I noted in my blog about being driven back to Agra through the pitch black back roads and through villages getting around a big traffic jam… One thing I noticed as we drove in the dark on the main highway- there weren’t any women not accompanied by a man anywhere to be seen, and not very many of them either. Where the heck are all the women? At home because in India, “Nice girls don’t go out at night.” To situate myself so you, dear reader, will understand this context, I am a liberal, liberated North American women who lives in a city that has a higher population of women than men (like most cities in North America). I have traveled extensively, but I have never in my life been to a country where there were no women to be seen anywhere in public, especially after dark. This was a completely unique experience, and was the source of my culture shock.
While we were in the jam, a man got out of one of the waiting public buses and asked, since the driver was his friend or cousin or whatever, if he could come with us. I did the first very un-Canadian thing since arriving in India. I said “No.” That is safety rule one for single female travelers- never let anyone else (especially a man) be in the taxi with you if you’re traveling alone- not for any reason. Everybody is somebody’s friend/cousin/brother, after all. They just shrugged their shoulders and gave the head wag, it wasn’t a big deal. I felt badly that the guy was stuck there, but I didn’t know him from Adam, so no dice.
As soon as we took the detour out of the jam, I was back on the phone to my homestay family, letting them know where I was and when they could expect me. I had the eldest son, Shiron, say hello to the driver too. Driving through the dark countryside was a little scary as we were passing through a village or two that for the most part were completely dark, and we were driving directly behind one of those pickup truck “buses” that was completely full of young men. I then did something that surprised myself- I took my scarf and made it into a niquab to cover my head and face.
Since being in India, I had been stared at pretty continuously, for people are curious, and I’m the epitome of white- fair, Germanic featured, and blue-eyed. I understand that I’m exotic. But to be honest, I just didn’t want to endure all those guys staring at me. I was a bit afraid and I didn’t want even one of them to get a funny idea about “what foreign women are like”, or be offended by my “immodesty” or whatever other thing that could potentially be thought to justify violence of any sort towards me for no reason at all. This was my way of acknowledging their standards of female behavior and a signal that I wasn’t interested in challenging them, it was a signalling of modesty, it was a signalling of “I’m stuck out here and just trying to get home”, it was a signalling of disinterest in them, but for me it was a buffer against the stares. I actually felt better hiding my features. They knew I was there, and they likely knew I was white, but they didn’t get to stare directly at me. I was not on display. It was a weird relief.
There’s basically no way for me to recount this story without being offensive, because what I was essentially experiencing and acting upon was racism: fearing and demonizing the non-white, non-Western ‘other’ and assuming the worst of them- but it was my experience- and women who had lived in India advised me to use the dupatta scarf this way during my visit “as appropriate.”
Maybe my fear was completely unfounded. I was just proven that the infamous touts of India can actually be a source of genuine help. But just in case… fear is what keeps you alive, sometimes. Sometimes it’s wise to be a little fearful. It’s stupid to not pay attention to your own sense of unease. That’s a great way to get yourself into trouble.
(I was a teenager growing up in the big city of Toronto, and not all of my friends lived in “nice” neighbourhoods, so I know what sketchy and potentially dangerous situations feel like in my gut, who in that crowd is genuine “bad news”- I was helpful to whomever else wanted to get out of those potentially sketchy situations before they started because I wasn’t afraid to look like a nerd and pull the chute. It’s a shame for other people who stayed behind how often my instincts proved right.) I’ve traveled alone in other countries, and I’ve always been safe because I trust my gut, and my gut was telling me “this is a good time to keep your face covered.” Did I feel like I had compromised my feminist and egalitarian sensibilities kowtowing to local custom? Nope. I just felt like I did the best I could to keep myself safe in a foreign country where violence against girls and women is still a huge problem. Did I feel a bit guilty for assuming the worst could happen? Yup.
I’ll just leave it at that. This was my first big jolt of culture shock while in India.