Exposed in Mumbai
A woman in a face veil and long black abaya sits on a bench on Carter Road in Mumbai. Only her eyes are visible. A man in jeans and a t-shirt lies on the bench with his head in her lap. She gently massages his face.
They spot me, walking along in a strapless sundress. The woman playfully puts her hand over her partner’s eyes to shield him from this Western woman with exposed shoulders and protruding collarbone.
I play with my iPod and pretend not to notice. I pretend that I am not considered dirty and provocative.
All along my walk, my outfit draws stares from the men and other couples enjoying an afternoon on Carter Road. Young boys make comments to me in Hindi as I pass by. When I try to cross the street, a driver leans outside his rickshaw, more focused on my outfit than the oncoming traffic.
I understand that I am showing more skin than the other women here. But I am a bit annoyed. This sundress is cotton, loosefitting and almost reaches my knees. It is so casual and unflattering that it would probably be considered frumpy if I wore it in New York.
I have zero makeup on, my hair is undone and I’m wearing dirty old sneakers for my walk. I know what sexy is, and really, this is not it.
It is super hot in the afternoon here and given that today is Republic Day, a national holiday, and I am not interviewing anyone or going into an office, I feel like I should be able to dress as casually and as comfortably as I would like.
Plus, I may be the one with shoulders exposed, but the woman in an abaya has a man’s head in her lap. She is stroking his face like only a lover would. And yet somehow, she is considered the conservative, proper woman, and I am viewed as the Western slut.
I disagree with this assessment of our roles and who we are as women. A sundress does not make me promiscuous any more than an abaya makes her uneducated or powerless. As my Muslim Hindi teacher tells me often, many Indian women who wear abayas lead pretty modern lives. They may dress traditionally, but many follow the news, hold decent jobs, ride on the backs of motorbikes and have postgraduate degrees.
Similarly, I would argue my exposed shoulders say little about who I am as a person. Yes, they accurately scream that I am from the West and live a modern lifestyle. But I have my own traditional customs, like lighting Shabbat candles every Friday and deeply valuing my family and culture.
I unfortunately do not yet know any women here who wear abayas. I need to meet some. What I have heard and read, though, is that many women, especially those in places like nearby Afghanistan, cover themselves so that they do not have to be stared at by men. It is easier to wear a burqa than to fend off the stares, comments and sometimes even harassment or attacks.
Like those women, and despite my self-righteousness, I know I won’t wear this sundress out again. I too feel that it is not worth the stares. It is not worth feeling like every man and woman I see is judging me, putting me in a neat box labeled clearly. I am looking forward to meeting the women in abayas. I suspect we have much in common.
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