White Woman’s Burden

Was RoseChasm’s India-visit traumatic because she didn’t understand the cultural pitfalls of travelling in a foreign country?

WrittenBy:Rajyasree Sen
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Last week, I read University of Chicago student, RoseChasm/ Michaela Cross’ article on her traumatic travels through India. I couldn’t not. After all, it’s all over the Internet, and has already elicited many responses. Cross, a student who I’m assuming is in her early Twenties, had visited India on a 3-month long Civilisations study programme. What followed disturbed her so much that she suffered from a public breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder and was put on mental leave from University of Chicago.


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The good thing is that Cross didn’t internalise her trauma. Instead, she wrote an article in CNN on it. An article in which she wrote that she “knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize”. On her first day in India, she danced at the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Pune and was surprised at “how the festival actually stopped when the American women started dancing, so that we looked around to see a circle of men filming our every move”. And that, “when people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd? Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?”

My answer to all her questions would be, yes. She should talk about it. By talking about it she will learn to deal with her unpleasant memories and will also make sure that other women who visit India know what could lie in store for them in similar situations.

Her article was followed by another University of Chicago student’s article, who was on the same student trip to India and visited many of the same places as RoseChasm had. The only difference was – that she was black. Which didn’t qualify her according to RoseChasm’s analysis to be a “sexual prize” or a “promiscuous being”. Yet, it didn’t prevent her from being stared at – by men, women and children. She also faced a certain level of sexual harassment. Something which anyone visiting India will realise has nothing to do with skin colour, but everything to do with gender.

This is sadly the way India is. Women are raped every day in India – in big cities, town, villages. This doesn’t make what happened to RoseChasm okay, but there is a skewed psychological and sexual dynamic between men and women in the country, and you cannot visit or live in India without keeping this in mind. And you would be a fool to think that you can just ignore it when you visit this country. And no, the normal man on the street is not used to seeing any woman gyrating or even doing graceful pirouettes next to them during religious festivals. Forget dancing, they still find it an oddity to see women walking around in market places or checking into hotels alone. In some parts of the country it is unacceptable for women to bare their faces in the presence of men they are not married to. This has nothing to do with whether a woman is white or not.

Which is why, you need to be careful in India as a woman. Which is why no sane woman would burst into dance in the middle of a group of men during Ganesh Chaturthi festivals. Whether you’re brown, black, white or blue – you will be stared at.

I’ve lived on my own in Mumbai and Delhi ever since I was 22 years old. It’s not that anything untoward has not happened to me because I’m blessed and born under the right stars or safe because I don’t have red hair, blue eyes and white skin. It’s because I’m very careful in the way I behave and dress in public, on the streets. This is the price you pay for living in India – especially as a single woman. You must be constantly vigilant.

I remember visiting Pune for a week-long film appreciation course with four female classmates when we were 22 years old. The apartment we were staying in was located in the same building as a boy’s college hostel. It was Holi the day after we reached. We remember the boys banging on our door on Holi. Wildly. Loudly. And a little unnervingly. We kept the door locked. There must have been at least 50 of them out there. But we kept our cool. I’m sure at least one amongst us must have been slightly shaken up. But we all knew this was an aberration. And yes, we took it as par for the course. And no, it doesn’t make it okay for RoseChasm to have been groped or flashed, just because we have been. But it also doesn’t mean that everyone flashes everyone or that she was handpicked for her colour.

I frankly find it odd that the University of Chicago gives no briefing to their female students or on the cultural intricacies of India. That this is a country where most men have a skewed psycho-sexual dynamic with women. That you must not stay in dingy hotels in Goa if you’re a bunch of women travelling alone. That you MUST be extra-careful in public places. And do college students of “Civilisations” do NO research on the cultural intricacies of places they visit?

But while India is a place where women need to just be a little vigilant, it’s the same as any other city in any other country women visit.

I remember when I visited Johannesburg, I was told clearly that I couldn’t walk on the streets, mustn’t wear any jewellery while sightseeing and must always travel by car. And much as I wanted to dance through the lanes of Soweto, I controlled myself. Johannesburg is a beautiful city steeped in history and culture, one which tempts you to walk its alleys and talk to its people. But you don’t. Because it’s not safe. You remember that and repeat it to yourself through your trip. Because we’ve all heard the horror stories and none of us want to become a statistic.

When I went to Italy, I remember extremely slimy oily Italian men walking up to my Italian-speaking friend and requesting her to ask me whether I would have coffee with them or a drink. I used to give them an earful in English or look at them disdainfully. But I knew that every Italian wasn’t a Lothario, just the ones I seemed to bump into on the streets of Milan and Rome. I also remember sitting in Preston Park during the Brighton Pride Parade Party and suddenly feeling someone ruffling my hair. It was a weedy pasty-faced young Britisher. He’d never seen raven coloured long hair before or skin my shade. And couldn’t resist touching it. But for every pasty Britisher, there were ten others who weren’t randomly ruffling my hair.

I am not saying that what happened to RoseChasm should just be taken on the jaw and forgotten as par for the course. By no means should that happen. But when visiting any country, especially one where whether we like it or not different rules apply, a different culture exists, men are very rarely in proximity of women they are not related to – it is important to prepare yourself for what to expect. And it’s not because as RoseChasm wrote, she “knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize”. A presumption and perception that is a little strange in the least.

When you visit any country, you need to keep in mind how you can be safe and still enjoy yourself. It’s not a perfect world. No one said it was. We are all working towards trying to make India safer for women. But it’s not as if Rose Chasm comes from the safest country in the world. Rapes happen there as well, there are serial killers, children take guns to school and shoot each other, white men still shoot black men just because they’re wearing hoodies, men lock up women in their basements for years on end. That doesn’t mean that that’s the norm. I know whenever I visit America next that I wouldn’t be as argumentative or short with a security guard in an American airport as I am over here. If they want to frisk me 20 times, I’d let them. And no, in India if they tried it, I’d tell them to sod off and bring the house down for harassment. But I’ll be conducive and obedient in the airports of the first world. Simply because I am aware that if I don’t – purely because of the colour of my skin and my place of origin – I might risk being thrown in the clink.

But would I be traumatised if that happens or balk at America’s security guards? No. And if I am that easily traumatised, I honestly wouldn’t bother visiting America. RoseChasm isn’t some unaware uneducated woman who just happened to find her way to India. And was then shocked by the male gaze. No. She is a college student. One who studies Civilisations no less. She claims that she “was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets. And I was prepared for the curiosity my red hair, fair skin and blue eyes would arouse”.

Her behaviour and reactions, though, as narrated by her belies this preparedness.

India is not a country friendly to women. Neither is it one spilling over with lecherous potential rapists. But, much like other countries, this is also one in which white/black/brown women need to be careful while travelling through. It is RoseChasm’s shock, surprise and skewed perception of being a “sexual prize” because she’s a white woman which surprises me.

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