Saturday was International Women’s Day. I have started attending meetings and events of a group called Hyderabad for Feminism, and on Saturday, Iris and I joined them in a Women’s Day street harassment “mirror mob.” About 50 of us (mostly women, but about 10 or so men) went to bus stops and other public spaces around the city, to raise awareness and generate conversation around street harassment.
At each location our group went to, one group member started by playing a drum to get people’s attention. Then five different small groups acted out various street harassment scenes one after the other, with each group freezing before the next group started. The kicker: the people being harassed in the skits were all men. By portraying women harassing men, we hoped to get people’s attention and help people understand why street harassment is problematic.
One of the mirror mob scenes
After the scenes were over, everyone stayed frozen while one of the group leaders spoke to the crowd about what we were doing. Then everyone unfroze and held up signs (some in Telugu, some in English) that said things like, “Respect my body, Respect my mind, Respect me.” Finally, members of the group engaged with the audience, answering questions and listening to stories.
My role for the day was as part of the photography team. Along with three other people, I took photos and video of the day. I believe that at some point, a short video will be put together, so if that happens I may share it here. Although I would have loved to participate in more visible ways, Iris and I decided that it was not wise for us to be actors, for multiple reasons. One main reason was that local press covered the event, and we were told firmly by CIEE during orientation to avoid having our picture in the newspapers, especially for something “controversial.” I didn’t avoid this altogether, though – there is a picture of me in one newspaper with my camera in front of my face (http://epaper.deccanchronicle.com/articledetailpage.aspx?id=394300), and a picture in another (with an article explaining it all) where you can see the back of my french-braided head (http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/look-in-the-mirror/article5770008.ece).
There was a range of responses from people who watched the “mirror mob.” Some people thanked group members for providing a space to discuss street harassment. At least one person cried in a conversation with a group member. Some people weren’t very receptive or interested, but overall, it seemed that our short “performance” got many people thinking and talking. At this point in India, part of the struggle for feminism is to get people talking about things that are “taboo” or not discussed much. One member of HFF (she was probably about 18 years old) said that this was the first time she had actually talked about the street harassment she had experienced for years.
Saturday was one of my favorite days in India so far. Iris and I made lots of friends, talked to interesting people, and had lots of fun. Being part of such an amazing group of activists was inspiring, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted but happier than I had felt in a while.
At Nampally train station, with a strong, independent, hilarious Auntie; she was part of the group for the day, and was the mother of one of the group leaders.
I have been planning for a while to write a blog post about my “visible identity” as a white woman in India. Even before I arrived in India, I anticipated that I would stand out and experience at least some harassment and unwanted attention here.
I first want to say that it is impossible for me to separate out the various factors of my visible identity, or the environment I am in. As a young white woman with long, (comparatively) light hair, living in Hyderabad, India, I cannot know for sure what part of my experience comes from being white, what is being a woman, what is living in a city, what is living in India, and so on. All I know is what experiences (positive and negative) I have had here.
When thinking about my visible identity here, I also think about the context of my skin color. For instance, in India, white skin is intricately linked to both British colonialism and Hollywood. I am a minority here, but in most ways I am a privileged minority. When I enter the main gate of my university, the guards rarely ask to see my ID, while they stop my Indian friends more often. So, although I feel that in some ways I can better understand the experience of being a minority, or being visibly “different,” I am very aware that my experience is in most ways one of privilege, not oppression. However, having the visible identity I have, in the place I am living, is not always an easy experience.
In general, wherever I go, I am stared at. Although India is an extremely diverse country – people speak dozens of different languages, there is religious diversity, and there are many different castes, tribes, and skin colors – there are not many white-skinned people walking around Hyderabad.
People (of all genders, but slightly more men) stare curiously at my pale skin and fair hair. They stare as I walk down the street, they stare on the bus, and they stare as I pass by in an auto. Men on motorcycles frequently drive closer to the shared auto I am in so that they can stare. Although I have mostly grown accustomed to the staring, it still bothers me every now and then. Unlike in the United States, where people usually look away when you catch them staring, people here usually continue staring. Even if I glare or scowl, they stare. Every now and then, I am tempted to scream, or make an outrageous face and wave my hands, or just do something other than walk along calmly, not acknowledging the stares, day after day.
People also take lots of pictures. This is almost always men. Sometimes they ask to take a picture with us or of us (I usually decline), and sometimes they just take a picture. One of my friends had an upsetting experience where she and her friends agreed to a picture with some young men, and one of the men groped her while the picture was being taken. It is hard to know whether the pictures are usually just from curiosity – as I said, there are very few white-skinned people here – or, whether they are sexualized in the minds of the picture-takers. According to friends here, many Indian men have a skewed view of white-skinned women because of what they see in movies. Apparently, fair skin is considered more attractive here, and Western women are sexualized.
On a day-to-day basis, I don’t usually feel threatened or extremely uncomfortable here. Although the constant staring and the picture-taking can make me feel mildly uncomfortable, I know that most people are just curious, or confused, or surprised. However, I have had a number of experiences that have left me shaken or angry.
One such experience was when I was traveling home alone, in a shared auto along the main road. I was sitting with a few men and some girls, when a man got in the auto. He said something to me in Telugu that I didn’t understand, but when I shrugged and shook my head to show that I couldn’t understand him, he continued to talk at me. I don’t know what he was saying, but the tone of his voice, the look on his face, his body language, and the way that the young women in the car seemed very uncomfortable made me start to feel uncomfortable. When I got out of the auto at my stop, the man followed me out of the car. I asked the driver how much the ride cost, but before he could answer, the man told me he would pay for me. The driver was smiling, seeming amused by the situation, but I ignored the man and asked again how much it was. After I paid, and continued to ignore the man (who was asking where I was going, and telling me he would walk me wherever it was), I took out my cell phone, called Iris, and walked away. The man followed me for about ten seconds, but eventually he left.
This kind of experience doesn’t usually make me feel seriously concerned for my safety; I am never alone in places where there aren’t lots of people around, I never travel alone at night, and I always carry my cell phone and have made numerous fake “calls” to ward off unwanted interactions. However, even though I rationally know that I am not in seriously “dangerous” situations, street harassment still makes me extremely uncomfortable, shaken, and angry.
I have had several other unpleasant experiences (some physical, but mostly verbal street harassment) that I will not recount here, but I have also had plenty of lovely encounters with strangers, including men. A young man helped me cross the street on a particularly busy day. A taxi driver told me about his family in the United States, and we had a nice conversation about education and studying in different countries. In India, just as in anywhere in the world, most people will treat strangers with respect and kindness. And in Hyderabad, as in any city in the world, some people will act inappropriately or fail to respect other individuals. However, just because the world will never be perfect, doesn’t mean that we should not try to improve it every day.
Joining with a group of 50 energized feminists, of a range of genders, ages, and sexualities, was an empowering experience for me. Finally, I could act in response to my experiences.