My trip to India was not what I expected

By Clara How, Jun 27, 2019

Earlier this year in April, Qin Yunquan travelled to Bihar, a state in East India. Yunquan is the chief executive of self-defence school Kapap Academy, and she’s made a name for herself in Singapore for her work in equipping students (particularly women) in self-defence skills. It has always been her dream to travel to India and fight gender inequality through self-defence, something that she has spoken about in a previous DayreStory.

It was a trip done in conjunction with Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, a non-profit organisation that not only provides eye treatment, but also gives young women an education. Yunquan’s role: to train them in self-defence.

Prior to the trip, Yunquan confessed to be apprehensive about the potential danger faced as a female foreigner in India, especially after reading articles about crime and violence in the country. This is her story after experiencing the reality for herself.

* * * *

When I was preparing for my trip to Bihar, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. All I knew from reading articles and what people had told me was that it was a rural part of India, and that it had a lot of crime. As a foreigner trying to enact change, I worried that I would not be well-received by the public. I might be perceived as a threat.

The real experience was nothing like I anticipated.

When I landed at Bihar with my assistant Nicole, all I saw was this tiny airport that was basically one space to pick up your bags, and dusty dirt roads outside. The first glimpse out from the airport were crowds of people. Bustling voices, dusty roads, cars honking (lots of honking!) and I felt this wave of anxiety. I started to worry, “Who am I meeting? Are they staring at me?” I felt out of place.

But that uneasy feeling soon settled as I was warmly greeted by a woman called Suman and her male companion. Both had bouquets of flowers in their arms as they shook my hand and handed me the flowers. It made me feel like I was getting the celebrity treatment.

We were quickly ushered into a car and started off a very, very bumpy drive. As we drove away from the city towards the villages where we would be staying in, I noticed a stark contrast between the high rise buildings and makeshift homes. It was a far cry to what we are used to seeing in Singapore.

Naked children, cows and goats all roamed freely. The car honking was incredibly frequent and it seemed as though the cars were communicating with each other on the roads by honking. Poor Nicole had vomited twice on the road by the time we got to our destination.

Homes I saw under the bridge during the car ride.

Homes I saw under the bridge during the car ride.

After about two hours, we finally reached Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, where the girls greeted us with a welcome ceremony. Candles were lit, we were blessed with flowers, and dots were placed on our foreheads. They didn’t treat me as a foreigner - I felt so welcomed as a guest. From the way they asked me questions about my work, I realised they must have Googled me beforehand. It was incredibly touching to see how excited they were to welcome us.

We were shown to our accommodation and  I was pleasantly surprised by the state of the room. I felt so pampered - they had a special guest room for us, with our own toilet. The room was even air-conditioned. Truly, all my first-world comforts were met.

Our guest rooms were adjacent to the rooms that some of the girls slept in. Although their rooms were not air-conditioned, they were well-ventilated and brightly-lit. They didn’t have their own bathrooms but instead shared a common one down the corridor. Conditions were much better than what I had envisaged.

By the time we reached, it was almost lunchtime, and they had prepared food for us. Being typical Singaporeans, we were a bit apprehensive about eating the food there as we were worried about hygiene, and didn’t know if we had the immune system to handle it. Nicole and I had packed so much instant noodles in our luggage. But since they specially prepared the food for us, we felt so bad to reject them. So we ate, and the food was good. The dishes were all vegetarian, and mostly carb based (lots of potatoes). 

The real training would begin the next day, so some of the girls accompanied me for a tour around the village. It was a short walk there, and I didn’t bother to change out of my T-shirt and training shorts, which came down to my knees.

The fields I saw on my first day.

The fields I saw on my first day.

On the way there, a bus of around 30 men drove past us. When they saw me, they started shouting and pointing, laughing: “Shorts! Shorts!”

Initially, I didn’t know what they were saying, because the words were spoken in Hindi. So all I heard and saw was lots of shouting, and men turning their heads to look at me. My first instinct was to take the girls and run because we were clearly outnumbered!

But only when I saw that the girls were laughing did I calm down and ask them what was actually said. Once I realised that they were only commenting on my attire, I thought it was both funny and surprising, since I hadn’t realised I was wearing anything could be seen as revealing.

The girls explained to me that in their culture, legs are not shown. I had no idea about this. They told me that skirts have to be worn down to their feet. Certain parts of their body can be shown, like the arms and belly if they are in traditional garb, but legs are a no-no. In fact, some of the more conservative elders disapprove even of jeans. I later discovered that while the girls wore shorts in their training sessions with us, whenever they left the room they had to change back into their long trousers.

When we got to the village, it was eye-opening. The villagers lived in little huts, and some of them didn’t have doors, so I could see makeshift beds inside them.

They largely rely on agriculture for a living, and I saw cows, goats and buffaloes. I also saw a couple of wells, so I assumed that must be their water system. Compared to the room I was given, it was a huge difference. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I could have lived in a place like that.

