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Jacquie Day - Blog Post 3: Women, Safety, Tradition and Experience

Jacquie Day - Blog Post 3: Women, Safety, Tradition and Experience

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I learned early on in my time here, that there is a big difference between what people can do, and what people don’t do. In Kerala, tradition and patriarchy is rich and strong, and this is enough reason to behave or not behave in certain ways.

Upon arrival in Trivandrum, I was told that women can’t go out at night, women can’t buy alcohol, women can’t go out alone, etc.

It is not that women can’t in fact, it is that women don’t. Of course, as time passes and there is greater cultural influence from the western world, people are becoming slightly more inclined to challenge their own culturally prescribed roles. It has only been in the last few years (I am told), that women go out by themselves and are out after dark. Up until a few years ago, a woman was seen as provocative if she was to venture away from her home after 6pm. While men are still largely seen in the public sphere, especially as the day goes on- more and more women are unafraid to been seen also in public spaces.

That being said, women are generally still not out by themselves. My experience so far, is that widely accepted in Trivandrum, is the mentality of victim-blaming around sexual assault. If a woman is seen out alone at night, then she therefore is putting herself in a vulnerable situation. If she ends up being approached by a man, then written in the papers the next day- would likely be the sentiment that ‘she should know better’. Coming from my university-education, middle-class, feminist background, this view is strongly challenged. It is my personal belief, that it is never the victims’ fault- and rather the conversation should be around what is creating these circumstances of violence to begin with.

Walking by myself in Canada, I rarely feel my safety is compromised, whether it’s the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night. It is not that Canada, or Victoria is void of violence, but rather that it is more culturally appropriate for women to take up space in the public sphere. This was a ‘freedom’ I had taken for granted until coming to India. I have gone through many phases during my time here. At first (and still now at times), I feel afraid. I feel as though I am doing something wrong when I am out by myself after dark (which is usually by 7pm). I immediately feel vulnerable and like I am putting myself in danger. At other times, I feel like being out alone at night is a personal act of resistance. And of course there are the times when I feel like I am simply living my life in the way that I know how, and should not have to think about my safety 100% of the time.

When spending time with some local friends, I am often the only female. This I am told, is because most young females stay at home at night with their families. Tradition is often enough reason to do anything.

It is not my role in India to push cultural boundaries, but rather to engage in them in a way that feels honest to myself and to those around me. At times, I feel like demanding to take up some space, especially when it comes to riding the bus or standing in line and having someone cut in front of me. ‘I was here first’, I think to myself, a thought which I owe to my own social position. I also am aware that I am a fair-skinned woman, which at times can allow me access to certain spaces it may not allow local women. I often go in-between the idea that I cannot do anything, and also that I can do whatever I please. I am allowed everywhere and nowhere at the same time, a constant battle of living in India.

More than my own safety, I am acutely aware in almost all circumstances of the different culture I represent. At times this makes me hyper-visible, and at other times, invisible. Neither of which are a comfort to me. Kerala is still a conservative place, even compared to other parts of India and women are expected to ‘cover their bodies’ to a certain degree. Only some women in the younger generation are beginning to defy this cultural imposition. I generally would feel quite awkward if I wore a sleeveless top or short skirt. Again, it is not that I cannot do such things- it is that people don’t, and to do so could imply certain things. The male gaze is much more noticeable here, than has been my experience at home in Canada.

How to take up space, or how not to is a constant conversation I have with myself and subtly, with those around me. At times, I wait to be invited, and at others, I mimic what those around me are doing. And sometimes, I forget altogether and just instinctively respond to my environment the same way I do in any other part of the world. I remember in those moments to be myself, and engage in the way that makes more sense to me. For as many ‘differences’ as there are across Canada and India, there are also many similarities and I remind myself that in some ways, we are all exactly the same and attempting to live our lives in the best way we know how.