Studying abroad is an intense experience for everyone, especially for women. I am studying abroad in Pune, India, with six other young women. I did not anticipate my gender and race to playing as much of a role as they have. I was aware of the conservative attitudes and the large role gender norms play here, but I did not expect them to be forced on me. I anticipated a different definition of appropriate dress, for example, but not nonconsensual subscription to the norms of Indian women.
Where staring is common
Walking down the street, around campus, shopping, and at restaurants, I am constantly stared at, as are other girls of non-Indian heritage. Unfortunately, this a phenomenon we are used to living in the United States, but in India, it is different. It is not just men that stare, but everyone. We look different, I get it, but knowing this—and that staring is common in Indian culture—does not make me feel less uncomfortable.
The non-Indian presenting women in this program have had mixed experiences here. “I feel extremely uncomfortable walking down the streets of Pune,” says Taylor, a blonde, Caucasian student. “Everyone stares at me, and some men have even taken photos of me or try to touch me. I don’t always know how to handle these situations.”
People who look very out of the ordinary tend to get more attention. While often unwanted, this is not often malintentioned. Cross-cultural understanding is important in situations like these, so one can distinguish what is curiosity and what is not.
During orientation, IFSA staff set out to prepare my fellow female students for behaviors they might encounter, how to try to avoid them, and how to handle uncomfortable situations. Most reassuring was learning that women can usually depend on the surrounding community for help. If someone is harassing you and you ask for help from another man nearby, even as a foreigner, it is likely he will help. If you act on your own, it is also unlikely there will be retribution from those surrounding you. IFSA staff also offered to consult with students, accompany them, and even assist in taking legal action if necessary.
While these conversations made me feel a bit more at ease, I had trouble with one aspect. We flipped to the next page of our orientation manual, and I saw the words “how to prevent sexual assault/harassment” in bold. The following words were like a slap in the face: Don’t wear flashy jewelry. Don’t laugh too loud. Don’t stand out in a crowd.
When cultural values clash
This is contrary to the contemporary feminist views many Americans subscribe to. While I recognize cultural norms here aren’t the same, I felt like I had been taken back in time. Additional advice included being aware of your surroundings at all times, preparing transport home ahead of time, avoiding eye-contact with men on the street, and dressing according to societal norms. Though helpful, this advice was a watered-down version of what the women in the room have been told their whole lives. However, this is not a call for it not to be taken seriously in any way.
There are social drawbacks to being a woman studying abroad in India or anywhere. While the circumstances are more extreme here, they are similar to those of the United States and thus likely to have been encountered before. That said, women studying here can overcome these challenges with support from peers, community members, and program staff—and your experience can still be amazing.
—Melissa H. (American University), Contemporary India, IFSA First-Generation Scholar program contributing writer