NEW DELHI, India - Foreign women tourists in India often find themselves placed in uncomfortable cultural stereotypes and an increasing number of them have begun attributing this attitude to a colonial throwback.
A decade ago, women comprised only 25% of the total Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in India every year. Presently, at 40%, women tourists are still a comparative minority despite the increase. According to a recurring Forbes survey on the world's friendliest countries for expatriates and tourists, India ranked in one of the last slots for the second year in a row.
India's not-so-friendly attitude towards tourists in general and female tourists in particular, varies in different regions. While the southern and western parts of the country rank favourably, north India is unanimously the most prejudiced culturally.
Theresa Price, a college student from Britain said, "Most people do tour North India because of the Taj Mahal, but it is steeped in cultural prejudices. The usual problems foreign women face like constant staring and eve-teasing is most rampant here."
Amid this, the capital, which ranks second only to Mumbai in terms of popularity, emerges as a curious conglomerate. "Delhi is just like any other impressive modern metropolis on the face of it, but there coexists another reality as well. I find it very interesting that despite being such a representative city, a large section of people are still ignorant," said Agata Ruiz from Argentina.
"White- skinned people are treated as being economically advanced and intrinsically powerful on account of their 'fair skin', despite which country they are from. This notion is usually shared by people of lower income groups. Taxi and auto drivers in Delhi just assumed I was American!" said Agata. She however agreed that this ingrained idealization of a stereotypical west is something she has seen in Argentina as well.
"Whenever I go out with my Canadian girlfriend, people think I am her 'guide'. The shopkeepers at Chandni Chowk treated me like a middleman, as I stopped one from trying to unfairly fleece her, he cursed me for ruining the deal," said Vikas Arora.
A lot of foreign tourists agreed that local north Indians tried too hard to please them, and this problem was compounded in the case of women. Sharell Cook, an Australian married to an Indian, living here for the last five years observes, "Indian men are more likely to want to try and please me. I find that in my daily dealings with Indian people, the men are likely to 'adjust' in my favour, whereas the women won't. Indian women aren't as influenced, impressed, or intimidated by me. They want to look after me and mother me."
"Certain sections of Indian society still see their relationship with white-skinned people as that of master-servant. Putting them on a pedestal creates a distance, and this distance makes Indians feel resentful towards them. They conveniently stereotype us as being rich, powerful, wasteful, amoral and culturally degrading," said Theresa.
In the same vein, women from the west are branded as morally loose and sexually promiscuous. This notion is at the root of the habitual eve-teasing that foreign women suffer. A lot of women complained about the touching and groping that happened in crowded public places over north India.
Recently, in the wake of rape cases, two(incidentally Asian) British politicians have observed that a section of Asian men think white girls are 'easy' and 'fair game' and this notion perpetrates the crime. The long list of crimes against foreign women and the flourishing foreign prostitution industry in India are also cases in point.
This implicit racism has another side to it. Dark-skinned people are deemed as undesirable and less economically advanced and civilised. "In North India, people are obsessed with fair skin. That is probably why African women do not face the same problems arising from sexual desirability that their white counterparts do," said Theresa.
According to Indian Tourism statistics, a large number of Africans visit India every year, the highest number being Nigerians who come to Delhi on a medical visa for cheap medical treatment. "The sight of Africans on the metro is far from uncommon these days. I have heard commuters call them 'habshi' which is a derogatory colloquial word for a black person of African origin," said Vikas.
Derina Kay, a research scholar form Namibia said, "In my experience of living in the capital, Indians have often behaved as if they were socially and economically superior to me. I remember a shopkeeper ignoring me and calling out to other white tourists in Dilli Haat. It was usually assumed I was less cultured and educated."
She said, "I saw this in Ghana too. There, any non-black is immediately assumed to be a rich foreigner likely to spend more. This may be a developing world problem. But hopefully, over time, as the world becomes more globalised, these divisions will break."