The Two Sides of India: Expat Women Talk about Their Experience in This Country
To say that women in India have it tough is an obvious understatement. But even within the female population, there are severely marginalised sections. One of those sections is the expatriate female population. These women, especially the obvious foreigners, attract a lot of attention. It may be positive in some instances but, in most cases, the attention is negative and riddled with misplaced envy. On the face of it, everyone of us feels that foreign women have it easier in India, that they get more privileges in the workplace, and have easier access to the indulgent parties of the rich and famous. But that's only one part of a much larger story. The most damaging insult that these women face is that they are “easy.” Completely disregarding the fact that they are still human beings, both men and women from India are not kind to “expats,” a term that has been used and abused abundantly. Delhi is no stranger to special nights in clubs, but “expat nights” became an excuse for men to gawk at foreigners who were just trying to have a good time. Such nights contributed to the image that they're here only to party. But no one cares to see that they work just as hard as the rest of us to survive in unfriendly circumstances. Imagine living in a country where you don't speak the language, don't know anyone, and are constantly trying to fend off men who think they can get away with touching you everywhere, only because of the colour of your skin.
"I remember very little of the night but I woke up the next morning covered in bruises after an obvious rape. I didn't report it to the police. There was no point. He was the son of a politician and extremely wealthy."
Samantha* from Ireland has one such story of horror, an experience that made her leave India for good after less than two years. Samantha came to India on the basis of an offer made by her friend in the real estate industry. However, she was never paid her dues and commissions from the project she was working on and left the company. Samantha says that she couldn't take them to court because she was working on a tourist visa – a mistake made by many expatriates in India. Samantha got another job with an interior design company but it lasted all of two weeks. “The company's owner took me to one of his factories in Chhattarpur where he manufactured furniture. He wanted my input as to what we could do with part of the space. When we reached, he locked the door and tried to attack me. Luckily, he was a short weak man and I was able to defend myself. The next day, I left the company. Weeks later, I was told by a friend that he tried to do the same with another employee.”
After her past experience, Samantha managed to get another job with a high-end real estate company. In a short while, they agreed to relocate her to their office in the USA. But the night before her flight, things changed. “The night before my flight, my boss hosted an event in a 5-star hotel. When the event was over, he put his hand up my top. I pushed him back and, as you can imagine, my flight was cancelled the next day. I then resigned and moved to Dubai.” What happened to Samantha outside the workplace was even worse. When asked whether she considered India to be safe for women, especially foreigners, she said, “For the most part, I was safe. But there are a few incidents which I would not want repeated. One night, while taking a shower, I felt a presence around me so I went up to the window to see that it had been forced open with a stick and a man was standing there watching me bathe. He was suspected to be the same man who broke into our apartment a few months earlier. Another time, I met someone, who I considered a friend, for a drink. We had known each other for about six months and he was someone I trusted. I remember very little of the night but I woke up the next morning covered in bruises after an obvious rape. I didn't report it to the police. There was no point. He was the son of a politician and extremely wealthy.” Despite surviving physical and sexual assault and financial fraud, Samantha believes that some of her best friends are Indians. Even though the country has been unfair to her, she doesn't hold it against all Indians unlike some of us who generalise an entire race on the basis of a few incidents.
“People in Bangalore are very friendly and open. Initially, they show interest towards you as a foreigner and you just have to repeat your “Indian experience” stories, but that's it. After that, everything goes as it is supposed to go"
Twenty-seven-year-old Anna from Russia has another story to tell. She has been living in India for five years now with the bulk of her stay spent in Bangalore. Her experience in India has not been unpleasant, and she hasn't faced much of what Samantha faced in Delhi. “People in Bangalore are very friendly and open. Initially, they show interest towards you as a foreigner and you just have to repeat your “Indian experience” stories, but that's it. After that, everything goes as it is supposed to go,” says Anna. “You become part of a team and you are expected to perform well. I have been promoted and it was only based on my performance in the team. We have more foreigners working in our company and, from what I have seen, promotions only depend on performance and not on the country of origin.”
But it hasn't always been an easy life in India for Anna. “I feel like a complete alien when I go to North India (Delhi or Chandigarh). I'm from a different culture, I look different, and I don't speak Hindi which is my bad. But this has changed since I moved to Bangalore. When I travel by bus or go to a market, I feel like a part of the society there.” Anna says India feels more like home for her than Russia now. “In Russia, I don't feel as safe as I do in India now. My family was never happy about my shift to India. For them, it's a crazy country. They still want me to go back to Russia or move to another country. But when I went to Russia two months ago, it didn't feel like home. When I landed back in Bangalore, it felt like home. It took a lot of time for me to feel this way. It took me a few years to adjust to everything and I reached this stage after a lot of tears, non-acceptance, misunderstandings, shocking moments and mental blocks but all that is in the past now. I'm learning how to drive in India and I never knew how to drive earlier.”
Eve, who has lived in Mumbai and Delhi for four years, spoke to Vagabomb from Bangkok. She pointed out that accommodation can prove to be a problem for foreigners in India. Brokers trying to make an extra buck and xenophobic landlords can force them to settle for something less than comfortable. “When I wanted short term accommodation, my friend told me that he had found a place and it would be no problem,” said Eve who is originally from England. “When I went to give the deposit, the landlord looked at me and refused. He told my friend that he would not accept any white people because of a situation with a Russian girl earlier.” Eve says she was generally made to feel like an outsider, and that being white meant that she would be conned by auto rickshaw or cab drivers.
