Saturday, March 9, 2013

Winter Break, part 1 of ?

Friday was International Women’s Day.

Prior to morning assembly, I didn’t know that such a day even existed… but I guess there’s a day devoted to everything, including “International Day of Awesomeness,” which just so happens to be today!  You’d think they could just omit the obvious redundancy and make yesterday “International Awesomeness of Women Day.”  Who’s with me?
I know at least one person who would probably not be on board—the same grown, educated man I personally overheard complaining that Women’s Day is irrelevant “because women already have their rights, especially Western women.”  This Western woman’s blood was immediately brought to boiling, a visceral reaction caused by the insensitive statement itself as well as by the recent memories it resurfaced.  During winter break, despite my supposed plethora of rights, I still managed to be quite wronged, quite often.
For example, I spent the very first night of my winter travels—the night of December 15—on a bus ride from Dehradun to Delhi.   While waiting for the bus, alone, I was chatted up by an Indian man who was also headed to Delhi.  He was friendly and nice, performing the usual recitation of every Western country that he had ever visited and apologizing on behalf of his fellow countrymen for treating foreign women like Caucasian catnip.  The friendliness took a questionable turn, though, when the man decided that, because the bus I was taking was somehow “better” than his, he would exchange his ticket for a seat on mine. 
But not just any seat. 
We ended up sharing a tiny sleeper berth that slapped us together like a PB&J sandwich, Saran-wrapped away from the rest of the passengers by both a curtain and a sliding glass door.  He was definitely the peanut butter in this situation, clinging to curves I wasn’t even aware I had, whereas I was desperately trying to keep my jelly free from his sticky, creepy grasp.  (<that link is for you, Lindsay)
Even though I pleadingly stared down the (Hindi-speaking) bus driver when he patrolled the aisle before departure, he didn’t come to my rescue by finagling with the seating arrangement.  I was, however, comforted by eye contact I made with an older Indian woman, also traveling solo, in the adjacent sleeper.  I can’t adequately describe the look she gave me, but it seemed to acknowledge my predicament and assure me that she was there, if needed. 
Still, I didn’t sleep.
The night passed by at a snail’s pace and I spent it swatting away stray hands, focusing on flattening myself against a window dripping with condensation.  The claustrophobic tension, tinged by the ever-present possibility of physical danger, caused a scream to rise and congeal in the back of my throat; had this experienced occurred later in my trip, I realize I probably would have (and in this case, should have) let it loose.  But it wasn’t until I returned to the city on Christmas Day that I discovered that this had happened the night of December 16, less than 24 hours after having arrived “safely” in Delhi:
I know that most sane men would definitely feel sad after reading that article.  Probably angry, confused… perhaps even ashamed by simple association with the offending gender.  But does it make sense that when I, as a woman, finally absorbed this news that was splattered across televisions in the New Delhi airport, I, too, was flooded with an initial sense of guilt?  I felt guilty for having considered myself so very violated on my bus ride to Delhi, when this woman’s ride within the same city resulted in her death.  What right do I have to complain about my poor treatment, which is pathetically dwarfed in comparison to hers?  Shouldn’t I be focused on the bigger picture, on the acts against women that result in actual, visible damage?
These are questions that sprout from the deeply-rooted, harmful attitudes of people like my overheard, unnamed informant, who made a supposed concession by saying that women who are seriously wronged, like the one raped in Delhi, “can have their Women’s Day.”  So, women are only entitled to respect after they are horrifically, violently abused?  We should only be celebrated and valued after we are murdered?  The push behind International Women’s Day is not to repent for crimes already committed against women, but rather to pave the way for a future that is freer of such crime, harassment, and prejudice.  It’s easy enough to obtain legal rights on paper, but changing deeply-embedded cultural beliefs and practices is a much bigger challenge… and it’s useless to think about these cultural tendencies in terms of “Western” and “non-Western” when boundaries are continually blurred by globalization.  Woodstock strives to help students forge roles within a world that is the sum of its individual parts; the thoughts and behavior of each country, each city, and each person contributes to the well-being of the entire communal sphere.
My fragmented experiences as a single woman traversing the globe have led me to view gender discrimination as a sort of similarly fragmented mosaic; the “big picture” is certainly important and leaves the greatest aesthetic impact, but this picture is comprised of smaller, seemingly insignificant shards of sexist acts… whistling, staring, “accidental” touching, general condescension.  Larger crimes against women rightly overshadow these smaller, seemingly insignificant wrongdoings, but women have every right—even a special responsibility—to draw attention to and express disgust toward the everyday occurrences that build up like dryer lint before resulting in some sort of violent (and preventable) explosion. 

I think my feeling of guilt about the rape in Delhi is a powerful indicator that an International Women’s Day is still valid, relevant, and needed, and will continue to be as long as X-chromosomes are viewed as scarlet letters.
I promise to step down from my soapbox for my next post: Winter Break, part 2 of ?…


  1. Nothing I can write can adequately describe my feelings to this post. I have witnessed the lack of respect of women first hand when I visited India a couple of months ago.

  2. Thanks dad! It was much nicer traveling with you and mom : ) Lack of respect for women is still alive and well in the States, too, just not *usually* in such an overt way. love!