Studying abroad is an intense experience for everyone, especially for women. I am currently studying abroad in Pune, India, along with six other young women. I did not anticipate my gender and race playing as much of a role as they have proven to. I was aware of the conservative attitudes of the society and the large role gender norms play in Indian society, but I did not expect them to be forced upon me as they have been. I anticipated things such as the different definition of appropriate dress, but not my nonconsensual subscription to the norms of Indian women.
Walking down the street, around campus, shopping, and at restaurants, I—along with the other girls whom appear to be of non-Indian heritage—are constantly stared at. This is unfortunately a phenomenon that we are used to living in the United States, but in India, it is a bit different. In India, it is not just the men that stare, it is everyone. We look different, I get it, but remembering this along with the lack of qualms regarding staring in the Indian culture does not always make me feel less uncomfortable.
The non-Indian presenting women on this program have had mixed experiences in Pune and there have been instances of inappropriate behavior, “I feel extremely uncomfortable when walking down the streets of Pune. Everyone stares at me and some men have even taken photos of me or try to touch me. I don’t always know how to handle these situations,” says Taylor, 20. Those who look very out of the ordinary, such as Taylor, a blonde Caucasian woman, tend to get more attention. While these behaviors are often unwanted, they are not often malintentioned. Cross-cultural understanding is important in situations like these, so one can distinguish what is curiosity and what is more.
During orientation, IFSA staff attempted to prepare my fellow female students for behaviors they may encounter, how to try to avoid them, as well as how to handle uncomfortable situations. They shared with us past occurrences and shared how to learn from them. What I found the most reassuring was how women can—usually—depend on the surrounding community for help. If someone is harassing you and you ask for help from another man nearby, even as a foreigner, it is likely he will help extinguish the situation. If you take action on your own, it is also unlikely that there will be retribution from those surrounding you. The IFSA staff also displayed their willingness to consult students on how to handle certain situations, accompany them if need be, and even assist in taking legal action.
While these conversations made me feel a bit more at ease, there was one aspect that I had trouble with. We flipped to the next page of our orientation manual, the words “how to prevent sexual assault/harassment” were in bold. For the women in the room and many I know whom are not present, the following words would feel like a slap in the face, “don’t wear flashy jewelry,” “don’t laugh too loud,” and “don’t stand out in the crowd.” These “instructions” are completely contrary to the contemporary feminist views many Americans subscribe to. While I recognize we have been transported to a new culture where norms weren’t the same as in our home countries, I still felt like I had been taken back in time. The other advice the on-site staff provided included being aware of your surroundings at all times, preparing transport home ahead of time, avoiding eye-contact with men on the street, and dressing according to societal norms. While this advice was helpful, it was a watered-down version of what the women in the room have been told their whole lives. However, this is not a call for it not to be taken seriously in any way.
There are social drawbacks to being a woman studying abroad in not only India, but anywhere. While the circumstances are more extreme, they are very similar to those of the United States; therefore, it unfortunately will likely not be something any woman had not encountered before. This being said, this aspect of studying abroad in India as a woman can be overcome through support from peers, community members, as well as program staff, and one’s experience can still be amazing.
Melissa Hampton is an International Studies major at American University and is studying abroad with IFSA on the Contemporary India program this Spring 2019 semester. She is a contributing student blogger for IFSA through the First-Generation Scholar Program.