But mostly, all I saw were brown fields, because it was a dry summer. I was told that it does get a little more green in spring, but it was hard to believe that it would be drastically different. It almost looked like a desert. And there was trash everywhere on the ground. When I asked the girls where I could throw my rubbish, they just took it from me and tossed it on the ground. There was no one to collect the trash.

A couple of other things unsettled me. The girls would tell me that not too far away a road was blocked because the police were investigating a rape. Or I was told a few years back, a boy was found hung in a tree after being robbed. What was more disturbing was that these things were said to me so matter-of-factly.

My opinion is that they’ve accepted the state of crime where they live. Either that, or maybe they just wanted to believe that things weren’t as bad as the media portrayed it to be. They don’t have the view that India is dangerous, or that international media has painted a picture of their country a certain way. The women I interacted with didn’t even know their country’s crime statistics. I didn’t expect them to be so trusting, and unquestioning of their situation.

They do have access to Google and YouTube, but why would you research things that don’t cross your mind? Maybe certain beliefs and traditions are so deep-rooted that they are normalised.

The girls live a simple life: they want to do well in their studies, get a good job, and maybe if they find the right guy, they will eventually get married. They are fortunate in that they have modern facilities in the hospital compared to the villages they come from, but mindset changes need time, if they even happen. Even with Internet access, I wouldn’t expect them to research on crime. 

What we take for granted as a general sense of curiosity about things happening in the world, they lack. They are very sweet, and simple girls. And because of that, I worry.

That being said, the medical director informed me that in the last 13 years, Bihar has changed drastically. I was told that it used to be lawless, with more incidences of plundering and rape. But now, I heard that the government is trying to enforce some order.

On subsequent walks to the nearby temple and the village, there were other incidents that bothered me. One was when two little street kids (they looked about seven years old) kept following us and talking to us. I didn’t understand what the boys were saying, so I just walked away. I didn’t want to give them money, because I felt that if I gave them cash, more would come, and there would be no end to the giving. But I saw that the Akhand Jyoti girls gave them money.

I asked what the boys were saying, but the girls were reluctant to tell me specifics. Maybe they felt like they didn’t want to give me a bad impression of their country, but I could tell from the boys’ body language that they were asking for money. The girls downplayed it, saying, “Oh, the boys were saying that if you didn’t give them money, they would steal your slippers.” Obviously, these children did not pose a real threat, but the fact that these innocent-looking boys were even making these empty threats seemed so incongruous.

A little while later, when we were buying ice-cream from a roadside stall, a young man riding a bicycle stopped by us and started talking to the girls. Next thing I knew, they were giving him money as well! I asked them, “Why? He’s young, and able-bodied. Why do you need to give him money?” The girls again tried to downplay it, saying that oh, it’s a tourist area, this happens. “Usually they mean no harm,” they told me. “You just give them money and they go away.” To me, the idea of giving people money so they don’t give you trouble just seems like robbery.

But nothing bad actually happened to us, and I took precautions by asking if we could take the car instead of walking once the roads got dark, and generally being more alert. I understand that the girls don’t think that men and boys demanding money from them is dangerous, or they might see it as me overthinking. They don’t see it as extortion.

The training began the next day. Nicole and I would train 40 to 50 girls a day, and in a week, we taught about 200 of them in basic self-defence skills. I have to say that their attitude was incredible. Whatever they lacked in skills, they made up for it in their enthusiasm for learning. If I could be honest, they were weak, and not used to physical activity, but what was heartening was that they fought their fatigue.

I originally had a lesson plan on what I would teach, but I had to switch it up when I saw that they did not yet have the strength or stamina. I would rather teach them less and have them be good at it, rather than teach them more and have poor execution. But the biggest surprise of the trip was how keen they were to learn. I’ve taught students in Singapore before, but usually I am engaged by the school, and the students aren’t there of their own accord. You don’t see the same zeal.

 

In my one week-stay at Akhand Jyoti, I became friends with the girls, and we would talk about their lives and their culture. I realised then that they seem quite unaware of how horrifying sexual and violent crimes can be. Maybe given the conservative nature of the state, such things are hardly talked about.

Plus, many of these girls are taken in by Akhand Jyoti at an average age of 12, and after that they live in the safe grounds of the hospital. They do interact daily with the public when they are sent out to the villages to conduct eye care. By and large, they are treated with respect, as Akhand Jyoti provides free eye care and food. The hospital grants them a lot of protection.

I also realised that I had misconceptions on what their families were like. Unlike the pioneer batch of girls, where the founder of Akhand Jyoti approached the parents and had to persuade the parents to send them for an education, many of the younger girls are there because their parents are supportive. Now that Akhand Jyoti has a reputation for giving women a better life and a chance to earn a good living, many families want their daughters to have this chance.

