Being a woman in India comes with a lot of warnings -- don't even tap a guy on the shoulder, wear your dupatta in a modest and precise way, don't make eye contact.
Most of this advice comes from scary stories, and some from experience. But as my friend Kam mentioned in a piece she wrote, a lot of it comes from Fear.
Fear is the reason that almost every conversation I have with my aunts has nothing to do with my work, and everything to do with my safety. Fear is the driving force behind Indian newspapers -- effectively making this country sound overrun with lawless gangsters.
I was thinking of this the other day on a long bus ride from the hills. As soon as I climbed on, the conductor pointed me to the front two seats which were reserved for women. Not only was I protected from wandering eyes, I had a big screen view of the foothills of the Himalayas.
I know there are huge women's rights violations happening all the time. In fact many of them -- prostitution, child marriages and lack of education -- exist openly in my community. But my own experiences in India have been empowering and comforting, giving me hope that there is room for tremendous growth.
I continue to get in heated discussions, but my delivery has changed. I live and travel independently, but usually surrounded by women. I support girls who want to be educated and strong, but no longer discount their desire for a family life.
Here, aunties (yes, they are a genre) have been my guardian angels. Women who sit outside of my community center have pointed out wardrobe malfunctions and sensed my need for chai and chatting. Others have taught me to add tadka to my daal, and dress for freezing weather. One of my host mothers even got rid of a guy who was calling me too much.
Spending more time in the house translates to deep relationships with families, including fathers and sons. The societal idea that I am innately peaceful and nurturing has served me well with my students who have no problem wrapping their arms around my waist in the middle of an English class.
In another country, in another mental state, I might have been frustrated at the rules and stereotypes of being a girl. But at this moment I am almost relieved to be a woman. Not because I've stopped pushing the limits, but because I feel that India, or at least Chandigarh, has become the mother that knows just when her daughter is about to touch the stove, and pulls her hand away.