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Her Periodical Arrives in India...
showing respect and being respected

 

(Archived) Stephanie Springgay is an artist from Canada whose work is featured in numerous private collections including that of Dr. Henry Kissenger's. An avid traveler, Stephanie's first long haul trip took her through 13 countries in Europe by train. That experience left her restless and in August 1996, she and her partner set off on a trip around the world. In September of 1997, they arrived in India.


Whether you're cooling off on a beach, visiting a temple or simply trying to make your way from one place to another, it's not easy being a woman traveller in India.

Many guide books on India would argue that lying beachside in a bathing suit is a serious cultural crime and, perhaps, dangerous as well. However, after endless hours on dusty cramped buses, and having to spend countless amounts of energy arguing prices with rickshaw wallas and market vendors, a few days or even hours on a beach seemed necessary.

No swimming, please...

The beach we found was virtually empty except for a few old men hanging around the chai-walla. The white sand was littered with garbage but the water dazzled in the sunlight, a welcome invitation from the 40 degree weather and our long bike ride. A few minutes later the stillness was rudely disrupted by loud Hindi music and male voices.

groovy vanA busload of young Indian men had pulled up to the beach and over fifty guys cruised down to the water's edge. No one ventured into the water, or even appeared to have brought a suit and towel. Instead, my friend Zehra, I, and our pale, fleshy, female bodies were to be the afternoon's attraction. The men hovered near us and in some cases almost tripped over our legs. Imagine the interesting vantage point to be lying on a beach towel staring up into the smiling faces of over fifty Indian men! My rudimentary Gujarati and not so polite English only seemed to provoke our audience further as the crowd grew larger and pressed even closer. Suddenly, we heard the sound of a camera click and my anger reached boiling point. I jumped to my feet, my arms waving madly and chased the men a short distance away. They continued to stare but at a safe distance. Zehra and I returned to our books only to be interrupted again! Now two more busloads of men had descended onto the beach and the gathering crowd grew bigger and bigger. I couldn't read, I was now wearing all of my clothes and the idea of going for a swim was not a refreshing possibility. Giving up we got back on our bicycles, the crowd following our departure.


 

No Periodical Women...

Getting your period while travelling can be annoying but in India it also takes on a certain cultural significance. Menstruation is seen as unclean and women are often barred from certain activities each month. In some homes women are requested not to cook, they cannot go to school, work or the temple. They cannot say their prayers or come in contact with men for fear of tainting others. Outside the main gate to the Jain temples of Palitana, a holy pilgrimage site, a sign reads in fifteen different languages:

NO PERIODICAL WOMEN

Pumped up with Anaprox, my baggy Indian clothes feeling a bit tight, I could only stand there and stare. I had left my hotel at 5 am to make the climb of 4000 steps to reach these temples. Barefoot in the dark I had pushed myself upwards before the heat of the day. Now as the sun was just breaking over the mountain, I was hardly going to turn around because I was considered unclean.

There was also a sign posted regarding leather goods not allowed in Jain temples. Zehra and I had made sure that we left all leather belts and shoes back in the hotel, but I couldn't help noticing that many Indians strolled into the temples wearing various assortments of leather clothing. What I had to do standing 600 metres on top of the world was decide how I could comfortably visit the temples without offending. I chose to venture beyond the sign and observe the beautiful architecture, the people and click my photos. However, in respect, I also made the choice not to sit in a temple nor join in a puja ceremony.

As a western woman this is just one of many personal dilemmas I faced living and travelling in India. For those of us who do not understand the complexities of Indian religions, to ignore the signs and simply see the event through the lens of a camera or Taj Mahalanother journal entry is an easy solution. Yet, to have turned around on the summit, that early morning, I would have felt defeated.

Modern India is still steeped in tradition but many people today recognize that the individual woman needs to make choices of her own. This is no longer a culture that has one set rule; people move around the rules and decide for themselves what is important for their own beliefs and life.


No eye contact please...

Train to Delhi?A popular guidebook recommends that in India women should not engage in conversation with men, never make eye contact or appear assertive. Unless you plan on walking around with blinders on, missing out on conversing with the locals and being so miserable you wish you were on a plane home, forget this advice. I am a woman and while I can respect period signs (sometimes), wear Indian clothing that hides every inch of my body, and submit to the constant stream of questions (What? No husband, no children?), I will not and cannot walk around with my chin dragging on my chest. Making eye contact with an Indian man and then inviting him to your hotel is suggestive; making eye contact while asking for the train schedule is not. What you have to do is just be cautious, be yourself; feel what is natural to you and only by doing so will you enjoy your time travelling.


No touching, please...

back off mister!Indian women do not travel alone. They often don't even go to the market alone, so a foreign female traveller is a curiosity. Indians will stare and there is not much except for staying at home that you can do about it. However, being touched or submitting to serious verbal harassment is taboo and should not be tolerated. If you are in a situation where you feel you are being harassed make a loud public statement that you do not like this action. This will certainly embarrass your tormentor and others nearby will hopefully come to your rescue. In line-ups, bodies are so tightly packed it is inevitable that you will be touched. Therefore it's a good idea to use the women only queues in train stations, post offices and anywhere else you can find them. Yet, even that isn't always the perfect solution...


No fighting, please...

I had been in line at the train station for over an hour and it didn't appear to be moving quickly. All of a sudden a fight broke out. People were shouting, bags were crashing down on top of people's heads and there was chaos as hundreds of angry bodies pushed and shoved. Keeping my distance and maintaining my spot in my line, I watched as police were brought in to disperse the crowds and deal with the problem at hand. It seemed people were angry with others jumping spots in the line -- a common phenomena in India. The humor was that this vicious fight had broken out in the ladies-only queue.


Editor's Note...pen

In my experience, travelling solo in India is difficult at the best of times especially for first time travellers to this part of the world. I suggest that you learn as much as you can about the culture before you leave home. Read our section called, Girl Talk India. Then incorporate this knowledge into your behavior, listen to your intuition and act accordingly. Safe journeys! P.S. Two women swimming on a deserted beach in India is a dangerous thing to do. Don't try it.


For more reader reports on India, click here

 


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Culturally Correct Dos and Taboos

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