Indian gender representation in public places

During our one month in India, I noticed a few things related to men and women in public places. As my friend Glenn would rightfully point out, being here as a tourist for a short time doesn’t somehow make me an expert. But I’m an observant person, and I do want to jot down what I saw, even if I can’t explain the “why” of it. If you understand more than me, please chime in below in the comments.

I had an impression before visiting India that the culture(s) here had a mostly equal approach to the sexes. For one thing, India had a female prime minister long before the United States. Indira Ghandi was elected Prime Minister in 1966, at least 50 years before America elected a woman President. In (English-language) movies I’ve seen, it seems like women are treated as, you know, human beings. And in the IT field, it seems like the ratio of female Indians to male Indians is better than the ratio of female Americans to male Americans (though still not equal).

But on the streets and in businesses we’ve encountered, there have generally been very few women. There have been almost no female servers at restaurants, zero female tour guides, zero female taxi drivers, and so on. I asked one of our tour guides about this, and he said there is in fact one female taxi driver in Jaipur. That’s a city of around 2.5 million, so I’d estimate there must be a thousand taxi drivers. One woman out of a thousand. Also we read there are female tour guides in Delhi (at Delhi Magic Tours); we just never saw any with our own eyes.

As you’ve no doubt seen in photos, there are a lot of bicycle rickshaw pullers who deliver various things around town. Those are all men. Most of the shops we saw in India, from plumbing to cookware to pharmacies to clothes, have only male employees. I did see women at women’s clothing shops, hair salons, and cosmetics stores. Some police and security officers are women. Flight attendants are almost all women. A small number of vegetable sellers at fresh markets are women. Around a quarter of beggars we’ve seen are women, often with children. Some hotels had one female front desk clerk, though most hotels had an all-male staff, and none had more than one woman we saw. And the train car attendant for both trains we took was a woman, though the conductor was a man.

Each of the two Airtel stores I visited had one woman employee. For whatever reason in both cases she was the one who helped me, while the three or four men just sat around watching or doing something on a computer.

There was a similar thing at Cafe Coffee Day (India’s version of Starbucks) in Amritsar. There was one woman and two men (a lot of staff for a store with only three customers). The woman took my order, gave me my change, made the coffee, and served it. The men sat on the floor fiddling with their mobile phones the whole time I was there.

Speaking of which, nearly everywhere we went, I saw there were always men just standing around on the street, as if they’re waiting for something to happen, but the people standing around are never women. The women in public were almost always in motion doing something, either working or traveling or occasionally eating.

When we went to the Wagah border ceremony, there were about 40 male soldiers involved in the ceremony, and 2 female soldiers. That was on the Indian side. I don’t know about the Pakistan side, since we couldn’t see that side; but I would bet they have zero women.

In India there were security checks at a lot of places you wouldn’t see in America. Of course, there were security checks at airports, but also at national parks and shopping malls. Women always have a separate security line from men, with a semi-private area where the (female) security guard will wand them or pat them down out of sight of men. Men, of course, get wanded and patted down in plain view of everyone.

Similarly, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, I already mentioned that men just strip down to their shorts to bathe in the holy water, in front of everyone. Women, on the other hand, go to a separate little building so they can bathe out of view of men.

Also, everywhere we went, men would strip down to their underwear in public view to bathe – along the side of the road, in streams, under water tanks, etc. This was a little shocking to me at first, since in America you don’t usually see some guy pull his car over to the highway shoulder, get out, strip, and have a bucket bath with soap and toothbrush and toothpaste. Women, from what we saw, never bathe in public and must only do so at home, out of sight of men.

One reason we didn’t see as many women as men in public places is that women are supposed to stay at home, traditionally, while men are supposed to go out and work a job. When I wrote about Jaipur, I mentioned what I learned from the textile factory owner, which explains why out of forty or fifty people working at his factory, there is only one woman:

These carpets are all made by women. There was one woman in the shop giving a demonstration to the tourists like me, but that’s a special case. But normally, the carpets are all made in the villages, at the women’s homes. Although men come into the city to work in the factories, women do not. Women stay at home. So if women want to participate in industry, they work from home. The textile factory takes raw materials out to the countryside and drops it off with this network of women carpet makers, each of whom has a loom in her house. Then she works for months making one carpet. When it’s ready, the textile factory comes back out to pick up the finished product, take it back to the city, and sell it.

This assumption of women being at home rather than in public is even ingrained in political leaders, the elected officials who are supposed to be setting the tone for the society to at least some degree. Check out the quotes from various Indian politicians in this article: “Women should not venture out with men who are not relatives” and “Why should a woman go to play tennis at 9.30 in the night?”

It seems to be assumed that every woman of childbearing age will have children, and that she will stay home to take care of these children. It’s like the America of my grandmother’s day. So even though India is 50 years ahead in electing a woman to the highest office, it seems 50 years behind in how women are present in public spaces.


There is a related topic I thought of writing about, but I couldn’t fit it into this post. It is about how men treated Beth and I differently in most of the places we visited in north India. I was present, and Beth was invisible, even when we were both standing right next to each other. We lost count of how many people we dealt with at hotels, restaurants, or stores who would talk congenially to me, but not even say one word to her. I think Beth is going to write about this on her blog. I may, too. We’ll see.

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