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Jan. 26 2010 - 7:51 am | 496 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

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.

Follow Hanna on Twitter @Hanna_India


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  1. collapse expand

    Interesting post. I can see why this would be rather unsettling, but isn’t it also somewhat a matter of respecting the culture one is visiting?

    Also, Muslim women who walk around in abayas in the States get stared at as well, albeit for a different set of sterotypical reasons. Though they probably wouldn’t face the same kind of harassment as a Western women showing skin overseas, that’s because we’re taught(in theory)that all cultures are created equal–this kind of liberal, uber-tolerant, multicutural Western view of the world is fairly unique to parts of America and Europe,at least in my experience.

  2. collapse expand

    This whole article infuriates me.

    Who are you to say that the people staring at you immediately thought you a “Western slut?”

    In my estimation, Indian people do not set their own moral judgement against foreigners. Yes they will stare at you as they too stared at me but not because they are judging your sexual promiscuity. You’re white. You’re foreign. They’re naturally curious.

    Will I say it was right for you to wear a skin exposing dress in a chaste country? No. Why? Respect. You should always show respect for the rules and customs of the country you are in whether it be your own or another. Not every person on God’s green earth will think the way that you do and you must show your bit of respect to their way of thinking. You cannot expect to travel with your own ideals and act upon them. If the dress, by your standards, was not so flirtatious does that mean that for everyone else it should be acceptable? In a country wherein women are accustomed to a certain moral code you feel that it is within your right to make hasty judgements against them because you decide to wear something that they themeselves would not?

    I honestly don’t know what’s worse: the fact that you automatically think the peoples’ staring was a direct reflection of their moral anxiety of you or the fact that you didn’t honor their standards and feel that you were the one in the right when they were all clearly wrong.

    I’m sorry but this is not some women’s rights issue this is a respect issue. Culture varies everywhere you go and you cannot ignore or condemn it just because you don’t like or agree with it.

    Wear a long sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans and grow up.

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    About Me

    Hanna Ingber Win is a multi-media journalist based in Mumbai, India. In addition to blogging for True/Slant, she works as GlobalPost's correspondent in Mumbai and marketing consultant. Most recently, Hanna was the founding World Editor of the Huffington Post, and she won InterAction's 2009 Award for Excellence in International Reporting in recognition of the HuffPost's foreign coverage.

    Hanna has also lived and worked in Burma, Thailand, South Africa and the States. She has a passion for telling stories about people and how they live.

    She has covered maternal health in Ethiopia, police misconduct in South Africa, migrant workers in Malaysia, Iraqi refugees in San Diego and juvenile sex offenders in Los Angeles.

    Hanna's freelance work has appeared in Washingtonpost.com, LA Weekly and the Hartford Courant and on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "Day2Day."

    She received her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and her master's in journalism from USC Annenberg, where she was a Dean's Scholar.

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/Hanna_India

    Email: hingber@gmail.com

    See my profile »
    Followers: 23
    Contributor Since: January 2010
    Location:Mumbai