Lucy Hemmings, a globetrotter and travel blogger from Britain, was masturbated at in a bus stop in Mumbai in March. Rather than ducking the issue, she wrote a blog post about the shameful incident, which has since gone viral.
“A few days ago I was sitting in a bus stop in Mumbai, India. The local guy that I had paid no particular attention to moved closer. From the corner of my eye, to my horror, I realised that he had pulled out his penis and was masturbating, staring intently at me. I felt sick,” wrote Hemmings, who has spent the past six years travelling and working in countries such as India, Cambodia and America.
And this was not the first time something like this had happened to the graduate in communication and media studies.
“The first time this happened to me was back in 2012; I was 23 and it was my first trip to a developing country…At the time, we were wandering through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram (or ‘The Beatles Ashram’ to you and I) in the northern town of Rishikesh, when I spotted a man, hiding in the bushes watching us and wanking.”
She wrote that though she could easily move on the first time after shouting and screaming profanities at the man, the recent incident affected her much more — snatching away her freedom of moving freely and making her question her beliefs about India.
Hemmings wrote: “For days afterwards, I was nervous walking anywhere on my own, I stopped making eye contact at anyone in the street and I started carrying a pocket knife.”
She wrote about how she met a number of travelers to India who reported similar incidences. “I’ve spent countless hours with other travelers picking apart why men do it; why they seem to think it’s okay, why dignity seems to disappear when there’s foreign female flesh on show.”
Since her blog went viral, Hemmings has received numerous messages from Indians who apologised for what she had to go through. But for her, Indian hospitality still remains “one of the warmest and most genuine” in the world.
Hindustan Times interviewed Hemmings on email and she talked about the effect of the public masturbation incident, on travelling in India and her thoughts on the country and its men.
The public masturbation incident: How did it influence your thoughts about India, will it still be one of your favorite countries to travel to?
Absolutely, first and foremost I’d just like to say how welcome India has made me feel in every other aspect and I will definitely be returning. I understand there is a saying; “Atithi Devo Bhava” (The guest is God) which perfectly sums up how I’ve been treated.
This incident certainly influenced my thoughts about India; I’ve openly spoken about how I felt uneasy in the three days that followed. The combination of being a woman, being harassed and being in a foreign city without the same understanding of the law enforcement system as you may have at home is something that I found both daunting and difficult.
Did you not think about going to the police after you saw the man?
I certainly considered going to the police but the main problem I faced was not having an accurate description of the man – I was so overwhelmed in the moment that I couldn’t even remember what he was wearing. If an incident like this was to occur to someone else, I would definitely advise going to the police and relaying as much information as possible.
What’s your take on Indian men?
Other than this man, I’ve been treated so kindly by both men and women. From people inviting me into their homes, to their weddings or even just for a chai in the street, Indian hospitality is one of the warmest and most genuine I’ve received throughout my travels.
It has been so heartening and refreshing to have received such an overwhelming response from Indian men apologising on behalf of this man.
In the other countries you have travelled to, how has been your experience? No such incidents?
Personally, I’ve not experienced anything like this in other countries, but of course, that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen.
In the blog you wrote, “I was playing by India’s rules…Throughout the day here in India, I cover myself completely.” Do you really think covering oneself up completely is the rule for women in India? I mean many women across Indian cities do indeed dress fashionably.
Before my trip in 2012, I contacted friends who had visited India and many Indians I already knew who lived in the country. The advice I was given was to dress conservatively and be respectful of Indian culture. This is really important to me, I love learning about Indian films and music (my favourite song at the moment is Chittiya Kaliya Ve before you ask!), food (palak paneer, hands down!), cricket (Mumbai Indians of course) among many other aspects.
Personally the difference in attention I’ve received when wearing a salwar kameez versus a pair of shorts is huge. I feel far safer and less noticeable when fully covered and so I suppose it was a shock to me that this happened, but also a shock that it happened while I was so covered. The point I was originally trying to make was that as a traveller, I think it’s extremely important to be aware of local customs and dress accordingly.
I know that there are plenty of Indian women who do dress in Western style clothes, but in my personal experience, I found that the attention I received when I did wear shorts once was overwhelming and uncomfortable.
What are the different kinds of harrowing experiences women travellers from abroad generally report?
I belong to several travel blogging communities and was stunned to hear stories from around 45 girls (and four men) discussing similar incidents. Their experiences ranged from being catcalled, having men expose themselves or masturbate to being touched, grabbed, rubbed or groped.
What according to you might be a reason behind such behaviour by Indian men?
As to the reason behind this sort of behaviour from Indian men specifically, I think there are a number of reasons. Many of the emails I’ve had from Indian men have blamed the taboo nature of sex in India and the fact that it isn’t as openly discussed as it is in other countries.
Several commented that much of the sexual imagery that men see involve white women, and that therefore it is assumed that these behavioral patterns are acceptable in the presence of white women.
This kind of generalisation is just as harmful as if I were to say that I think all Indian men will harass me because of that one man. Personally, I believe we really need to create a safe space where we can talk about issues such as sex openly and sensibly around the world.