Gender buffet has a whole new meaning

When I arrived in Jaipur, I felt as if the gender dynamics people spoke of were exaggerated or sought out. I sensed that we came expecting to see sexism, so we looked for it and then cried out against it: a ladder of inference filtering our experience through our pre-conceived bias. The longer I am here, the more this view changes.

At first I was unfazed.

Walking into the club, I feel the familiar rush of the feeling of the base vibrating below my feet. Beth smiles and shakes her head to the beat, lip syncing the words. We grab hold of each other and push our way through the crowd, finding a pocket on the dance floor where we can settle in.

Letting the music take hold of me, I dance. I feel at home in this place: unaware of my surroundings, only tuned into the music that surrounds. I let go.

Suddenly, Beth calls me out of my rhythmic stupor. She motions around the dance floor. Leaning towards my ear, she shouts over the music. “Are we the only women here?!” she asks.

I look around and see what she means. We are in a sea of Indian men. A swirling shirt catches my eye and I notice one woman dancing in the corner with her beau.

Smiling, I shrug. Pointing to the girlfriend, I reply: “not the only women,” and dance on.

Then irritated.

I look up from my book to realize that the group of men on the benches in front of us has doubled. Averting their gaze, I shift my eyes only to discover a man sprawled beneath the tree blatantly propped up so to see us better. Sitting up to turn my back to the onlookers, I face yet another set of men, unabashedly perched in the middle of the park. Just. Staring.

Literally surrounded by gawking men, I turn to my friend. “This is getting a little creepy,” I say. She agrees and we pack up our things and start down the path.

We hear the footsteps behind us and silently confer with one another. We veer right and step back into the grass for our uninvited guest to pass. He does not take the hint and turns with us. “Your names?” we hear as we notice him pull out his phone for the camera.

“No.” My friend says strongly. “We will not take a photo and we don’t want to talk. Please go.”

Now it’s him whose startled. Bewildered, he defends his past hour of staring and now pursuit, “Me? I am not a bad boy.”

It made me feel vulnerable.

I notice he is keeping pace with us from across the street. My co-workers and I are walking from the restaurant we just ate at to karaoke a handful of blocks away.

When it lasts too long for my comfort, I share my concern under my breath. “We have company,” I inform my friends. Fortunately, it is at this moment that Jaipur’s streets fool us once again. We turn right, one block too early.

When we realize our error, we turn back and head down the long road we strayed from. Crossing the street, I see the man cross so he is opposite us yet again. I watch as he slows his pace to meet back up. We counter by slowing ours.

When he nears the next intersection, unable to anticipate our move, he crosses the street and stands in the alley waiting, watching, for which direction we will go. We warily turn right and enter the restaurant.

As we get our hands stamped, I explain to the bouncers. “There is a man following us. Will you not let him in?” I give his description, but the man with the stamp is too busy laughing with his friends, inching towards us so that we have to contort our bodies to squeeze through the gate without making contact. Our request goes unnoticed while our presence and bodies certainly do not.

There was no reprieve.

I have come to acknowledge this: friendship with men here comes with undertones of something more. No, contact with men here comes with undertones of something more.

After all, they’ve seen our TV shows. They know what American girls are like.

Our favorite tuk tuk driver, the one about whom I was preparing a post because of the freedom and thrill of dancing through the city when he turns on his flashing lights and turns up the music, ended our evening with a crash and burn.

“So, you have boyfriend?” he inquires as he pulls up to our house.

And I just wanted to leave.

It is not just that these advances feel unending. It is that I feel my humanity being stripped from me as I am collapsed into what I represent: sex, promiscuity, desire. I don’t feel seen as much as consumed. I then watch myself participate in this cycle of violence, no longer seeing people or accounting for cultural difference. I deny a friendly handshake and glare at the laughter between friends as I pass by. I am defensive, on-guard. Disinterested in connecting to the humanity of others with the anticipation that it is not my being whom they seek, but instead my body that they crave.

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8 thoughts on “Gender buffet has a whole new meaning

  1. Reading your post about the incident you faced last night, I burst out anger, with shame in heart. How can they treat foreign guests like that?? It was disgusting.
    This is very shameful truth about India. In jaipur the youth is very cheap, and they have cheap mentalities. Here the Clubs are not safe for women. In Jaipur, clubs are the places where you will find hungry dogs(gwaking men), always searching for pieces of bread(lonely girls). Its not safe for women to walk on the streets after 10P.M. The bouncers and guards are just for formality.
    Guys think girls as a roadside doll. You can’t even walk in road. Women are harassed. Guys are such stupid behaving like this.
    No one can say that what might be happen and where with the girls or woman, outside the home. Every girl goes through a lot of harassment everyday like staring, misbehavior in bus, chasing a girl, passing vulgar comments etc. Its happening every minute and nobody is bothered about it except for the girls family. The best part is, the culprits are not scared of the law and they go unpunished.
    Now a days humanity is just a word.
    I urge the need of education and moral classes to be taught to everyone around.
    People just nee to change their mind sets.
    Inspite of being a boy and an Indian also, I cannot deny the truth that India is not safer for girls.
    I feel so sorry and shameful for such a bad behaviour of stupid peoples that you faced last night.
    Be safe.

