When I first started to seriously consider going to India, I didn't tell a lot of people. Even when I bought my tickets and was committed, I kept it on the down low. I felt that if I made it too public, I would be asked to justify it over and over again. Here are some responses people gave me, to my face, when I mentioned my plans (so you see, I wasn't totally wrong about the justification thing).
Were you on drugs?
Are you trying to prove something?
Aren't you worried about the prevalence of rape there?
That last question came from a stranger I met at a Christmas party recently. I suppose you have to admire frankness in conversation, but I was stung and I was angry. I felt like a stranger was intruding on a deeply personal decision that was none of her business.
Rape happens everywhere, I replied. It happens here in Halifax. Violence against women is a problem everywhere in the world.
But it happens so much more there, she said, and I could feel my heart sinking because I'm having this conversation again.
The infamous Delhi gang rape occurred on December 16, 2012. It was followed by the highly-publicized rape of a Swiss tourist in March 2013, and then by more and more reports of rape and abuse of women and girls. The world reacted in horror, and rightfully so. These were terrible events. My thoughts are with those women often.
These things happened at around the same time I was seriously thinking about traveling to India, and they influenced my thought process and my decision. They also influenced the reaction from the people around me.
Think back one year plus one month, when India was not known for being the rape capital of the world. Sure, travelling alone as a woman was thought to be risky, but it just wasn't the same in people's minds...except it WAS the same.
Cultures don't change overnight, and India certainly hasn't. It's true there is a deep imbalance in power between men and women there, and assault of women and girls is a terrifying and troubling problem. Still, I guarantee that if I had planned this same trip three years ago, the reaction from strangers would have been different. Likely people would have been less nervous for my safety. I think that says something about all of us - about our ability to ignore facts, to feed on perception, to make judgements about places we've never been and about things we've never seen.
Some might argue that we know more now than we did a year ago. More stories are being shared. Indian women have started to rise up. They are saying enough is enough, it's time to hold the perpetrators accountable.
In the meantime, we Canadians can hardly cast stones. I think about women I knew in university who were sexually assaulted. I think about the 14 women who were gunned down in the Ecole Polytechnique just for going to engineering school. I think about Rehteah Parsons, whose name has become a watchword in Nova Scotia, who killed herself after months of bullying and an alleged gang rape. I sit in the newsroom on Sunday nights and I listen to the scanner, and I hear the police talk to each other about "domestics" that most people will never, ever know about. If you think it's rare here, you'd be wrong.
There are problems of violence against women everywhere. But I don't think they will be solved if women decide to act as if they are already victims. Telling me, "You're crazy," or, "But you're such a tiny woman..." presumes that I am going to be assaulted. To me, that's REALLY crazy. It also is a good way to prevent women from getting out there in the world - from using their eyes and ears, from observing and learning and examining what's going on.
It is hard, hard, hard to STOP seeing myself as a victim. Perhaps you didn't know that about me. Did you think I'm unafraid? I lie in bed and don't go to sleep sometimes because I'm so anxious about what might happen. It's especially hard to stop seeing myself as a victim when other people keep warning me and cautioning me (they're trying to do it for my own good, of course, but I wonder if they know how they're stirring up my anxieties). Despite all that, the urge to do this on my own terms is always stronger. It would be very easy to let fear overwhelm me but I'm not going that direction.
So, to that woman at a Christmas party, I say this:
Am I going to take some precautions? Of course I am. It would be foolish not to. But I also understand that no precaution can ever fully stop bad things from happening. So I have to make that personal choice I mentioned up above, which is to stop thinking of myself as a victim waiting to happen, and keep on living the kind of life I want to live.
I choose to say to myself, "Okay, I have some positive information about this country and I have some terrifying information about this country. But I am intrigued by this place and I think it is worth making my own first-hand decisions about it."
This is a lot harder than you might think. For everyone everywhere, I think it is absolutely necessary.