Hollywood movies may paint Western women in a sexual light, but is that reason to tar all of them with the same brush.
I have been patient — tolerant even — of the constant threat of sexual harassment that comes with travelling as a Western Woman. I anticipated it and took precautions by dressing conservatively and even wearing a fake wedding ring to ward off unwanted attention. I am conscious of the norms surrounding gender roles in India; sometimes following them even when I don’t agree, all as a means of preventing the negative interactions with men. But, in all reality, none of it works. I have tried to ignore the harassment, pretending that it doesn’t bother me, or even acting as though I can’t hear it. I have tried to shrug it off, telling myself that not all men act like this; surely most men wouldn’t make these comments. I have been patient, but I have also had enough. The comments — the attitudes — towards Western women are disgusting, degrading and totally unacceptable.
I feel like I’m living in a human zoo — a wandering attraction that invites attention, all of it unwanted. Really, the only difference is that in a zoo, a cage or glass wall separates the gawkers from the captive animals; bushes or small ponds provide a place of peace, one where they can escape the stares and pretend to be in their world. In my zoo, I can’t escape the stares, filter out the offensive, sexually charged comments, or pretend that I’m not being watched: because I am, all the time. I can’t get up and move to a separate part of my cage to escape the negative attention because in my cage, there are no bars, and the men simply follow.
Perhaps Hollywood is in some way to blame. Hollywood movies tend to paint Western women in a sexual light — promiscuous, confident and willing to engage in sexual activity with men they barely know. Maybe movies and media create a stereotype of the Western woman, one that overemphasises an image of sex. Realistically, this image shouldn’t matter. Hollywood is obviously not an accurate depiction of the lives of Western women as a whole. We do not all live in mansions in Orange County, nor are we all interested in jumping into bed with complete strangers. But, let’s give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Hollywood does paint an accurate picture of the women of the West. Even if the stereotype is accurate — I assure you, it’s not — it certainly does not warrant sexual comments, or solicitations for sex. Even if Western women are potentially more promiscuous, I assure you that this promiscuity does not provide blanket consent to every wide-eyed, staring man that approaches. It surely does not invite the disgusting sexual harassment, the inappropriate stares, or the “slip” of the hand while riding the bus.
Who, then, teaches these men that this type of behaviour is acceptable? Clearly it’s not their mothers, or their sisters, or their aunts... In reality, it’s probably other men. Men grow up in an environment where this sexually aggressive behaviour is considered funny. They encourage one another to approach women and then they all sit back and laugh as we squirm with discomfort. To them, it is a game and we are just the unwilling players that end up participating. Their behaviour is encouraged, embraced as heroic among their peers.
Obviously, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not a unique experience to Western women in India. The recent gang rapes make it evident that sexual assault and rape are, unfortunately, common to women across the board in India. And, regrettably, promiscuity is at the central focus of these cases, because surely “proper” women would never get raped. In the wave of responses that has surfaced in light of the sexual violence in India, one series of comments has stood out to me more than others. Men — political leaders, community elders, religious gurus alike — have blamed the victims for their attack, suggesting that had they acted the way that women should act, their fates would have been different.
Frequently, these comments have been paralleled with blame towards Western women. It is, after all, the Western women who have taught Indian women to dress inappropriately, while simultaneously teaching Indian men that sexual aggression is appropriate. These comments are disgusting, especially at a time when India should be rethinking its attitude towards women, reshaping policies to prevent rape. The rhetoric of blame is all too common in the cases of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and it’s time for that to stop. It is time for men to take responsibility for their actions.
I am, however, hopeful that we can eventually rid ourselves of a world that tolerates sexual violence. Perhaps my optimism here is misplaced, but I believe that we can eventually live in a world where sexual aggression is no longer a common story, but rather, a rare one. I am hopeful because the women of the world are taking a stand; they are speaking out against rape, holding protests, and telling the world that we will no longer tolerate this violence, exploitation, and oppression. The female-led protests in India are among the first in the country to stand out with such vigour and dedication. I am hopeful because I think that it is possible to teach our sons to respect and to love women.
This optimism is, in part, drawn from my experiences teaching in a school for tribal and underprivileged children in Tamil Nadu. The passion and commitment that they have for transforming the world into a better place provides inspiration that frequently brings tears to my eyes. Despite the social problems of alcoholism and domestic violence that surround much of their lives at home, these children are dedicated to instilling change in their communities. They have already illustrated their ability to challenge the gender norms that are passed down to them from their communities, and show a strong dedication to the promotion of equality. These children are the basis for my hope that change will happen. They are the basis for my optimism. Overcoming such deeply rooted patriarchy will inevitably take time. It will take dedication, passion and commitment; but it will happen.
Note: This article is not intended to suggest that all Indian men, or all men for that matter, behave in this manner. I do have interactions with men that are more than respectful, polite and well-intentioned. However, the extent to which these occurrences happen is enough to warrant an article in response.