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  2. Stacey,
    Mary Schuberg here. I found your blog from Rita’s and am glad that I did. These are hard things to write about! –but good and necessary, and well thought out. Your observations of yourself in this setting, and the evolution of how you are dealing with it, make me feel a bit better about some of my own ways that I came to interact (or, not interact) with the people of Kolkata while I was there. Thank you for taking time to write these things even though they may be hard to write. Know that you are not alone in these feelings

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    1. Hey, Mary! Thank you so much for these words. India was certainly a challenging place/experience for me. I would love to one day hear about your experience of it as well. Where are you now? Sending my love and well wishes….

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  3. Hi Stacey…. It was hard and sad for me to read this post – probbably because it was happening to you not just some side news story or NPR conversation. I know how conscious you try to be about meeting other people and cultures where they are not where we want/need them to be but it was clearly difficult when their “culture” changed your behavior/culture. The “when-in-Rome” thing works to a point but how do we convey that we will respect their culture while wanting them to respect ours…. I can easily see instances where the two would be on a colision course….

    I will be with a group of women delegates from Pakistan the end of Januaary and think I’ll try to have this conversation with them…

    All my best —- Oh, did you really cut your hair? Did I miss a post about why? Hmmmm. hope all is well with you and yours.

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    1. Hi, Susan.

      Yes, it is difficult to sit in these many tensions. As for the respecting culture/wanting them to respect ours, something I remind my students of often is that we are the visitors. We came to their country, thus it is our job to adapt. If I wanted to be in a place with my own cultural customs/norms, I could have stayed where I was. Essentially, I think travel comes with responsibility.

      When it comes to human rights, however, things get stickier for me. What does it mean to respect culture when there is a culture of homophobia, for example, or sexism as I speak to here? I don’t have any answer to that, but three thoughts jump out:

      (1) Is there a way to respect, but not condone? A civil disobedience of cultural exchange, perhaps?

      (2) At the end of the day, social justice is a movement about love. If I take it up in a way that dehumanizes or does not extend love to those I view as “the oppressor”, I am merely using the same (mis)use of power that causes these issues in the first place. So a guiding question for me is always, how do I engage in this lovingly?

      (3) It is easy- for me at least- to be high and mighty about things like gender roles or any injustice while traveling. Something I find it helpful to remember is that the US is rampant with these issues, and others. I am not coming from a place that has it figured out by any stretch of the imagination. So, while my critique here might come more naturally out of unfamiliarity or discomfort, I must be diligent in the work of looking within, both in myself and at the place from which I come.

      Please let me know how your work with the delegates go! I know I still owe you an email about my recent post about race, it is coming I promise!

      As for my hair, yes I cut it. The link to my feelings/experience around it is working again, though a ‘why’ I have not yet provided…

      Love and peace,
      Stacey

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      1. Stacey… I appreciate your thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and, I must add, loving response!

        You have captured fairly succinctly many of my own rambling disconnected thoughts. I was tracking with your numbered points and agree with each..

        I too find many social justice advocates equally guilty of acting from disdain rather than love… I am often reminded of that Carol King song where she says “you can’t talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand – you can’t talk to a man when he don’t want to understand”… Smack-water Jack specifically. Dealing with / responding to socital respectfully is indeed, a struggle which is why I usually say / do nothing… The cowards way out I know but convince myself I’m being “polite”…. That also addresses where I usually end up on racial issues… I keep trying to convince myself the best way to respond is by my behavior… Think I need to revisit Ghandi, Dr King, even the life of Jesus….

        It was good to read your comments re: the imperfections / arrogance of our fellow countrymen… It is clear we do NOT have much of anything completely figured out – it seems we prefer to talk like we do without acting like we do.

        Pick a topic – any topic – and it is frustrating to realize we’ve not done a very good job of learning from history… even if – the history WE learn was written by the winners and of course, WE have pretty much been the “winners” thus justifying all we have done… Guess no wonder we frequently keep doing the same things…..

        Sorry for just rambling but it is reassuring and gives me hope to know there are a few like you emerging into the world… I over your self description / blog profile but more than just a ripple I pray you become a tidal wave…. After the ground swell of public voice trick is to reach an actual decision making position with the ability to influence unified change…. I’ve heard it said the real revolutionaries are rarely able to govern… As a country we may be one of the few who have – in the early years – even come close.

        Many blessings to / for you and your kindred souls that you will do a better job than my generation has done….. Susan

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      2. Susan,

        Thank you for this equally loving and thoughtful response. Anything my generation accomplishes is certainly building on the important work from those before us. <3

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