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Indian women and their lives are a mystery to western woman. Here is a look at the life of Indian women through the lens of a South American woman.
The train to Varanasi goes at a speed of 50 k/ph until it stops. For one reason or another it always stops. I am standing next to the door of the coach and observe what is happening outside. Nobody smiles. Three women are frowning and talking. I guess their conversation must be similar to three women having a chat inside a supermarket on the corner of my house in Argentina. They may be gossiping about someone’s lost love, about a naughty son or a piece of news on TV.
There is an image that moves me to tears. A réplica of Pieta. She is a young woman. I can see this though she has her head covered with a brown piece of cloth. She sits on some stones in the street. Her wrinkles appear only on the forehead and the mouth, which is reddish and pouting. She is so beautiful that she could be envied by any magazine model, but she is very far away from that world.
She has a nose stud and plenty of bracelets which sound like a rattle when she moves. Her dirty hands are holding each other in order to create a cradle for her baby, who is wrapped in a white cloth. She does not seem to have more than what I see at this very moment. She is exhausted. One could tell that the baby did not decide to come to this world. She stares at him, she caresses him, she feeds him. Later, after some years, this mother will paint the child´s eyes with black kohl to protect him from a world of demons and evil. The train starts again. We go away, but the Pieta stays there. I stare at it until they become a tiny dot in the distance.
Being a mother in India is almost compulsory, it is a natural event in every woman’s life, even in those who want to experience other things in life. There is a thirty-year-old woman travelling on the train to Varanasi who works in the Indian Navy. She was a mother at the age of twenty eight, a little later than the average Indian women. Nevertheless, she is really surprised when she asks about my age: thirty-five years old and no children. What do Indian women feel when they see most women from the other side of the world with no desire to be a mother?
One of the reasons why women are so worried for having children, especially sons, is that government does not guarantee any retirement wage, so that children must take care of their parents when these grow old. Having only daughters can be considered a curse. Some women are forced to have an abortion when they realize they will have a daughter instead of a son. These are called ‘selected abortions’. Though abortion has been legalized in India, abortions determined by genre are not legal, but very common. As a consequence, there is currently an imbalance in the male-female population.
Another humiliating and horrifying practice is called ‘bride burning’. Spouses that can not have a son, or who haven’t got a good dowry, are often killed – burned alive and then claim that it was a home accident. Some groups report that only one case out of 300 gets to justice. Many women do not die but remain deformed.
Women living in cosmopolitan cities such as Bombay, those who belong to higher castes, those with whiter skin, those who appear in Bollywood movies, have a more open view of the female role in society. They are usually professionals or university students, they wear bikini at Goa Beach and can choose their couples. These are the few women who can actually take a seat at Parliament, which is represented by only 10% of women. This is India as well.
So, why is it that still most women are manipulated and humiliated? Why is it that they can not take decisions at home? It called my attention to the fact that in my search for Couchsurfing contacts, I only encountered profiles of 30-40-year old males living alone.
Rajashree Khalap lives in Bombay. She is a beautiful 42-year-old woman, delicate and extremely smart. At first sight, I had the impression she is a very organized lady, with a busy week. She invites me to her flat and I accept delighted by the idea of peeping in an Indian woman’s life. She picks me up with her car, but she is not driving. She has a driver, which is a common practice both for comfort and for security, since it is not very safe to be a woman driving her car alone in the chaotic streets.
We enter her apartment. She prepares two cups of delicious tea and we sit to chat. She tells me there is a privileged sector in society with educated and independent women who have the same opportunities as men. She is part of this group. She travels, has a free life and can make a living with her profession, she can choose her spouse, get married and then get divorced without being judged. She has never had the desire to be a mother and she is not pushed by anybody to feel differently. Unfortunately, these women are still a minority in society.
Rajashree explains that less educated and conservative women are usually less economically stable and have limited chances in life. Women’s status also varies according to region and culture. In some states, women are absolutely restricted, especially those to the North of the country, such as Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. While in some more southern states, such as Kerala, societies may be less patriarchal, though they are never fully matriarchal.
Before we say goodbye, Rajashree gives me some hope. Things have been changing for Indian women. In 1925 Sarojini Naidu was the first women chosen as National Congress President , the second one was Nellie Sengupta in 1933. In 1966 Indira Gandhi appeared on the scene, and triggered great changes. She was the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian Prime Minister after Independence from Great Britain in 1947. She started her active political participation in the 30’s until she is assassinated in 1984. She was a strong leader, with a powerful character. She was strong enough so as to eliminate all the benefits of the Maharajas in order to start building a true Republic.
Today, there are doctors and ministers that are women, though they are still a minority and have to work with greater effort in order to achieve what a man can.
History will tell us how life will continue changing for Indian women.
Image source: Shutterstock.