Being a woman in the US is very different than being a woman in India. Every society has its gender roles and every society has exceptions to these, but in India gender is much more salient. In India, there are separate spaces for men and women in places where, in the US, we do not have gendered spaces. For example, men and women go through separate security lines, sit on different parts of the bus, have separate compartments on trains, and have separate hostels (where the women’s hostels are surrounded by walls and have security guards always posted).
At first this can be a bit disorienting and lead to some embarrassing situations. The first time I rode the bus, I got on in the middle and started walking towards the back. About halfway into the back section I realized there were no other women there; they were all sitting in the front in the ladies’ section and I quickly moved to join them. This was my first, but certainly not last gendered mistake. The first several times a group of us international students would go through a security line there was an embarrassing shuffle to sort out the men and women into the appropriate queues. We were all having difficulty adjusting.
Because we are not used to this gendering of spaces in the US, it can initially appear in a negative light. “Why should my gender determine what line I stand in or where I sit?” is a common American reaction. And I do agree that there are some problematic things that gendered spaces perpetuate. They reinforce the gender binary, make life very difficult for transgender people, and have underlying assumptions of heteronormativity. And these are serious problems that I do not want to ignore; they are problems with gendered spaces in India as well as gendered spaces in the US. But in talking with women here I came to understand why these spaces exist.
Women here feel much more comfortable in spaces with other women. I remember discussing gendered security lines in one of my classes and I told them that we do not have those in the US. Almost all of the women in the class (who all identified as feminists) agreed that this would make them uncomfortable. They would not want a male security guard checking their bags or scanning them, so they are glad that these spaces are gendered. Similarly, gendered sections on public transportation help women to feel safer travelling without men.
To clarify, the way that buses and trains work is they will have a compartment or section that is “reserved” for ladies. The rest of the sections will be general class, which means that people of all genders can sit there. I have sat in general class sections before when travelling in a group that includes men, and generally this is acceptable. But if you are travelling alone as a woman or with a group of only other women, it is better to sit in reserved sections. Being foreign, you stand out and are already very likely to have a lot of attention directed towards you. Because of this, it is safer to sit with other women. You can observe how they behave in the situation, and they will provide some protection against unwanted attention from men.
One of the best ways to navigate gendered spaces is to be aware of those around you. I understand that it is problematic to assume someone’s gender by looking at them. Gender expression and gender identity are distinct and do not always align. You should not make assumptions about people based on their appearances. However, being in a space with those whose gender expression matches your gender expression is a good way to judge what behavior is appropriate for how others will perceive you. This can help to keep you safe and to avoid unwanted attention.
That being said, it is important to remember that you are not responsible for how others perceive you or how they expect you to behave, and any behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable is the fault of those behaving that way. If you find yourself in a gendered space where something makes you feel uncomfortable, it is not your fault for being there.
And as another disclaimer, this is my perspective as a cisgender woman. I understand the privilege that comes with that, and I understand that some of this advice will not be helpful to trans and nonbinary people. If a space does not exist for your gender identity, it becomes much more difficult to judge your own behavior by observing others. This is one of the reasons why gendered spaces are problematic, and one of the issues that LGBTQ activists in India are discussing.