On Being a White Woman in India

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When a friend of mine sent me a text back in November saying that Modi had banned all 500 and 1000 rupee notes overnight, I thought she was pranking me. I had only been in India a couple of months, and couldn’t fathom the prime minister of a country of 1.3 billion literally outlawing the use of over 80% of the nation’s currency. To my, as well as much of the nation’s dismay, she wasn’t joking.

Within the next few days, I did what much of the rest of the country did and headed to a bank to try to exchange my old notes. When I got there and saw the behemoth of a line in front of me, I solemnly took my place at the end. As I waited, about as frustrated as the people in front or behind me, the branch manager of the bank singled me out, called me into his office, and personally handled the exchange of all of my notes. He claimed that, “as a visitor to this country, we must do something for you.” He offered me a seat and a cup of tea and asked me about American politics.

As this interaction was happening, I oscillated between feeling incredibly grateful as well as incredibly uncomfortable. It was true that the branch manager’s nice gesture made it far easier for me to navigate the situation, but I felt the searing stares on my back of the 50 or so people whom I had cut in line for this special treatment. I kept wondering why the branch manager had even bothered to help me – was it just because I was white? Or did it have to do with the fact that I was a woman, and somehow incapable of handling things on my own?

It is no secret that fairness is valued in India. I’ve seen it in the “Fair and Lovely” skin whitening creams that line the aisles of small shops, or the marriage ads that call for a “fair and beautiful girl”. I have no doubt benefitted from my white privilege while here. It is indeed part of my identity back home in the United States, but the degree to which it stands out in India is unparalleled. Guards let me walk into fancy buildings with ease, people automatically assume that I am wealthy, and it’s not difficult for me to get help in nearly any situation.

However, my experience of whiteness is qualified by the fact that I am a woman. I am subject to the stares of men who pass by on their bikes or who I walk past on the street, and I am constantly showered with be careful’s and don’t go there by yourself’s. I’m told not to worry, that the men in my life here will figure things out for me, but that all other men in India are somehow dangerous to me. What has been reinforced throughout my time here is that these two identities that I possess, the white American and the woman, cannot be separated. I’m frequently treated as privileged, but somehow incapable of independence or full respect.

Getting to Voice 4 Girls in January opened my eyes to a side of India that is working hard to break down these barriers that exist along lines of identity. The staff here works incredibly hard to ensure that girls who don’t have access to good education or the freedom of choice when it comes to marriage are armed with the knowledge and skills necessary to empower themselves. Even in the office, the energy and passion in the room is palpable. Hearing the women and men on the team talk about the work they are doing shows me just how invested they are in the fight for gender equity. Plus, people there treat me just as another human – there are no expectations that I am somehow different due to being foreign, and the fact that I am a woman is celebrated, rather than brought down.

The work Voice 4 Girls is doing is making an impact on Indian society in a way that not many organizations are. As a woman in India and back home in the US, I recognize firsthand that we still have a long way to go to reach gender equity. But through Voice 4 Girls programming, more and more young girls are equipped with the tools they need to fight back against the patriarchy and oppressive gender-based or caste-based violence. Through interning with Voice 4 Girls, I was lucky enough to be a small part of that change. I can’t wait to see the lives it will continue to impact as it flourishes and grows, and works to make India a more equitable place.

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The author of this blog, Libby Goldman, is a junior at Dartmouth College studying Geography and Women’s and Gender Studies. She interned with VOICE 4 Girls during her stay in Hyderabad for a Dartmouth-sponsored study abroad program at the University of Hyderabad focusing on Women’s and Gender Studies.

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