Amanda soon realised that it had little to do with her being a foreigner as women generally are molested in the country.
No woman feels safe in Delhi. And women foreign scholars in the city have to also battle the perception of being considered ‘easy’. They speak up about being harassed and molested at every turn — from the Old Delhi railway station to swanky clubs.
Hardly a day passes in India, when there is no media report on rape, molestation or sexual harassment. When it comes to Delhi, things only get worse. The city over the years has earned the dubious distinction of being the ‘rape capital’. While the city is regarded unsafe for women, female expats, with little knowledge of the Indian languages and laws, find it even more difficult. A German research scholar was recently molested by her landlord in Hauz Khas. As we spoke to some female expats who are new to India, they speak of a harsh reality, which is a far cry from the Athithi Devo Bhava motto.
Based on her numerous experiences in the country, Amanda Gilbertson, a research scholar who is working on caste, class and gender issues in India, writes in her research paper, “Women who enter public space have to contend with illicit sexual touching, sexual comments, male gazes, suspicion and gossip. It was through my own transgressions that I was made acutely aware of the rules governing women’s movement within the public sphere. When I first arrived, the stares and comments of male onlookers made me feel uncomfortable.”
Amanda soon realised that it had little to do with her being a foreigner as women generally are molested in the country. She adds, “While my novelty as the only foreigner in the area is likely to have contributed to the attention I attracted, the frequency with which local women complained about eve teasing suggested that they too were subjected to such treatment. It is indicative of a widespread belief that it is the woman’s responsibility to adjust her self-presentation to ensure that she is respected in the public domain.”
While Amanda initially thought that she was attracting undue attention as she was the only foreigner in her area, several harassment cases have also surfaced in areas like Hauz Khas, where a sizeable number of foreign women reside. So, this basically debunks the idea that such harassment incidents might be an extrapolation of curiosity. Talking about such places, Florie Le Viol, a 25-year-old French national says, “As soon as you go out alone, you have to face the Indian men who think they can buy everything with their money.” She shares “I was in an autorickshaw, wearing shorts, with my boyfriend, and a guy on a scooter came near the auto to touch my leg.”
Florie rues, “This also happens at clubs, where you always have ladies nights. There are free drinks for expats at times, so the ambience is considered ‘all free’. Even if I am not dressed up, I am ‘the white girl with blue eyes’ and apparently it means ‘come to me, buy me a drink and of course I will go back home with you.”
The idea of seeing foreign women as ‘easy’ has been an old one and Karin Olsson (name changed), who has been researching in India for her book, says, “I've been groped many times, usually in crowded places. It happens less nowadays since I've learnt how to move around. I simply avoid big crowds. I get a lot of unwanted attention since I'm blonde and tall, and I don't always mind as I know that people are curious. What I find pathetic is when well-educated people randomly ask ‘how many times I meet a man before I sleep with him’ basically wondering how ‘easy’ I am.”
Her research requires her to interview different people. Sharing an incident, Karin says, “It has also happened that men I was supposed to interview wanted to go to a bar, which I never agreed on so they backed off and cancelled the interview.” She believes it's hard to know where to draw the line between people's curiosity and the fact that they want to be friendly and when they go too far.
Constance, who has been in India for a while, says, “The first incident happened in a club, where a guy tried to grab my bottom. And another time, at the Old Delhi station another man tried to do the same. I usually tackle it by giving an elbow kick, as hard as I can. Considering my strength I don't know if they really get hurt, but at least, I hope, I made a point. The main issue I am facing on a daily basis is more about the image I carry. Foreigner girls are perceived as ‘easy’ girls and no matter how I dress, be it kurta dupatta, saree, jeans, tee shirt, or even a short dress, this image doesn’t change. A few people have asked me how much I charge for a night, and this is really disturbing because frankly, apart from being upset, there is not much you can do about it.”
Approaching police can also be a headache for women like Constance. She shares, “I remember a policeman once interrogated me, trying to figure out with how many boys I was living with. The main defense is to overreact, and be extremely offended, so that they understand that this image is wrong. The way foreigner girls perceived in India needs change, so that other girls do not get into major trouble.”
While there is no formal support group for expats that helps with such issues, women like Constance and Karin talk to their friends and help them ease their way during the initial days. “I met an acquaintance from Sweden who was very scared of travelling around in Delhi and she asked if Uber was safe and if she as a women could travel by metro in the evening. She was scared so I spoke to her on the phone when she was in the metro and when she was back in the hotel.” says Karin.
There are few efforts like the one made by the French embassy where they talk about women safety, especially to the newcomers, but such initiatives are rare. With stereotypes existing, victim blaming and lack of support groups, women are overlooking many such cases. “Maybe, not considering sexuality a taboo and allowing an open atmosphere with proper sex education and gender senstisation can help,” says Florie.