01.09.2013 - 13.11.2013
Last week I was invited to a Women’s Meeting at the local town hall; Hurrah! thought I. This is where I get to see how all those issues I spent so long reading about are really being dealt with. What nobody told me was that I too would be making a speech, in front of about 500 local people as well as the head honcho and founder of the charity. So, as the talks (in Hindi) got underway, I plastered a look of ‘Indeed? Most interesting’ across my face and set about thinking about what I was going to say. It was actually surprisingly difficult, considering that I generally have a lot to say on the subject of gender relations and can talk about the history of dowry, infanticide and marriage until the cows come home. But then that little voice called Cultural Awareness popped up again. Useful as it is in the world of academia to be able to quote famous figures and historians, I don’t actually have any real insight into these issues, so I figured it would be best to leave that side of things up to the women who have been living with these issues their whole lives. (Incidentally, these problems are still very prevalent; I’ve seen two newspaper reports on dowry murder and even wrestled with myself about getting involved when a man harassed his wife outside my door in the middle of the night.)
In the end, I decided to for the fairly safe, but immensely important issue of ‘women’s problems’ not only being problems for women, but for the whole of society. It went down very well, much applause and congratulatory food (including a pastry thing so unbelievably sweet that I think it was made of unicorns and pixies).
But here’s the problem. The very same evening, the father of the family that I was staying with at the time felt compelled to leave the room we were all in because I carelessly revealed my knee. Now, this is a man who is constantly wandering around, fiddling with his lunghi, his own knees very much on show. I dutifully covered up, but took the opportunity to open a discussion on why it was perfectly fine for him to be nude-kneed but not me; the response was ‘because that’s Indian culture’ - essentially the classic fallback argument of ‘because it is’. And this is coming from the same women who had earlier told me that the earlier meeting and my speech had been ‘a very proud day.’ Despite considerable discussion, the idea that this seemingly insignificant issue of skin display could be in any way linked to big problems like female infanticide seemed to completely elude them. Like I’ve said before, I’m not here to cause a feminist revolution, but it’s incredibly difficult to understand and be ok with women who want to make progress but don’t see that it is only possible when the value of women is equal to that of men in all respects. A leg for a leg, as it were.