Experiences I’ve had over the past year living in Sri Lanka and traveling through India and other Asian countries have granted me slightly more awareness about what it means to be a woman in many parts of the world — and it isn’t half as good as 79 cents to the dollar.
By way of introduction, I recently finished a contract in a management position at a luxury hotel in eastern Sri Lanka, and I am now backpacking through India and on through Asia.
In the ~2 years that I’ve been living and traveling in the eastern hemisphere, I’ve faced gender discrimination both professionally, socially, and sexually; and I think it’s worth talking about.
In Sri Lanka, particularly in the workplace, I felt that I wasn’t taken seriously.
Comments were made about my outfits more times than I bothered to take note of. Not always crude, but there were many moments when I thought to myself, “a man would never be questioned on his fashion choices like this!” Once as I was about to start a presentation, the CEO of the travel agency shouted out “Why are you wearing all black clothing? You look like you’re ready for a karate lesson!” The entire room (90% male) burst into laughter. I smiled and waited until everyone calmed down enough for me to do my job.
I felt that my ideas weren’t accepted until I was able to receive verbal male support. Only when this happened could I gain traction, but then they often weren’t my ideas anymore. Or, when I did have the directive to manage a situation, I encountered male resistance simply because it was me who was giving the orders. In preparation of the seasonal menu launch at the hotel, I was to be in charge of the final food testing and had to organize the schedule with the kitchen. When attempting to coordinate this with the chef, he began to yell at me, stating that I had no authority to tell him what to do and to get out of his office. I had to involve a male colleague to explain to the chef once again that he should not treat me this way and that I was to be in charge of this activity.
Generally when I am in public, in Sri Lanka or in India, men will not address me if there is another man with me. When I walk into a restaurant or shop with someone of the opposite sex, he is always greeted with a “good afternoon sir!” while I am completely ignored. When I initiate conversation with men, usually they will not speak to me and instead direct their comments to any man in the group.
Once I was traveling alone, and unsure of which bus to take at the station. I asked two Sri Lankan girls about my age which bus was going in a certain direction, and they both looked at me and then turned their backs, completely ignoring me. Later, a Sri Lankan male friend told me that some local women believe that associating with white women causes others to think they are “slutty”.
On the topic of “slutty” — in Sri Lanka, I once went to the gynecologist to have a general check up, and I asked for STD testing as I typically do whenever I see a gynecologist. The doctor (and then multiple nurses who entered the room upon hearing the story) questioned me: “You aren’t married so why do you need this kind of testing?” Someone even said, “You shouldn’t be having sex if you aren’t married!” I was shocked and upset, but eventually managed to convince the doctor to administer the testing. I have no doubt that the hospital staff would have reacted much stronger had I been a Sri Lankan woman.
There have been many times that I’ve been followed, either literally or with eyes, when I feel unsafe. In these countries, more than anywhere else I’ve lived or traveled, comments, whistles, hungry and aggressive stares have made me feel that many men see me as a piece of meat, a desirable object and nothing more. On my second day in India, a man passing behind me calmly and confidently grabbed my butt.
How have I faced or resisted these uncomfortable situations? In many ways, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t stood up for myself. Did I demand respect at work regarding my ideas or projects? No… Many times I relied on male support to help me get things done. Do I demand that shopkeepers answer my questions instead of speaking to the men I am with? No… it was never worth the effort. Did I yell at the men who have made comments, or who touched or grabbed me? No… I never felt safe enough to do so.
What I realized is that for me, even as a white woman who grew up in the west, raised to believe I am equal to men, it was incredibly difficult to demand basic respect; how much more difficult is it for women who are not raised in my culture? Who are actually told and shown that they are not equal?
Forget about men who make fun of my clothes or don’t support my initiatives or touch me inappropriately; there are more physical forms of aggression and violence that are openly demonstrated.
I visited the Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra, which is run by women who have survived acid attacks. They organize many projects to support acid attack survivors while providing jobs and a community for these brave women. There are more than 200 acid attacks in India each year; the real number is unknown, as many victims are too afraid to report the crime. These attacks can happen for a number of reasons, many times because a man is angry or insulted that someone refused his sexual advances. If a woman survives this incredibly painful experience, she is normally shunned by society and too often the attackers walk free.
Rape is another less visible form of violence that is all too common in many countries, and particularly in India. This is one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, and Indian female friends have told me that they hardly know anyone who hasn’t been sexually assaulted in some way, at least once.
In a country that seems to treat its cows better than its female population, how can there be any hope for gender equality?
Do I have the right to speak about my experiences which are far less terrible than what many woman face?
Why am I complaining when there have been many times when I haven’t even tried to resist the status quo?
I don’t have the answers. But the women I met at Sheroes give me hope. All the women (and men) who stand up against inequality all over the world make me proud. And maybe one day, I’ll be brave enough to stand up and join them.
*Disclaimer: My intention is not to disproportionately critique India or Sri Lanka; every single country in the world (including my own) has its own issues and lags regarding equality, that I and all my female friends have experienced in one form or another. And of course I do not believe that every single man views and treats women in a negative way. These are simply my personal experiences and observations and like I said, I think it’s worth a conversation.