Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A place in this world

(To read this article in Swedish, click here.)

My niece is working for a few months in Mumbai at a legal aid/advocacy organization for women and has sent her first dispatch about her experience. Although she is well-traveled for her age, 24, she finds India both fascinating and challenging:

“Nothing and everything is a surprise. I'm constantly taken aback by things I was told to anticipate and expect – cows in the street, overpopulation, poverty, traffic, but I'm still constantly on my toes. Which is good because otherwise I'd get hit by a car, rickshaw, or cow.”

One observation, in particular, resonated with me. Although she enjoys many things about the country, as a young “western” woman on her own, she is experiencing, firsthand, gender culture clash. About men:

“Friendly gestures are invitations. An arm brush is an invitation. Eye contact is an invitation. Yelling loudly ‘No! Don't talk to me!’ is an invitation. Really, it's hard. I walk around sensitive to the glare of men and constantly on guard for my enemy, 50 percent of the population. My workplace is all female, and I'm a regular in the ladies train compartment. I fear I may forget how to interact with men in a normal and healthy manner. So, friends, when I get back home, don't take it personally. It's a jungle for ladies out here.”

It reminds of an experience I had years ago in Tunisia. I went to a bank to get cash and as I completed the transaction, the male teller said, “I love you.” At first I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly, especially because I had said all of five words during the visit. Obviously, it wasn’t personal – I think my American passport caught his eye – but I had absolutely no idea how to handle that kind of remark! I guess I was supposed to be flattered, but mostly I was dumbfounded. I just mumbled, “Thank you,” and got out of there as quickly as possible.

(A couple years ago, my daughter’s friend was traveling with her family in Tunisia. A man offered the friend’s father two camels or a Ferrari in exchange for the friend. Because your average person in Kvicksund has no pressing need for camels or, for that matter a Ferrari, the friend's father declined.)

My niece also said about a few days in Dubai:

“Although I dressed very modestly, I stood out just for being a woman, and especially for being Western. Surprisingly, I was far more comfortable in Deira than the shinier parts of Dubai. Deira was far more crowded, so there was a lot more anonymity. Elsewhere, I was subject to cars slowing down to drive alongside me as I walked or pulling over on the side of the road and silently watching me pass...I felt stalked and terrorized simply on account of my gender…The drivers were working under the assumption I was a prostitute because I was female, alone, and Western. That breeds a terrible feeling of shame and vulnerability. I ended up blowing a lot of money on cabs.”

I’ve talked with other women about this dilemma. In a show of respect for local culture, you dress modestly, watch your behavior, and try not to draw attention to yourself. But it’s about more than just appearance. It’s also about eye contact, bearing, and, really, every aspect of body language and being that screams self-determination and establishes you as someone’s peer, male or female. These things are impossible to censor without great damage to oneself, which is the chronic dilemma of western women who travel in parts of the world where acceptable behavior for women is much more conscribed. How can you mask or change who you are?

They say you don’t miss what you never had. As a western woman, it’s difficult to tolerate regressive attitudes; but it’s heart-wrenching to know most women in the world are seldom encouraged to dream, believe, or dare.

At least they don’t know what they’re missing…I hope.


  1. I have no desire to go to any of those places. I live in a place that I can be me. People in the rich West can choose to be vegetarians because they can choose what food they eat. People in poor countries eat what food they can get. Women in the west can imagine themselves and live as equals to men only because the men in our culture (for the most part) have agreed to comply to the covenant of not exercising violence against women. In cultures where violence against women is accepted and commonplace, women can never be free to be whole human beings.
    Just my two cents.

  2. "In cultures where violence against women is accepted and commonplace, women can never be free to be whole human beings." Agreed. Nonetheless, women still have hopes and desires for something different even if it's as basic as "My neighbor's husband doesn't beat her. Why can't my husband not beat me?" Or "That family manages to get enough to eat. Why can't I or how can I help my family get more?" To want something different or better is innate in all of us. To not "want" is to give up.

    The interesting question, then, I think, is, as an outside observer, is it better to step in (if you so desire) to help women in such situations improve their lot as best we can or does that just inflame "want" and make them even more miserable when they realize what they’re missing and the challenges they face?

    I think key factors are self-awareness and self-determination. If you FEEL you're making your own choices and controlling your own destiny (even if you don't or you're not) you can put up with a lot and find satisfaction in small changes. If you feel helpless, that leads to despair because you still "want" but you don't feel there's a thing you can do about it. Maybe a helping hand at that point curbs despair?

  3. Perceptive comment in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, 6 March 2011, about challenges facing female writers. Aside from no time to write because of multiple demands and male-dominated publishing industry, women traditionally perceived as objects rather than subjects in writing world. “To be able to write and describe the world, you must be a subject…As women become the subjects of their own lives and in society at large, it is easier for us to write.” (Moa Elf Karlén)


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