Recent news stories about violence towards women in India made me a little nervous before we embarked on our Chinese New Year trip to Delhi, Kolkata and Darjeeling. Our first full day in Delhi happened to be Republic Day and we ventured out from our hotel into wide boulevards in New Delhi devoid of traffic and joined scattered pedestrians all making their way towards the procession site. We could hear military music from marching bands in the distance.
Immediately I was struck by the fact that there were very few women among the excited onlookers. Groups of men chatted and laughed and formed most of the crowd which jostled for a view of the soldiers and then the huge colourful floats with animated scenes representing India’s states. Many of the men stared at us. This was another surprise; I had expected to be less conspicuous than in China and for Delhi to be more cosmopolitan than Ningbo. I had also expected most women in Delhi to be dressed in western style – again my expectations were wrong and I suppose this was one of the reasons people stared so frankly at me. I have spent the last few days feeling inappropriately dressed and have taken to wrapping a large shawl around my top half in an attempt to blend in!
Gender imbalance is especially marked on the Delhi Metro system. In Shanghai or Beijing there are equal numbers of men and women travelling on the subway systems; despite the patriarchal nature of Chinese society and the preference for boy children, women are equally in evidence and seem to enjoy social independence. In Delhi many carriages on the subway were almost completely full of men, with perhaps half a dozen women. Women clearly don’t travel alone. Once we blundered into the ‘women only’ carriage, presumably set up to counter the problems for women of travelling on the Metro. We made a quick retreat as soon as Fintan realised he shouldn’t be there. But at the next station some men tried to get into the carriage, and a policeman on the platform had to bawl at them to get off or move – which they did only reluctantly.
On our second day in Delhi we ventured out of the normal tourist areas to seek out Coronation Park, set up to celebrate the British decision to make Delhi into the imperial capital. We were looking for a sculpture of George V that had been moved from its canopy near India Gate, following Independence. This adventure involved a wild journey in a tuk-tuk – a small taxi on a motorbike. On the way back we were picked up by another such taxi. We had to share the small space with two women who did not look at all pleased to be forced to sit knee to knee with two westerners – especially the male one.
The atmosphere was awkward until we were stuck in a traffic jam back in Old Delhi, nearer to the subway station. The younger woman spotted that the end of the sari of a passenger in another tuk-tuk had come adrift and was floating near the ground. She called out – to alert the woman, and turned to me and smiled. I wasn’t dressed like either of them but we seemed to bond in some way.
We have now arrived in Kolkata, our second destination. We’ve spent the afternoon searching for more imperial sculpture in Victoria Park, which surrounds the famous Victoria Monument, built by Curzon to celebrate the monarch after her death. The park and the monument are hugely popular – seething with locals who troop around to look at the imperial relics, including the cannons used to suppress them.
There were far more women around and about in Kolkata compared to Delhi. In fact the park was full of courting couples, cuddling under the trees and sitting on the plinths of the sculptures. Many families with mothers, grandmothers and children formed part of the crowds inside the monument. I still felt conspicuous, but rather more relaxed.
India and China of course see themselves as developing nations that are strongly competitive. It is not only on grounds of economic development where China is clearly pulling ahead, but also I’d say in terms of gender roles and its treatment of women. I would be surprised if women felt unsafe in Chinese cities or unable to go out alone or with their female friends. That doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere in India.