I wasn’t planning on writing this post. I thought about it, especially in this social media-obsessed world where sharing every one of your life’s details is normal, if not encouraged. Maybe I should share what happened. Maybe it would help others.
But I kept going back and forth in my mind.
Maybe it wasn’t sexual assault. Others have gone through worse. Maybe I’m overreacting. It’s over, so why not just move on.
But I couldn’t move on. Mentally. Physically. Emotionally. Days later and I still felt withdrawn, ashamed, and dirty. And I didn’t even do anything.
I had just reached my 6th week out of an 8-week backpacking trip across India with my friend. We were staying in Pushkar, a holy Hindu town in the state of Rajasthan in northern India.
We’d talked about renting mopeds multiple times on our trip. I kept putting it off. I really wanted to learn to drive one, thinking it wouldn’t be that hard to learn, but anyone who has been to India before will understand that driving, especially in congested areas or cities, is far from easy.
Cows stop wherever they please. They don’t care if it’s the middle of the road and you have to swerve around them to avoid a collision. There aren’t always stoplights at intersections so pedestrians and cars are constantly (and without warning) jumping in front of you. Lines on the street signify different lanes, but these appear to be mere suggestions as a three-lane road becomes a massive 10-lane cluster of tuk tuks, motorcycles, cars and ox-drawn carts.
But Pushkar was different. Once you left the city center, it was surrounded by a beautiful, peaceful countryside and wide roads that wove around hills and stretched for miles. Gone was the chaotic congestion of the road surrounding the city. This had to be the perfect place for beginners.
After driving around for hours, still within a few miles of the town center, my friend’s moped started having trouble. It wasn’t starting properly. I noticed she had stopped a few hundred yards back and I pulled over to wait for her, thinking it wouldn’t take long to fix. By the time I realized it was taking her awhile, a herd of goats were passing across the road. I knew I couldn’t, with my limited driving abilities, maneuver through the herd. But someone else did. A motorbike with three teenage-looking boys piled on the seat.
I had noticed them earlier but didn’t think much of their stares. After six weeks in India, I was used to being stared at. I looked different and I knew it – it happens all the time when you travel. Most people who stare don’t mean harm, they’re usually just curious.
But as I watched them drive over to my friend, I really thought they were going to help her. I couldn’t tell the exchange going on between them, but I later learned that she was trying to tell them she could fix it herself, and that inside she had a bad feeling about them.
She ended up fixing her bike, and the boys drove the opposite way. She and our other friend drove past me up the hill and I trailed behind, enjoying the drive.
I heard a bike behind me and in my side mirror, I saw it was the group of guys. Strange, I thought, that they turned around, but maybe they were just out for a drive on this summer evening.
They drove up close to the left side of my bike, and at first, I thought they were trying to race. I increased my speed, partially out of a concern that I would hit them because I wasn’t completely steady driving over bumpy roads, let alone at a high speed next to a motorcycle.
But they just increased their speed and moved over to my right side. I looked over at them and it was then that I realized this was not a good situation. One of the boys tried to grab me, but was only able to grab my forearm. Starting to panic, I hastily yanked him off and tried to speed away. But I didn’t get far. While attempting to get his hand off me, I lost my balance and my bike started swerving. The guys easily caught up, and were more successful this time.
The same boy grabbed my chest, harshly groping me for a few seconds, but what felt like minutes. I was panicking now, especially since he was on my right side, my weaker side. I’m left-handed and have little strength in my right hand/arm.
I felt weak. I felt defenseless.
My mind was all over the place. I was trying to get him off me, but my attempts were flimsy, weak.
And the other two boys? Why weren’t they telling their friend to stop? Didn’t they see my pain?
All three of the boys stared blankly at me. Emotionless.
No one cared about my feelings.
I was shocked. I thought at least they would have been smiling with satisfaction.
By the time I used all the strength I had gathered to push them away from me, I was close to crashing my bike on the side of the road.
Somehow I was able to align my bike and catch myself before falling. In my shock, my first thoughts were of how I can’t damage this bike because I don’t have enough money to pay for any repairs.
My first thoughts were the status of my bike. A material object.
After catching my breath, I was starting to process what had just happened, when I noticed my friend up ahead – and the boys approaching her from behind.
I could only watch. And that’s what makes me feel guilty. It happened so fast. And I didn’t think they would have the guts to do it to her too. I should have tried honking my horn or yelling to her, but she was so far up ahead and my reactions were delayed. She screamed.
I started my engine and caught up to her, and she was visibly shaken.