“Anything can be expected from an auto driver. You can get a free ride and a nice conversation about his kids or an abuse and being cheated."
The most common perception is that public transport is extremely unsafe for women, especially for those who are not from Delhi. However, the women we spoke to don't agree. Samantha* says, “Apart from the obvious stares on the metro, I found public transport to be fine. I never felt unsafe in an auto, taxi or metro.” For Eve, public transport in India proved to be better than London at times. Except for the obvious price hassles which all of us face, hailing an auto or a cab, especially with app based services, hasn't been very difficult for foreigners in India. Some like Anna had different experiences every time she boarded an auto. “Anything can be expected from an auto driver. You can get a free ride and a nice conversation about his kids or an abuse and being cheated. I have been through it all. Now, cabs are cheaper than taking an auto so I travel by cabs or prefer to walk. Indian public transport and Bangalore traffic has taught me a lot of patience.” For Louise, who lived in India for eight years, public transport was a breeze. “I loved taking the train. It's the best way to see the country,” says Louise. “For cabs and rickshaws, hailing one was the easy part. Haggling was the difficult part.”
“When I first moved to India, I would notice people looking at me when I was out in the market or even in my car. But I quickly realised that this was simply curiosity and there was nothing offensive in it."
Louise's India experience was unlike most of the others. “When I first moved to India, I would notice people looking at me when I was out in the market or even in my car. But I quickly realised that this was simply curiosity and there was nothing offensive in it. It was similar to me looking at them and admiring their colourful clothes and jewellery.” Louise's professional experience was unlike the previous horror stories we heard. “I worked with some of the best in the industry and feel really lucky to have experienced that. They were an incredible bunch and didn't treat me differently. However, I did enjoy getting spoilt with home-cooked food at lunch.” She also says that making friends was easier than she had imagined. “There are the usual “expat nights” - though I hate that term - which bring people together initially. Then you meet friends of friends and it just goes from there. I was never made to feel like an outsider.”
“There is an interesting paradox here where women are revered as goddesses, bringers of life and the figurehead of the home, but also not given any tangible power or space in the public sphere. I think there is more structural and culturally-embedded neglect and violence against women here in India, but that is not to say that it doesn't happen elsewhere."
Working with an NGO for girls in Bangalore, Tiggy Allen from the UK says that she is treated differently at work but it is mostly to her advantage. “Being a foreigner, there are certain workplace cultures that I don't know about, and therefore, don't follow. This makes it easy to brush through formalities and be very straightforward at work and in meetings. I think, like anywhere, being a young woman in a professional setting is difficult, but there are a lot of young women working in the third sector. I actually think that my skin colour defines professional interactions more than my gender in India.” Stares are pretty usual even in relatively safer Bangalore, which Tiggy says is still better than North India. “When I was in North India for a brief internship, I took the bus a lot and had to wedge my rucksack in next to me to avoid being touched by men. Bangalore is much better than North India, but I do get stared at all the time. It directly correlates to how much skin I have on show.” In her short time here, Tiggy has also noticed the hypocrisy in India when it comes to gender equality. “There is an interesting paradox here where women are revered as goddesses, bringers of life and the figurehead of the home, but also not given any tangible power or space in the public sphere. I think there is more structural and culturally-embedded neglect and violence against women here in India, but that is not to say that it doesn't happen elsewhere. Personally, I don't walk around after dark, I don't like being out and about during festivals where there is a lot of drinking and I do feel that I cover up a lot more and am more aware of my body in public here. Having said all that, I went home to the UK for a month and was groped twice in a bar and haven't been once in Bangalore, which probably contradicts most people's assumptions about India.”
While India isn't exactly a joyride for white women, it's even worse for women of African origin. They are assumed to be from two professions only if they're living in India – drug dealing or prostitution. Last week, I went out with my friends for a movie in the popular malls of Saket in New Delhi. Opposite the malls is an overpopulated and small colony which is popular for students and those who can't spend much on rent. Crossing the area in a car, we saw some women looking for an auto. Since it was after dark and the women had a black skin tone, all my friends assumed they were prostitutes and stared at them unsparingly. Not one of the supposed gender equality advocates sitting in the car saw the fault in their assumption that a woman is out for paid sex if she is on the street after dark, looking for public transport. We didn't get anyone from Africa for this article but that wasn't for lack of trying. African-origin expats \regularly face racial insults from Indians who, ironically, also complain of racism when they travel abroad. Watch this video by Indiatimes which shows the horrible racism and racially charged sexism that they face.
Is our version of feminism limited by skin colour? Does a huge population of women, native or otherwise, not deserve gender equality because they look different? Indians across the country are hypocrites when it comes to foreigners, especially towards people of African origin. We advocate gender equality and denounce all those who are against it, but when you're debating feminism with someone the next time, think of how unfair and disrespectful it is when you assume that a foreigner is here only to party and sell drugs. As Samantha* points out, white women are treated as the token white presence in parties and have to sift through the rubbish to actually find a good friend among those who just want them around to stand out in the crowd.
Every woman, regardless of skin colour, deserves to be treated as a human being and not as an item for your perusal and purchase. India is a foreign land for them and, instead of making them feel out of place and wrong for looking different, how about we start practising what we preach for a change?