The older woman stopped right in front of me. Turned, slowly. Stared. The train station was busy at this time of day, and people had to halt and sidestep in order to get around her. I don’t think she cared. Then again, she was sporting one of the most impressive poker faces I have ever seen. I decided to match her, and so our interaction began. Thirty awkward seconds later the woman started to move forward again, but her eyes remained on me. I wondered at how she managed her way through the crowd without hitting anyone. A moment before she was too far, I smiled, and she turned and continued on her way.
Staring is both common and culturally acceptable in India, and therefore mostly innocent. There are very few foreigners in Kolkata, and of the millions of people who flood the streets every day, a very small percentage are women. If you understand where I am going with this, you are beginning to see that Kolkata is a city of men. A lot of Indian men. As a result, my teammates and I- especially us females- stand out quite a bit. We are used to being stared at, even by the small amount of women we see.
I was initially angry at the fact that I saw so few women. I resented having to sit in a certain section of the bus or having the choice of maybe two cars per train that were for women. It was a blow to my pride to have to depend on the men on our team for so much, even though they are amazingly gracious and protective. I felt limited, and the lack of women on the streets made me think the same was true for them.
Over time, however, I started to see some of the beauty in this. Expecting to find helpless victims, I found strong mothers and daughters. Instead of limitations, I saw endurance and capability. What I thought was a silent submission was in fact an unspoken source of unity: “I am a woman, and so are you. We’ll take care of each other.”
That is why I decided to smile at this woman. I smiled because I knew that, despite her open curiosity, she would look out for me. I smiled not only for her, but for all the other women I have encountered thus far. The women who boldly step out in traffic to walk us to our destination when we are lost. The women who practically carry us off the trains because they are too crowded to squeeze through. The school girls who wave excitedly every time they see you. The women who call you “didi”, sister, without even knowing you.
Of course, there certainly are things that do not and should not sit well with me when it comes to gender roles, but I found myself believing a stereotype that I didn’t even know I had: The men are cruel, and the women are victims. I am happy to find that I am wrong, and when I catch someone like this woman staring at me, I will no longer assume the worst.