Posted by: passedportsnyc | December 31, 2009

Where Have All the Women Gone?

There are no women here.

What, what’s that you say? Those floating shadows, whispering beneath technicolor robes, those are – women? Women with thoughts and names and feelings??

Many women in India are all but invisible, save for their fabulously audacious saris and accessories. Walking in the street, men outnumber women by an extraordinary amount.  Almost all shopkeepers are men.  Restaurants are filled almost entirely with men dining in groups.  There may be a few families, but it is exceedingly rare to see a group of women.

We went to the Red Fort in Delhi on a Sunday.  There are separate entrances for men and women (for the security screening). The men’s line stretched back at least 100 feet.  There was no one in the women’s line.  Inside, the complex was filled with groups of men enjoying a leisurely Sunday together.  The women were nowhere to be found.

At the beach in Kerala a few days later we saw a couple of families, but mostly we only saw groups of men.  Generally, the men spent their time frolicking in the water in their underwear and gawking at Western women in bikinis.  Women, fully cloaked in saris (i.e., wrapped in about 8 meters of fabric despite the heat), minded the children and prepared the picnic lunch.  I try hard not to impose my liberal, individualistic Western values on the things I see when I travel, but I couldn’t help but feel incensed at women being denied the simple pleasure of a swim in the sea.

So where are they, India’s women?  On this I can only speculate.  Home making dinner perhaps?  Cleaning house?  Minding the children?  I don’t know, I haven’t met them yet.

Allegedly, in the “New India” women are afforded much more autonomy and respect; surely we have all seen that darling of the news media, the Special Report on young, educated, upwardly-mobile Indian women working in high-tech call centers, doing things like meeting friends for coffee and going shopping.  But from an outsiders perspective, this is far from the norm (though I could probably find it if I set my mind to visiting a shopping mall in an upscale neighborhood).  So far as I can tell, the vast majority of the half-a-billion women in this country are still kept tightly under lock and key.



  1. Really? I am from India and I definitely know a lot of women. You should try visiting Mumbai, you will see lots of women on the street.

    You will see fisherwomen (kolis), office going women, as well as caretakers walking freely.

    But your observation on number of women roaming freely up north is correct, there are fewer women roaming there freely.

    Also, female infanticide results in lower female to male ratios

  2. fascinating post. fascinating and troubling. Thank you for posting.

  3. Good questions from Sarah and helpful answers from Soo.

  4. I was in India, specially new delhi and i saw plenty of women there. can’t miss them.

  5. Yes, there are places where women are seen LESS often in Bangladesh also. But, I’ve only visited once, and am not an expert. In touristy areas (such as big malls, beaches, etc.), there are plenty of families, women, and couples dating (in Muslim fashion, of course).

  6. Thanks for posting this interesting take on current culture. Happened to be under the same impression you were, and I appreciate your view.

  7. Your trip is very interesting! Thanks for sharing your adventures and I wish you the best of luck on your journey! I just discovered your blog today; and by the way – Happy New Year! Be safe out there!

  8. Your observation is correct but lack of understanding. I suggest you should understand the Indian culture first and than may come on any result. I think this is the main difference in Indian and Western culture. Take it easy.

    • Idhamathur and nenonenoneno, I think Sarah is trying to understand the culture and I think her post was respectful. Writing about what one sees does not necessarily imply judgement.

  9. salam kenal

  10. if compared with western countries then yes, indian women are still in sad state. i can say for sure, so many talents are spoiled only because parents didn’t like the fact their daughter has to stay alone if she is sent abroad for studies. rather they saved money for her dowry! sigh!

  11. I agree with idhamathur. I think you should understand more about the culture and these people’s mindset. this writing is as if you’re judging them. there’s nothing wrong with differences – and don’t try to change any of these. respect is the key.

  12. it possible when no women at one place?
    May be not all places having men and women.Sometimes women do have their interest too.I dont know!

  13. It is very difficult for independent, open minded , liberal women to be alongside women who do not think similarly. Indian women have been conditioned to wear horse blinds for years and for those who keep redefining the boundaries life is sweeter beyond the seas.

  14. This is an interesting post. I have never traveled to that part of the world, and the Indian women I have known were either students or colleagues – bright, and beautiful. In one instance, an Indian friend was certainly an independent woman. She held proudly to her traditions, and I know she missed her home.

