Street food is a major aspect of Indian food culture. There are an estimated 2 million street food vendors across this country (The Economic Times India). India is chock-full of hidden food gems, many of which are quite literally hidden in nooks and crannies in between its bustling streets. My co-fellow Pallavi is a Hyderabad native, and when I visited her and her family there a few weeks ago, she took me on her personally curated Old City street food tour. We devoured a spicy, saucy, cheesy dosa at her favorite stall, munched on deep-fried Andhra cheese bhaaji at Royal Tiffin Centre, and washed it down with a cup of rich Iranian chai in Hyderabad’s old city. We rounded out the tour with several dessert stops: one at the aptly named Famous Ice Cream and at a sweet shop owned by Pallavi’s family friend, who promptly stuffed every last square inch of our stomachs with Hyderabadi sweets. Local, no-frills, and inexpensive–this was some of the best food I’ve had in India. Which is why it was disheartening to recognize Pallavi and I were one of the only, if not the only, women patrons at each place.
If there were other women, they were always accompanied by men. This is not uncommon. After the gruesome Hyderabad rape and murder case in November, Delhi authorities organized a “Step Out at Night” food festival aimed at helping women feel safe enjoying street food at night. However, most women ended up coming with male family members, friends, or partners. In fact, photos from the event showed “small groups of women and throngs of men in the background” (Reuters 2019).
It’s hard to describe the experience of being a woman in the public space. It is a viscerally uncomfortable experience, but unpacking that statement is like trying to describe the taste of water. You just have to experience it to truly understand. The things that make it so palpably unsettling are paradoxically concealed. It’s that heightened sense of awareness we have walking down the street. It’s the feeling of a dozen pair of eyes on you as you leave your house, enter your workplace, or buy groceries at the market. It’s the ushering of women to the back of the bus, and trying to carve out enough space for yourself when it is crowded. It’s knowing when a man crashed into you because the vehicle lurching really did catch him off guard, or provided just enough of a cloak to touch you.
For my Fellowship project, I am surveying and interviewing caretakers of women with disabilities. Among other topics, we discuss sexual harassment and abuse prevention for their daughters. Several times, I’ve been asked, “does this behavior happen in the United States?” Obviously, the answer is yes. It’s inarguable that women face safety hazards in public spaces in any corner of the world. However, I’ve found that being a woman in the public space in India is a unique experience with its own set of challenges.
For one, public spaces in India are simply not designed for women. If they are, they are not designed for women and men to exist in them together. There are Ladies cabins on metros and trains, and Ladies security lines at airport. In Puducherry, where I live, the back of the public bus is informally reserved for women. 86% of female commuters prefer to use these reserved compartments, which means cramming into them even when there is ample space in others (The Indian Express). Even in workplaces, I’ve noticed women and men sitting separately. A few months ago, I helped conduct a sexual harassment seminar for employees at a high-end hotel in Puducherry. I pointed out that the men and women were sitting on entirely opposite sides of the room, their seats separated by an aisle-way, and the hotel manager said it was company policy to do so.
Women in India need such designated spaces to feel comfortable in them. When there is none, such as street food stalls, it can be an uncomfortable and even dangerous experience. 80% of Mumbai’s women reported being harassed while waiting on the railway platform, or in mixed train cabins (The Indian Express). Stares from men are ubiquitous—some are questioning, some are judgmental, and the worst are violating. Other times, it’s a problem of too little attention and totally disregarding our right to be there. Many times when I’ve been waiting to pick up food, men have cut right in front of me, perhaps because they do not consider that the five-foot-two young woman is also waiting for idli and vada by the roadside. When Pallavi and I were watching our dosa being made, we were at the front of the line and taking pictures of the cooking process. A man walked right up in front of us, in the too-small space that existed between us and the stove, blocking out shot and our spot in line. He looked surprised when Pallavi politely but assertively asked him to step back, as if he truly did not realize we were there.
Volume is another gendered factor in public spaces. I take the public bus to work every day, and many people are on phone calls during the ride. Though I am in the back of the bus with the other women, I can still sometimes hear a man speaking several seats away but not the woman next to me. Women in India are taught that being feminine means being quiet and docile. I see them pressing their microphones closer to their mouths as the bus rumbles over gravely bumps and past honking trucks, while the men simply speak louder. Female street sellers—those who sell flower garlands or produce along the roadside–spend much of their time in the public space and face numerous hazards as a result of it. I’ve noticed their body language is markedly different than their male counterparts. Where I’ve had male sellers wave products in my face, even been woken up by a man shouting of “1/2 kilo tomatoes 15 rupees!” outside my building, the women rarely shout to make a sale, and fold their knees in to make themselves as small as possible.
With Pallavi, I found that our regular decibel levels somehow felt exacerbated in small public spaces. This was not because the room itself was silent and we were making noise. Rather, over the clanking of cooking vessels, the shouting of orders, the sizzling of grill tops and steam cookers, ours were the only female voices still heard. We did not find seats at the tea stall, so we stood in the middle of the shop where several men were enjoying their chai. For me, doing this required a conscious reminder to ignore their inquisitive eyes, and fight against the sensation to lower our voices. I had to remind myself that we were not actually being obnoxious, just audible to each other.
Men can do a lot to make public spaces in India more accommodating for women—not staring and not standing in front of us being the most obvious of them. Ultimately, however, women will feel more comfortable in public spaces when there are more women in them. Pallavi and I managed to not only exist, but enjoy our time in all of these establishments. Upon realizing and talking about being the only women there, we both started making a conscious effort to exude confidence in reclaiming that space. Still, we must acknowledge that we had several advantages: we were there together and Pallavi spoke the local language. The power dynamics of looking and sounding from a higher socio-economic class granted us another layer of protection from harassment, something female street vendors, for example, likely do not have. So, while I can’t expect or advocate this for every woman, the best solution for me has been consciously rejecting the internal socialized voice that has kept females out of public spaces in India all this time. The voice that says it’s better to stay silent when he cuts you in line, to avert my eyes and pull my dupatta higher when his eyes follow me down the street, or opt to eat elsewhere when the street stall is littered with men. To that voice, I’m just going to say “but have you tried this dosa?”