The same day my father sold my childhood home, I headed to the airport. I was 21 and had finally mustered the courage to buy a flight to a country I’d always wanted to visit: India. I was prepared for nothing but surprises and adventures. Unfortunately, that’s what I got.
I first met Ifraj about a week into my trip. I was in central India, having just arrived at the train station in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. I went outside to find a taxi and he offered me a lift to my guesthouse. I accepted and we spent the entire day together, smitten from the start. He fit the bill for an exciting foreign romance: tall, dark, and handsome. He was a local, coming from a very conservative Muslim family. His mother had an arranged marriage when she was nine, none of his brother’s wives was allowed to leave their home compound, and all the men ate first. But Ifraj was the youngest child and the only one to have traveled abroad, and he was adamant about living a modern, Western life outside of India. His parents accepted that, and they also accepted me, although we had to follow certain rules when I visited—sitting apart, no touching, no physical affection, no eating together, no nothing. I was respectful, of course, but it also made me feel like we were pretending not to be in a relationship and that was depressing.
As a young, naïve woman, I didn’t think much about the cultural values and beliefs behind Ifraj’s pretty face. I was an independent and free-spirited California girl, eager to soak up as much of the world as possible, so I didn’t focus on getting to know him too well—I was in India and everything was exciting! I didn’t want to overthink anything. Plus Ifraj was beautiful, smart, and, in his best moments, a gentle soul. But it didn’t take long for the sexism of Ifraj’s upbringing to reveal itself. Two weeks into our romance, we were constantly fighting.
I’d been in Khajuraho for over a month and had taken to the small town. I was friendly with the locals and mostly comfortable with Ifraj’s family. But after taking countless day trips and walking or biking down every road in town, I was getting bored. One night, after yet another big fight with Ifraj, I’d had enough—why was I staying here? My enchantment with having “an experience” had distracted me from reality of my relationship with Ifraj. Save for a youthful, romantic connection and the brief happiness we brought into each other’s lives, Ifraj and I were a terrible fit. I couldn’t understand his behavior and he couldn’t understand mine, but he made it clear that I angered him because I was outspoken and free-thinking. He was constantly criticizing me, comparing me to Indian women and how they were supposed to behave.
It was time to go, so I bought a one-way ticket to Delhi. The night before my departure, I sat in my bed and stared out the window, hoping to see the crickets I could only hear. Even though I was tired of fighting and had bought my ticket out of town, I spent that evening praying that something would prevent me from catching my train the next morning. I was too young at the time to know that it’s better to leave an unhappy relationship than to stay hoping for things to change.
The next morning, my misguided prayers were answered: I woke up with a fever, chills, and terrible stomach pains. Since I’d first arrived, I’d been waiting for the moment when I’d get sick—it seemed inevitable given the conditions. There were countless times were it was cleaner to urinate on a bathroom floor instead of sitting on a toilet seat. Soap in bathrooms, except for nicer places in cities, was very rare and many people in rural areas believed that quickly rinsing their fingertips with cold water was sufficient to clean their hands. Plenty of sham food-stall runners tried to sell me river water in dirty recycled Aquafina bottles. Everywhere I visited, poor sanitation was a threat.
And now, of all mornings, the time had finally come. Ifraj came over and we agreed that I couldn’t leave, each of us silently burdened by my sudden illness but finding some consolation in the fact that we were still together.
We traveled to nearest city, Chhatarpur, where his sister lived. Her husband, a doctor, contacted a colleague that could perform some blood tests at a local clinic nearby. We waited and waited and waited; just like everything else in India, the doctor was running late. Ifraj and I left the house to head for the clinic anyhow, but I was exhausted and beginning to feel weak underneath the blistering summer sun. So I sat down on the side of the road and dropped my head in my arms, hunched over on the dusty, half-paved dirt road. Just then, a donkey strolled up and stopped right in front of me. As my head was down, I first noticed its hooves. As I slowly started to life my head, I saw a very large, erect penis.
I didn’t find this arousing in the least, but a hard donkey dick in your face is hard to ignore.
It was gross, but the proximity of this huge penis to my face quickly had me in stitches. I began to back away and broke into a fit of laughter as I struggled to stand up.
Ifraj was horrified and immediately showed his disdain, grabbing my arm and telling me to stop laughing.
“What?” I giggled. “Look at the size of it!”
“I know, we know this,” he responded, exasperated.
“But why did it decide to stop right in front of me?” I continued chuckling.
“They have a mind of their own, of course he didn’t think about you!”
I persisted. “Then why does it have an erection?”
“I don’t bloody know!”
I was laughing uncontrollably, gasping for air, and Ifraj was furious. The typhoid infection, I would later realize, had made me a bit delirious. But I snapped to attention as soon as Ifraj really lost his temper. “Women in India never act like this!”
Ifraj was always yelling at me. Stuff like:
“Indian women never raise their voice!”
“Do what I say!”
“Don’t ask me why!”
“If I tell you to do something, you listen.”