    The extent to which she “fit” either here or in her country, I cannot say. I always sensed she felt caught a bit between cultures – which is something I have experienced, personally. And that can happen when you live abroad anywhere, for an extended period of time.

  15. Hi Sarah. I came upon your blog & love the fact that you’re documenting your thoughts about your travels through this blog. I am so jealous you have this opportunity to travel around the world :-). I am originally from the Philippines, moved to the States when I was 28, & have lived in Japan for 3 years & we are now currently living in Rome, Italy. The kids & I will be back in the States, CA specifically, by summer this year though.

    Just like you, I find it interesting to observe & take note of cultural differences – between Filipino, American, Japanese & now Italian cultures. And I love the fact that America is so diverse, I can get to learn about different cultures through the people I meet.

    Good luck on your travels, keep blogging & have a great trip & a great 2010!

    • thank you!

  16. Interesting comments but surely the most important point of travel is to experience different cultures and learn about them and understand them. This is what we try to teach our children. Of course, we all have our own opinions but it is equally important to recognise different view points. I suspect this is the problem worldwide today – we justify our actions by judging from our own standards rather than accepting others. With the New Year perhaps it´s time to change the way we think – do you agree?

  17. k

  18. I’ve never traveled to India, but I suspect we’re all missing something. After all, India elected Indira Gandhi Prime Minister (and then tossed her out of office and then re-elected her and then assassinated her, I know, I know). I would love to know more about the lives women lead behind closed doors. Perhaps some of them will tell you their stories here, and educate us all.

  19. This is sad. These women are humans and are born into lives that don’t allow them any of the natural freedoms we’re all born with. I understand that customs can differ from my own but the picture that’s painted here is a travesty.

  20. I found your blog on Lonely Planet and sincerely found the sarcasm amusing.

    I did, however want to touch on something more serious…

    Take this from another “liberal westerner,” there is little wrong about conservative dress styles from other cultures. I used to think similarly, that “forcing” women to wear excessive cloth and hide themselves was oppressive and sexist, but you have to look at the other side, too.

    While there are certainly other contributing factors in our decision making process, society plays a large role in dictating what we wear. We often wear what society expects of us to not be “cast out” etc… This is true in India and the United States. For women and for men.

    There’s little doubt that western culture puts an enormous amount of pressure on women (particularly in urban environments) to appear attractive.

    Now ask which is worse… a society that expects women to dress modestly – which was historically motivated to make it difficult for men to view them as an erotic presence… or a society that puts pressure on women to look and act sexy and portray themselves as a sexual product for consumption.

    Ultimately, in my opinion, it comes down to unadulterated choice. In an ideal scenario a women should feel comfortable wearing whatever she wants based on her values and that she would be excepted by all without judgment.

  21. Frankly, this is a just a reality of developing countries. I am of Indian origin, have visited many times, and am currently working in Tunisia which is a North African, ‘progressive’ Muslim country

    I rarely see women in the streets and public eateries and cafes are the domain of men. Despite Tunisia harboring the best women rights law in the Arab world, women cannot dress freely, speak freely or act freely. Walking alone after 9 pm means your risk rape. Little by little, positive changes are arriving that are quite radical for Tunisians, but shockingly sexist for me.

    After visiting India, Central American, and East Asian countries numerous times, I feel comfortable in saying that what you are noticing is the residue of a past, patriarchal culture that is clinging in certain areas of developing countries, but is certainly not there to stay.

  22. Interesting read

  23. No matter what the cultural differences, to be denied a basic human freedom like a swim in the sea, is an injustice, no matter how it is excused by cultural whitewashing or brainwashing.

  24. Happy New Year Guys!!

  25. I am about to visit India in a few days time and can’t wait.

    I have been having debates over Indian versus western ways concerning women with my Indian friend here all last year. I respect the modesty of other such cultures but I have difficulty with the deference to males that’s ingrained in the culture.

    I don’t think the original post is disrespectful it’s Sarah’s opinion.

  26. […] when I express frustration with the local status of women, people justify it with cultural relativist arguments.  But all […]

  27. […] is shocked by the oppression of women that goes on right infront of her. She writes, Often, when I express frustration with the local status of women, people justify it with cultural relativist arguments.  But all […]

  28. Good reply Soo, It is the fact that Indian women are found rarely roaming here and there, but it does not at all mean that they are just preparing food and handling children. As Soo said, you can find office going India women, as well as caretakers walking freely.

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