Jan 5, 2014

A conversation with Stephanie Nolen

Last weekend I had a chance to speak with Stephanie Nolen, the Globe and Mail's Latin America bureau chief. She's living in Rio de Janeiro now with her family. She's reported in over 60 countries around the world, written several books, and before Rio she was posted to Delhi as the Globe's South Asia bureau chief. It was a wonderful conversation. She's a most generous person.

I asked her, even though I know it's not really fair to ask such an open-ended question, if there was anything she wished people had told her about India before she moved to India. She laughed and asked how much time I had. Then she said that she didn't want to say all bad things because it wasn't a bad experience, but the things she wished people had told are mostly negative - starting with the chasm in equality between men and women.

"Sexist doesn't even begin to cover it. It is fundamentally misogynist. It is women-hating," she said.

"You will face probably a pretty hefty level of sexual harassment, which you should be prepared for," she said. "I could be walking down the street with my kid on my hip, and people would grab my ass. It's pretty extraordinary, and somehow that doesn't really make it into the guide books."

This, I'd had some indication of before. But then she moved on to a different topic, which was also insightful and interesting.

"I would also say to look for the caste stuff, which really takes literacy," she said. By literacy, she meant an understanding of the culture which only came to her with time. She talked about Varanasi, and how women there typically wear little silver jangling bells around their ankles. Tourist women often buy the bells for themselves and wear them. But those bells - and it took three years for Stephanie to learn this - those bells are fastened on girls when they are 13 or 14 and married off. They signify how the groom's family has control over the bride, and can always hear where she is. She should never be running off on her own or doing anything except working for the benefit of the groom's family. "Suddenly those little silver bells don't look quite so appealing," Stephanie said.

Caste is something that officially doesn't exist anymore. The Indian government enacted laws against caste discrimination after Partition in 1947. But in practice, Stephanie said she learned to see it at work.

"Buildings and neighbourhoods, especially in Delhi but to a degree in Mumbai also, those are all, still, completely delineated by caste," she said.

"Everyone in your building will be in your caste group, and everyone in your street will be in your caste group, and everyone who works in that building is of a caste group that is designated to work for people in your caste group. If you don't know about that stuff, then you can go there and just not see it."

"Be highly critical, and make an effort wherever you go to seek out Dalits. Because people will try, often quite overtly, to keep you from talking to them...In India, people are actively invested in you not hearing what they have to say."

She talked to me about the well-known Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, who said, "There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."

"I feel really sorry for people who go to India and have the wonderful, peaceful yoga trip, and actually don't see three-quarters of what they're looking at. Which, of course, is a condition of travel everywhere, all the time, but I think is particularly important in India when right now there is a huge state machinery invested in having you believe one thing about the country, when in fact the opposite is true," she said.

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