Then there was that time when, after we’d had an explosive fight, I accepted a lift back to my guesthouse from a local policeman. “Is he your boyfriend or your husband?!” shouted Ifraj. (According to him, women weren’t supposed to accept lifts from anyone who wasn’t a family member or a taxi/motorbike driver. I constantly struggled to understand what behavior was and wasn’t acceptable in Ifraj’s world and in Muslim-Indian communities like his.)
The typhoid may have sent my brain function plummeting, but at that moment—with the donkey dong in my face and an apoplectic boyfriend by my side—it was finally clear who I was to Ifraj and what he expected me to do: follow.
Problem is, I’ve never been a follower or particularly prone to taking orders. And something as simple as an innocent comment about the size of a donkey’s penis—and the subsequent rage it provoked from Ifraj—made me think more than I ever had about being a woman. I was just 21; I had never felt consciously confronted by sexism at home. It was strange to discover the reality of patriarchy on the other side of the world.
It broke me completely.
I held back tears as Ifraj motioned for me to follow him into some kind of makeshift health clinic, a grungy space with a row of chairs lining the wall and an empty desk at the front of the room. Wiping my tears, I sat down in the only available seat and heard the sound of a clamorous engine arriving outside the flimsy door. A man hopped off a motorbike, walked in, shoved his keys in his pocket, and sat in the unsteady chair behind the desk. He rolled up his sleeves and unwrapped a syringe from a drawer, motioning for me to come over and give him my arm. A jab, and it was over. Apparently, this was the doctor and blood test I’d been waiting for.
Ifraj said it was time to leave. He was the only person there who spoke English, so I begged him for answers, wanting to know when I’d have the test results and what to do in the interim. He demanded that I stop pestering him. I fell silent and we made our way back to his sister’s home for dinner.
An uncomfortable week later, I received confirmation that I did have typhoid. But I was allergic to all the medications another doctor attempted to prescribe me, so I was treated at a local homeopathic hospital. As my symptoms subsided and I regained my health and clarity, I finally reached my breaking point.
After a night in his family’s home, I watched his sister-in-law hit her 7-year-old daughter, who had a developmental disability, for being noisy and waking up her younger sister. No one took issue with this. On the way back to my guesthouse, I began questioning why Ifraj thought that his sister’s style of discipline was acceptable. He was dismissive. “This is how we do things.”
During my time with Ifraj, I’d become increasingly uptight and afraid of doing things wrong; I had tried my best to make him happy, but I wasn’t acting like myself anymore, and it was coming at the expense of my sanity. I genuinely wanted to respect his culture, but this was too much. I’d also been sitting with all of these uncomfortable feelings about patriarchy, sexism, and how Ifraj was constantly silencing me. I was overwhelmed and started to cry as soon as we got to my door. Then I really lost it and went on a brutal tirade, spitting out all the anger and frustration and sadness that had been increasingly weighing on me in the past month.
For the first time ever, Ifraj was silent. Not a word. But the shock and horror on his face was quite clear. He began to cry, walking over to me and holding me close.
When we both dried our eyes, he whimpered, “No one has ever spoken to me like that, not even my father.” He had spent his entire life watching his father exert an iron-fisted rule over his home. Even though his mother was the one who really seemed to run things, Ifraj and his siblings answered to their father. He was the important one. Of course, Ifraj was capable of thinking for himself, but by adulthood he already had several deep-rooted ideas about “ideal” manhood and womanhood. The women in his home were subservient; all five of his sisters-in-law had completed their state-required basic education, but once they were finished, they were married off, and rarely saw life outside their homes.
India has no shortage of strong women, but Ifraj’s circle had yet to catch on to the increasingly independent, Western lifestyles being adopted by women in bigger cities. I challenged Ifraj in a way no woman ever had, and it unnerved him to see that women could push back and be strong and self-assured without their father or any other man behind them. Unfortunately, Ifraj knew no other way of life than the that of his home, and my brief presence was unlikely to upend centuries of a culture centered around male authority.
Ifraj and I eventually reconciled, though things were never quite the same after that. He had apologized; the rest of my time with him was like being with a completely different person. He was subdued, no longer walking with the same arrogance or bossing me around, and some of his friends began to ask me what had happened.
Most of all, Ifraj seemed lost and confused. Even though he wasn’t the strongest communicator, I knew my frustrations had struck a chord. I could see it on his face—a sorrow that stayed with him after that night. The initial spark and happiness we had instantly found had officially drifted away.
It wasn’t long before we parted ways, but I left Ifraj feeling incredibly grateful. I wasn’t necessarily thankful to be American, per se, but simply to have been raised in a home that always encouraged me to be an independent thinker. I had never truly felt that I was less powerful than a man. I’m happy to be surrounded by people that encourage my inquisitive nature, instead of disregarding me because I have a vagina.
Although I could’ve done without our relationship, at least Ifraj inspired me more than ever to always stand up for myself, no matter where I was in the world.
Image via Shutterstock.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.