I am Indian but I am not from India. This one sentence is often enough to blow peoples minds, or at least confuse the shit out of them. I had never been to India until just on a year ago when I spent two months there as part of my travels.
When I was in India being seen as an Indian woman made feel vulnerable. It felt like it opened me up to a particular kind of scrutiny and judgement that was threatening. There I was, wearing western clothes, walking with a white man, unable to speak or understand hindi. The quintessential ‘bad Indian girl.’ I was what traditional Indian parents are often terrified their daughters will become. Someone who defies and betrays tradition, culture, and custom. In many ways I allegedly represent the moral degradation of Indian society due to ‘westernisation.’ I am the opposite of the ‘good Indian girl’ who is modest, submissive and obeys her parents wishes, and by extension anyone else in authority.
I found myself hiding behind my Malaysian nationality. It protected me a little bit from the scrutiny. I would just tell people that I am from Malaysia and allow them to form their own conclusions. “But you look Indian” they would say, and I would nod, too tired and too pissed off to explain the complexities of my identity. It meant that I was judged as a foreign woman not an Indian girl and lessened the stares and inappropriate comments and inappropriate touching a little bit. Only a little bit. It is our culture after all.
I don’t think I am alone, as an Indian woman who feels uncomfortable around Indian men when I walk down the street even in New Zealand. There is a sense that as an Indian woman I owe them something. That I am theirs. After all that is the understanding that many Indian men are raised with from the cradle. This has been reinforced by a number of incidents where I have been harassed or verbally abused. Obviously this is not true of all Indian men, and I know many who are not sexist or misogynist, but the fact that I and others often feel this way is a clue that something is broken.
I am an Indian woman. As a result, how I think, how I act, how I dress, all of these things are part of Indian culture. There is not arbitrary test of authenticity that you can subject me to that decides whether I am Indian or not. I just am. I choose it. I live it. Culture is dynamic and alive and made up of people. People like me. You cannot define culture purely by its traditional institutions or structures of power. Claiming that I am not really Indian or a ‘bad Indian girl’ is simply a way of trying to silence me. It is a way of harmful cultural institutions trying to hold on to power they do not deserve. It is a way of maintaining control. I have as much right to define my culture as anyone else.
I will never accept that harassment and violence is a part of my culture. I will never believe that I am less than an authentic Indian woman for speaking my mind and advocating for what I believe is right. My cultural narrative includes a long line of women who have advocated for the betterment of people and it is a part of my culture (alongside many other parts) I willingly embrace. I will happily be a ‘bad Indian girl’ because that is what makes me a strong Indian woman.)