After six months of travel in Asia, more about I’ve gotten used to people trying to kick me out of the women’s restroom thinking that I am a man. Usually after I explain to the startled women that there is no need to be alarmed, they respond apologetically and I’m left to pee in peace. But there are also times when I’m met with genuine hostility. Its amazing how much you can understand when people are talking about you without understanding a single word. My worst incident? Getting forcibly ejected from a roadside toilet by a group of angry women and having to hold my pee in for the next 7 hours on the bus ride from Udaipur to Delhi.
To avoid this harrowing ordeal, I try my best to avoid using the toilet altogether until we’re back in the safety of our hostel. But when you have a small bladder like mine (not to mention occasional traveler’s diarrhea), sometimes you just gotta go.
So, I’ve adopted a method for mitigating conflict. Before I enter a restroom, I take off my jacket and thrust out my chest to make my womanly parts as obvious as possible. I try to look as non-threatening as I can, holding my palms up and saying hello to anyone in the restroom so they can hear my feminine voice. When all that fails, I avoid all eye contact and just dart into a stall and do my business as quickly as possible.
Most of the time, I don’t blame the other women for their confusion. I understand that their actions are out of fear that a man has intruded their private space. In most Asian countries, women dress conservatively and rarely wear their hair short. There certainly are very few androgynous-looking women walking around in men’s clothing.
Traveling through India, however, has left me feeling as if I am having to spend all day dealing with the restroom conflict. In India’s conservative culture, there’s a clear segregation between women and men in nearly all aspects of society. From a positive perspective, this is a way to protect women from the chaos and crowds of India. (Of course there’s a big negative aspect too, but that’s for another post.) Beginning at the airport, there are lines separating women and men to board the plane. There are lines split by gender to enter the mall, movie theatre, and even the Taj Mahal. The metro in Delhi has their own entrance and car for women(see photo left). Trains and buses also have reserved seats and spaces for women.
All of this means hell for someone like me. I’m constantly getting harassed from security guards trying to get me to go to the men’s line. At times, the stares have been so intense that I’ve considered just giving up and getting into the men’s line. But because you are scanned and patted down in all of these lines, I also fear their reaction once they discover that I’m a woman. In my desperation, I considered wearing something more girly (a local Indian suggested I should start wearing earrings), but honestly – I’m just too far gone for that. Nobody wants to see my in a sari. I’ve really felt for my transgender friends when I think of how much harder this must be for them.
Now, there are some advantages to being perceived as a man. In dodgy situations, Jenni and I have felt safer when others assume we’re a straight couple. Men keep their distance from us, and we blend in with everyone else.
This week, all of this gender confusion yielded some unexpected benefits when we visited Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. I paid for our tickets and walked through the entrance with Jenni. She was immediately stopped by a security guard who handed her the most unattractive mumu to cover her body (see picture left) from head to toe before entering the mosque. I, on the other hand, passed through without issue. For once in India, I caught a break! (see photo right)