. But I was wrong.

If I have learned anything from the rape (frankly, murder) of ______ in Delhi last month, it was that my na├»ve traveler’s assumptions were completely wrong – there is no cultural relativism here, there is no secret code I could have cracked that would make people treat me better. Even if I had spoken the language, worn the saris, had dark skin… I wouldn’t be treated any better. Maybe I’d even have been treated worse.

I don’t like it when people express solidarity by saying “We are all ______.” Especially when there are cultural barriers and traditions that I know I don’t understand, that seems like an insulting oversimplification and an awkwardly patronizing attitude. But today, after weeks of wondering if I would even be able to read the disturbing, nightmarish news stories, never mind write about the atrocious violence against _______, I just realized I had to say it. We are all women. Even the men. And when the women of India start clamouring for their truths and their freedoms, then I’ll be damned if I am not going to join right in.


*Between the holidays and a crazy schedule at work, I’ve been giving myself permission to let this space be what it needs to be, and for that to change. Lately, that’s meant keeping it dormant.

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