"Do you need a sex partner? Because I'd really like to sleep with you," asked the hip, well-dressed young Nepali man walking behind me at 9 am on the streets of Kathmandu. When I recovered from my astonishment at his brazenness, I thought cynically that in comparison with the aggressive grabs, leers and jeers I experience on a daily basis in Delhi, perhaps I should've been grateful that at least he had asked.
I was also taken aback by this 'proposition' because though my travels across south and east India, Pakistan and Nepal have been brief, they have nonetheless proved a welcome respite from the sexual aggressiveness I experience from men in the urban areas of north India.
Ironically, the reason I was in Kathmandu was for a conference on gender and the media in South Asia, organized by the South Asia Free Media Association. This man's sexual 'request' to me was a resounding reminder that such deliberations as we had on the portrayal of women in the media are not abstract but important steps in coalescing an urgently required global movement against the objectification of women as sexual play toys.
After two years of living and working in Delhi and travelling in India, I will soon return to the US. Of all the difficult aspects of living in Delhi, I can wholeheartedly say that the only thing that I will truly be glad to leave - and am partly leaving because of - is the incessant verbal, visual and physical sexual harassment I receive from men on the streets.
Certainly the abuse is not restricted to white women. However, it does seem that being young, fair-skinned and light-haired makes one a particularly marked target. From 12-year-old boys shouting 'boobies' to careening pairs of men on motorcycles promising to 'give it to me right' to men grabbing my breasts at the market in broad daylight, not a single day goes by without someone at least shouting "Hello sexy".
While walking, I instinctively keep my gaze low and avert my eyes from those of men. After particularly infuriating experiences, I have even toyed with the idea of hiding myself under a burkha (veil).
In the light of this constant irritant - sometimes danger - I face in Delhi as a `western' woman, it makes my blood boil to walk into the office every day to see the bared breasts of blonde Hollywood celebrities printed next to the masthead of several national dailies. When I turn on the TV, I see countless images of stereotypical, `loose', usually American, women.
From music videos to `tele-friendship' agencies to 'cross-over' Hinglish films, the number of times that the woman featured in the ad, movie or video is fair skinned, big bosomed, blonde and very inviting is stultifying.
A few months ago, I watched a Bollywood film, 'Out of Control', about a young Punjabi man in New York who falls for a former nightclub dancer (an American blonde). They immediately slip into a wild relationship only to fall apart with the arrival of papaji - the boy's father - who quickly arranges his wedding to an Indian girl. This Indian girl, naturally, is very submissive and very doting.
The lightweight storyline seems irrelevant in view of the much more perplexing portrayal of American (or western) women, through the female character. Full bodied, scantily clad, with long, luscious blonde hair, Sally is shown to be clueless, ditsy and overtly sexual. What do these characters mean for us - for western women, for Indian women, for relations between men and women, for relations between cultures?
By watching films like `Out of Control', what perceptions do the majority of Indian viewers, who are not so familiar with America, glean? When layer upon layer of films and pop culture entertainment that reaches India (and the rest of the world) contains such slanted, skewed representation of American culture and American women - what are the effects?
People ask why the occurrence of rape is increasing in Delhi. Why are more and more foreign women being assaulted? Does it not seem that the promiscuous images of western 'behaviors' in films, on TV, and even in the pages of newspapers, in this traditionally reserved sexual culture, are a contributing effect?
A national daily that, ironically, has pages devoted to sexy images, did a story in March 2004 on how insecure foreign women feel in Delhi. It had several women tourists complaining about molestation and eve-teasing in public places.
My own experience with men on the street in northern India is direct. What I do know is that when I walk down streets pocketed with men, I am leered at, jeered at, and even grabbed at. What is my problem, they seem to wonder; aren't I, too, ready to take off my clothes and dance on the vegetable cart?
It seems that the men who harass me day and night do not see me - or for that matter even Indian women who choose to wear jeans and 'western' clothes - as 'normal'. I don't seem to have the same sort of problems, desires and feelings as the women they know and associate with. We seem to represent a fictitious world in which women don't have to cook, clean, fight discrimination and work all day. The image they seem to have is that of women who frolic about carefree, flaunt their sexuality and sleep with a different man every night.
I recently heard a very wise woman say, "The reason that it is so difficult to fight with stereotypes is that each one contains a kernel of truth." There are indeed western women - blonde, buxom women - who lead open, flirtatious and glamorous lives. However, these women represent a miniscule fraction of western women. Besides, something like a mere two per cent of the entire population of the US has blonde hair!
My fear is that such disproportionate stereotyping of white women leads to incredible cultural misunderstanding that has political implications above and beyond the immediate repercussions on women like myself. The perceptions of western women that people get from popular media and advertisements serve as fodder for repressive restrictions on women in many countries.
It is high time that women of every shape, culture, skin color and background stand together to protest the vile, destructive representations of western women - indeed all women - in the media.
Sexual objectification of our bodies can be countered through gender education and the creation of media that represents real women living real lives, to portray women as role models for what they do and say rather than what they wear - or don't!