The gravity of what happened fully hit me: This could have been so much worse. We’re in the countryside, and no one may hear us if we scream. There weren’t any hospitals nearby if we had crashed while trying to get away from the boys.
But just because it could have been worse, doesn’t mean what did happen was right in any way.
Though laws differ on what constitutes sexual assault in various states and countries, groping or any touching of someone without their permission is completely wrong. This should be understood by every single person but unfortunately it’s not.
Women and girls in India undergo catcalling, groping, and other sexual assaults and violence all the time. Women and girls across the world, even in the United States, experience the exact same assaults.
As the night wore on, I was mad. Mad that I was weak. Mad that I couldn’t defend myself. But that anger only portrayed itself in tears. I cried in front of villagers when we stopped down the road. My tears blocked my vision while driving home. And my tears stayed with me when I tried to go to sleep that night, and the night after that.
My friend and I had been traveling with her older brother for the first month of our trip. Soon after we separated (he returned to the south where he was volunteering), the way we were treated changed. Some men approached us differently when we didn’t have a guy with us.
But I shouldn’t have to have a guy next to me to feel safe. I shouldn’t have to fear walking around by myself. I shouldn’t have to fear someone groping me. Someone assaulting me.
And for those who think “well it must have been what you were wearing – that signifies your intentions and leads guys on” – I’m simply going to say that this phrase is overly used by people to justify someone else’s wrongful actions. Women and girls are mistreated/harassed/assaulted regardless of what they are wearing – even those who are fully covered aren’t immune. On this day, I was wearing a long, baggy t-shirt that was two sizes too big for me, a sports bra that concealed everything, leggings and bulky sneakers.
After returning home to America about two and a half weeks later, I thought I was fine. I was miles away from India. The memory would fade. But a few days later, I met up with my same friend, and her other friend.
I was moody the whole night and it just progressed as the night wore on. At dinner, I excused myself to go to the restroom, but really I was just trying to get away from all the noise, the laughter, the people. I locked the door, and had what I think was my first true panic attack. Never have I experienced anything like it – the lack of control over my emotions, my breathing, my heart rate.
I wasn’t over what had happened in Pushkar.
I try not to think of what happened, because most every time I do, I’m shaking on the inside. There’s no easy way or perfect time to bring up sexual assault to friends or family.
But I think I need to tell this story, though I’ve felt (and still sometimes feel) embarrassed, ashamed, weak. I’m not entirely sure how to help others or if I’ve portrayed my point in this post, but either way, I hope that people will see what it’s like to go through assault.
I’m sure you’ve heard this plenty of times, but please think about your actions and how they impact others. A few seconds of groping, a few words of harassment – they can affect the person for hours, days, even years down the road. Don’t just think she’ll get over the whole thing. And please don’t take what isn’t yours.
Not every person who experiences sexual assault or violence speaks out about it. Remember there are women and men everywhere who may be suffering in silence. Just because they don’t publicize it doesn’t make the event any less traumatic or significant.
Tell your friends, family members, even coworkers that sexual assault or assault of any kind is not okay anytime or anywhere. Be there for those who have undergone assaults in the past.
It was easier for me to keep this to myself, to not portray myself as vulnerable, but I want to let others know that they are not alone, and to remind people to be respectful of each and every person they come across.
Has my outlook on traveling to foreign countries been forever changed? Will I even continue to travel?
Yes, I’ve lost some “naivety” in the goodness of people. But I will never stop traveling or let something like this make me fearful of traveling. I strongly believe that traveling alters your opinions of other cultures/people and breaks down stereotypes. Traveling draws you closer to people. It shouldn’t draw you further. Not every man in India acts like these boys did. Not every man in the world acts like these boys did. But just change the country and this is a common event around the world. It could have easily happened in my own country, state, and town.
Another reason I didn’t want to share this at first was because I didn’t want to prevent people from going to India, to perpetuating wrongful stereotypes about this country and its safety. People are quick to say that India is dangerous for female travelers. This belief was reinforced in 2012, as outrage sparked around the world when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey died from a horrific gang rape in Delhi. In other cases, India has reached notoriety for loose sentences and improper justice for victims.
I love India. And I want to return someday. People in India are kind, beautiful, and welcoming. These boys are not representative of the whole of India – they represent the unpleasant behaviors found in every culture all around the world.
I can’t go back and change what happened to me. But I am in control of how I respond to it.
If you have any questions or would like to talk further, feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For further reading, see this article from The Guardian that explains more about why groping is considered sexual assault and the danger of desensitization to terms used to describe assault.
For those who have undergone sexual assault or any assault or for those who want more information, please visit this website.
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