A little game I like to play with myself when I travel is “could I live here?”
To do this I observe other women and take note of how day to day life operates. Please remember I am not commenting on India in general, just Ellora and Khuldabad, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim communities, where women cover their faces and hair when they go out in public and men get to the mosque at least once a day to pray.
As a middle aged white woman traveling alone, I stand out like a sore thumb here, and generally speaking standing out while traveling alone is not the safest position in any place.
But I’m not exactly traveling alone. I have a host here who has lived in the community his whole life and seems to know absolutely everyone. By virtue of my association with him and his family, I’m treated differently from the average tourist. While last year I was approached and almost mobbed by what seemed like everyone who saw me, this year no one comes near me. People smile and nod, but they are more reserved. No one is running after me yelling at me to pay attention to them. No one is “in my face.”
But I’ve also imposed some restrictions on myself. I don’t walk around alone. I don’t leave my room until someone has come to get me. I don’t browse shops alone. I don’t go anywhere alone at all, ever. This is normal for women here. The men escort their women to the market or wherever it is they wish to go. It’s like a vast society of soccer moms where the moms are men.
As a small test I left my “handler ” and with permission walked around the Ellora Caves alone. Initially I was not exactly ignored but no one approached me. But after a while three guys showed up who are part of the regular hawker crowd and began low key congenial conversations with me. In America this would be nothing noteworthy, but here I’m not so sure. My host showed up within minutes and led me away. Back to safety? Had he been following me?
I’m left wondering what signals I’m sending here. My host has confirmed that women just don’t go it alone here, with the exception of teachers and students. Otherwise, we are to be escorted and guarded, guided and informed. People just feel more relaxed when they know who you belong to. And if you’re alone, then obviously you belong to no one and that makes you fair game for acquisition. Or, so it seems.
So could I live here? There are charms to being taken care of. To having everything done for you, transportation arranged, money changed, errands run. As someone who does it all in my normal life, I like or shall I say “love” being taken care of. But being told what to do and how to do it is wearing thin. Needing an escort to feel safe is too.
I also notice that while women are taken care of here, they also work really hard. They stay home all day. They don’t take a break mid day and go off to the community garden like the guys do. They do get an afternoon nap after the cooking, laundry, and cleaning are done.
Awesome clothes, errands run, great food, afternoon naps….are these tradeoffs worth making for personal security and freedom?
Friends of my host say I would be perfectly fine here, but I’m not buying it. I’m not sure I could live in a place were women are ushered off to the back of the restaurant “to the family room,” when male children sit in the front. Men here come right out and admit that there are different rules for women and men. While this is troubling, the honesty is refreshing.
So sadly, I don’t think I could live here. I think I said it before—Russia seemed less oppressive.
The kids here though are so sweet and engaging. Young women stare at me in amazement and smile so warmly. I know I don’t have things figured out and certainly without better language skills, I’ll never have a clue. I’m left relying on my gut feeling. And my gut has been telling me to run for about a year now. Stupid gut.