Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wives, washers, and winners: Women in India

Most everyone has heard of the violent rape that occurred in Delhi a month and a half ago. You probably know the specific details, so I won't say more. What happened is so disgusting. The other night I was having dinner with two guy friends and my roommate. We ended up talking about the murder, and of course we discussed the outrage among women here. But one of them also said, interestingly, that because the country has reacted so strongly, men are also feeling the outrage as well.

That would be a new thing here. Women--particularly those in smaller cities or villages--are stuck in the 15th century here. The men are too.

The other night I spent the night at Pinky’s house. I witnessed the classic female stereotype: the women in the family cleaned, washed, and cooked. In the morning, Pinky’s little sister straightened up their temple and made the beds, Pinky swept the house, they both made breakfast for everyone, the mom got the boys ready for school and took them to school, and when the mom returned, she washed clothes and starting cooking the chicken for lunch and dinner… Anyway, you get the picture. Even though Pinky and her sister go to school, they seem to be training to be housewives. Sometimes I feel that they are going to school for nothing.

Pinky’s family is an example of a traditional, religious, Indian family. The females accept it, don't seem bothered by it, and even say they love this part of their life. But maybe that’s just a fa├žade. There is still some more investigating to be done.

Women in India have come along way. But Indian female history is long and arduous. Most of this history has to do with religion and the roles that religion forces them to perform, such as the usual cleaning, cooking, taking care of the kids, and staying in the house all day to please the husbands parents. 

Aside from religion, the general culture here also forces women to behave a particular way. For instance, as I have said before, girls usually live with their families until they are married. They don't move out and get an apartment before marriage. What ends up happening is that every day they go home to clean and cook for their families. Frankly, this makes it easier for me to have guy friends here because all the women have to go home. 

Some friends from Mumbai.
Of course, I live in Guwahati, which is hardly big city in its attitudes. When I went to Mumbai earlier this year, I was hanging with a totally different crowd. On display were different females who wear whatever they want, do whatever they want, and have a lot more freedom in choosing their futures. They hang out with friends, spend the night at one another's houses, and simply behave like Western teenagers. But even in Mumbai, where thoughts and culture tend to be more “modern,” there are still negative women stereotypes to behold. One day, a boy and his father were driving me back to where I was staying. A car driven by a female made a stupid move by pulling out in front of them, and the boy said, “Of course it’s a woman driving the car.” The father said, “They should be banned from the road.”

I immediately said, “Excuse me!”

No matter how “modern” you are when it comes to how Indian women should be treated, every family, modern or not, cares deeply about a woman's marriage and that only adds to the proble. I am speaking mostly of Hindu families here because Guwahati has lots of Hindus and few Muslims. Last week I went to a very fancy Rajahstani wedding. Held in Guwahati because the male's family currently lives here, both families were originally from Rajahstan. I am very close to the sister of the bride, who talked to me confidentially about this arranged marriage. Her sister cried for hours the night before the ceremony as it sunk in that she would forever spend her life with this man and live with his family. What happens is that as soon as a woman marries, she leaves her family and moves in with her husband and his parents. Even though this particular woman chose to have an arranged marriage, it was still hard for her to accept. (Pictures from the wedding can be found at the bottom of this page).

At the wedding, the first half of the ceremony (the whole thing was like three hours long) focused on the groom's and the bride’s parents. It called for the bride’s parents to hand over their daughter to the groom and his family. At the end, the family physically gave their daughter’s hand to the groom. It was like she was then someone else's property.

Pinky and her friends tell me that once they get married they will immediately move in with their in-laws. Most wives here have major problems getting along with their mother-in-laws. And unfortunately, for various reasons, the wives always end up spending more time with their mother-in-laws than their husbands. The family dynamics get all weird. One Indian nurse who works at the Operation Smile center told me she has not seen her family at all since she married her husband. They did not approve of the marriage and that caused a break in her relationship with them. However, she loved him and loved his family. Because she knew she was going to live with her husband’s family for the rest of her life, she chose to move across the country and live with a family that she really enjoyed. Her family did not even come to the wedding. And to put the icing on the cake, her husband works and lives on the other side of the country, so it's completely messed up.

This is all to say, the Delhi rape is a sign of old and new. Things are screwed up on many levels. Men still feel they have power over women, but the country is protesting and speaking up about this like never before as if to say it is time for women to be treated equally and fairly. That is a sign of progress.

My past week:

On another note… Before I came to India, my college guidance counselor, Mrs. Veibranz, was totally behind my coming here for a year. But she told me I was going to have a low moment and I was going to have to fight my way through it. Hey Mrs. Veibranz—you were right. I just had that moment. I have been really sick for about a week and alone in my apartment because my roommates were away. I am better now (thanks to Ellinor, an anesthesiologist from Sweden, who lives in my apartment building). While I was sick and in bed, I downloaded almost all of the academy award movies. It has been a lifelong dream for me to watch the Oscar best picture nominees before the Oscars. So at least there was the silver lining that I got to do that. In fact, I still have more movies to go. So far my favorite is "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Gap years allow you to do more than you ever expected!

Sending smiles from India,

Below are photos of women that have been taken since I got here: 

Orphans in Silchar, India who spent their days taking care of the littler kids. 

It is important to note that women are always beautifully dressed in India.

Pictures from the beautiful wedding I attended last week:

Her dress was soooo heavy! 

The groom's mother is in the middle. 

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