When Paula and I decided to move to India, I thought it would be just another in the long list of places we’ve happily experienced together. We have both been to multiple developing countries – she has been to India before and also worked in Afghanistan – and I expected New Delhi would be much like what I’ve already seen of the third world; busy, noisy, dirty and dysfunctional. What I didn’t expect is that the experience would become an object lesson in a contagious social disease: misogyny.
Of course, I was aware of India’s struggles with sexual violence, and Paula had told me about the time she slapped a tout in a market for grabbing her bottom. I was ready for this and, as a qualified urban planner, I was intellectually prepared for the ways in which women might be excluded from the public realm. But I did not anticipate that it would make me see my own relationship in a completely new light.
I am fortunate to have a girlfriend who is highly capable, intelligent and independent. For such a self-reliant woman, I was surprised by the extent to which Paula’s comfort was increased by my presence (protection) in public. Some points of reference: the woman on the metro struggling against a torrent of men, trapped because her handbag was caught in the press of unheeding male bodies, eventually unable to exit the carriage at her stop; the lingering stares on the street (these occur even when I am present, but carry less force as a result); the environmentally implied threat of attack – not eased by the reputation of Delhi as India’s rape capital.
I can only imagine what it must be like for Paula to steel herself before entering crowds, having me be the one who is automatically addressed first in conversation, having it be assumed that we are in India for my work, not hers (21st Century alert: she works; I am the ‘trailing spouse’). I am astonished she bears it with such good humour.
I have found the psychological consequences troubling. For instance, I am anxious about her commuting to work alone, particularly now I have seen the route she takes, by busy metro and back streets. Yesterday, I suggested she wear something other than her (by Australian standards, demure) workout clothes for the short walk to our gym. Misogyny, it would seem, is infectious, self-perpetuating through learned social behaviours.
In drunken conversations with friends and strangers, I have long argued that healthy, loving relationships are those where both parties are improved by the other’s presence. Organically, the one makes the other better and vice versa. Here, that equation has new shades of meaning, whereby her life in public is made bearable by my presence, but also diminished by it. I think this must be distressing for her. When I asked her, Paula gave the impression she didn’t think it remarkable, which is, perhaps, worse.
Coupled with the aforementioned problems with inclusivity and gendered social slights, this represents a subtle but important paradigm shift. Now, even though neither of us wish it, we have begun to interpret our relationship through Indian cultural norms, which, in small but not insignificant ways, are then reflected in our dealings with each other and the outside world. On the metro, I leaned back into a pushy man going for a vacated seat, blocking him so a woman could take it. Even in those close-packed carriages, I refuse any contact, however inconsequential, with female passengers, in the hope that an accidental bump will not be misinterpreted.
My actions, themselves, provoked a further bout of self-inquisition. Was my blocking movement on the metro virtuous, or something that could be classified as old-fashioned courtesy (chauvinism)? Did my own nervousness about the social acceptability of her gym outfit interfere with Paula’s autonomy? To what degree am I comfortable being thrust into the role of ‘protector’, or should I perpetuate patriarchy in order to make her feel safer and more comfortable?
We are sufficiently self-aware that the expectation that women will participate in public life only makes a gendered environment the less excusable. My brief time in India has shown me not only what an exclusionary public realm looks like here, but also how misogyny affects women in Australia. Like fish, it is difficult to see the sea in which we swim. The stares may be less lascivious, the threat of sexual violence lower, however, it still exists, and both men and women alter their behaviours to compensate.
I am uncertain to what extent my learned anxiety about Paula’s navigation of the public realm will fade upon our return. The experience has been like waking up to discover your partner is handicapped, and that you had not noticed for years. Shameful.