That being said, while some families are progressive, there still exists a mindset that women take a back seat to men. Gender inequality is still pretty prevalent in Bihar, and crimes against women are still being committed. Even if they are well-loved by their parents, the common route for women is an arranged marriage at 18 to 20 years old. The lucky ones do get to text the boy and see who has been chosen for them, but some don’t even see their husbands until they get married. Even if they get married at an older age, my understanding is that this would still be an arranged marriage.

If there were limited resources in the family, the boys would get precedence. They would receive the paid education. Girls do attend school, but up to a certain point, and they typically would not attend university. From the time a girl is born, dowry is set aside for her marriage. But I was told that sometimes the parents have no choice but to take the girl’s dowry to give to the son, and as a result, the daughter can’t secure a good marriage, and could be poorly treated by her future in-laws thanks to a lesser dowry. All this was told to me by the girls.

And that is why these girls in the hospital are so eager to learn, and seize opportunities. They love studying, because now Akhand Jyoti is telling them that there is more to their life than serving a husband.

How their system works is that the girls get an education and are trained in eye care, and upon graduation, they serve a three-year bond with the hospital. One of the main goals of Akhand Jyoti is to get rid of blindness (a major problem in Bihar) in the state. So the girls use their skills to help the people, and when their bond is finished, they have the option to see the world.

It struck me how limited their world view was when I realised that most of the girls don’t have a passport, as they never saw the need to apply for one. They figured that if they’re not going to travel, they don’t see a point. I found this rather shocking, as I had the impression that every citizen should have a passport when they come of age.

When I asked one of the girls why they don’t have a passport, the answer was simple: they don’t need it (for now). Perhaps when they are much older and they do decide to leave the country, but the truth is I don’t think the girls have thought that far. The furthest the girls have thought of going is simply to another state in India. Some said they might go to Delhi, or Kolkata. No one mentioned other countries like the United Kingdom or the United States, which might be more common answers back home.

And that’s why it’s important for me that they learn some self-defence skills. They are safe in the hospital now, but with their medical knowledge, they could be employed in cities with a higher crime rate, and they will need to learn to protect themselves.

I always believe that when you’re in the position of being attacked, you shouldn’t give in. When you do, you’re giving the verdict of your life to a murderer or rapist. Whether you fight back or not, there are people who will still try to harm you, just because they want to. Fighting back increases your chance of survival.

A documentary titled ‘India’s Daughter’ featured an interview with one of the perpetrators of Jyoti Singh’s gang rape (a brutal murder that shocked the world in 2012), where he said that Jyoti should have accepted the rape, rather than fighting back. When I heard this, I was disgusted, and extremely angry that they could commit such atrocities to an innocent girl, and try to justify it. There can be no excuse to committing rape.So with all this in mind, I knew that it was important not just to train the girls with physical skills, but also inculcate a greater sense of caution. One of the things I did was to set up a Facebook group with the girls, not just to keep in contact with them, but to also share links to articles about crime and statistics. This was after I realised that while the girls had a great attitude to learn, they saw self-defense more as a confidence booster. They didn’t think that they would actually need the skills, because they don’t see the world as a bad place.

I don’t post anything graphic (so no strong visual images of violence) in the Facebook group, but my purpose in this is to try and enlarge their perspective. They are safe now, but they may not always remain so. I would never tell someone, oh, don’t travel the world, it’s dangerous. Of course, I don’t think anyone should be frightened of their goals, but I do think a little fear is good to keep you on your toes. Chase your dreams, but with safety precautions. Don’t think everyone is trustworthy. Be prepared.

On my last day in Bihar, I cried because I felt that my work was not done. I told the girls, “I have seen and heard things that you girls have not, and I cannot imagine any of you getting attacked because I have not taught you enough.”

At our farewell in the auditorium, everyone was crying. To have had this opportunity to interact with them, to see the simplicity of their lives, and receive their warmth has been one of the best experiences of my life.

When I landed in Singapore, they left messages to make sure I had reached home safely. A lot of them still contact me on Facebook to ask me how I am. I do believe that we forged real friendships in that one week together.

Moving forward, the plan is to have a pool of certified instructors who can carry on the programme without our supervision. A lot of plans are tentative as I have to check on their progress, but we have trips planned every quarter of the year for 2019 and 2020. We’re also in talks with other organisations to see what we can do in other parts of India.

The end goal is to lay the foundation for girls in India to be educated, feel empowered, and to challenge gender stereotypes in a positive way. Our ultimate dream is to kickstart a social movement that will lead to one million Indian women being trained by us in our self-defence system, Modern Street Combatives (which is already taught in our school in Singapore), and become ‘ajeya’ warriors (in Hindi, this means unconquerable in spirit). 

It may take years, or maybe even more than a decade to make this vision come true, but with the help of Akhand Jyoti and other partnerships, I tell myself that the seemingly impossible may just take a little longer.

In a few months, I will return to Akhand Jyoti and carry on with the training sessions. Now that I’m back home, I find myself thinking about the girls, and missing them. I feel like I left a piece of myself in Bihar.

Photos provided by Qin Yunquan.

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