A week after posting my blog ‘A big decision’ and 3 weeks after making the decision, time for a bit of reflection.
To be honest I’ve been very flattered and a little bemused by peoples reactions to my decision. All of them very complimentary, supportive and encouraging which helps to affirm that I’ve made the right decision but it’s also made me realise that my decision is beyond the comprehension of most people. Particularly when you read all the things that have happened over the last 12 months.
I’m sure the question most people would ask is, why?
Whilst talking the decision through with someone they asked me
“what is your most valuable possession or asset?”
What would you say?
An electrical item?
A treasured gift from someone?
For me it was simple, I didn’t hesitate to answer.
Perhaps it was being without my passport for nearly 3 weeks whilst it was in Mumbai, feeling a bit trapped albeit in a country that I love and am very happy in, that gave me a real sense of unease, that something had been taken away from who I am.
12 months ago being asked the same question I’m sure I would have answered it quite differently. My passport would have been in my top 3 but I’m pretty my top answer would have been my house – wrapped up in the western drive to consume, have, need and want more.
I certainly hadn’t appreciated the freedom and choice which allows me to do this.
Nearly 12 months in India and everyday I’m learning more about freedom and choice and what that means for women here.
This blog isn’t going to be pretty, it’ll include some pretty hard hitting information but a topic so so worth discussing.
“India bristles with a mind-stirring mix of landscapes and cultural traditions. Your journey through this intoxicating country will blaze in your memory long after you’ve left its shores.
Two words: stunningly unforgettable”
Lonely Planet, India (travel guide)
And its true, it is. It offers so much to see, do and experience and for every first time visitor it’s an exciting, exhilarating, if not unnerving assault on the senses. The people you meet, the big smiles, the colour.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the people you meet are completely happy and content with their lives, that seeing women out and about indicates freedom and choice, seeing young students ‘dating’ indicates a challenge to conformity. But as with anything, the more you get to know, see and experience the more you see the reality.
Let me start with some basic facts about women in India
Across every aspect of their lives, women in India are at a disadvantage as compared to men.
These statistic aren’t unique to India, they bear similarity to other Asian and African countries, but in 2012 India was rated the worst G20 country for women, worse than countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia!
The study undertaken by Reuters concluded that Indian women were particularly vulnerable because of high instances of child marriage, dowry related deaths, trafficking and slavery.
Over the last two decades India has witnessed one of the biggest economic booms in its history. Cities are thriving, the use of technology becoming increasingly wide spread, more young people completing basic education and unemployment rates low.
Alongside this India is witnessing a change in social attitude, women no longer confined to the home, greater visibility in cities and many actively pursuing and succeeding in a career of their choice. This is particularly evident in the big metro cities.
Bengaluru (Bangalore) the technology hub of India is more like a large European or American city than an Indian one.
Seeing this leads you to believe that modernisation is feeding women’s liberation and strengthening their position in society, no longer seen as second class citizens in comparison to their brothers.
However, the reality being, that this liberalisation, instead of allowing women greater choice, is putting them in greater danger and stifling their freedom.
I recently got talking to a guy at a hotel about this exact issue.
He openly said
“because of womens liberalisation society is going down, them going out to work, no longer focusing on the family is damaging society”
“so you think the only thing women are good for is to be in the home?”
“no, but if a woman chooses to dress inappropriately, take part in activities that are not suitable, stay out late then it is her fault if she attracts unwanted attention”
“are you seriously telling me that its ok for men to do what they want, when they want but not for women, why?”
He didn’t really answer but what he is basically saying is, men want to keep women hidden away in some strange belief that they are protecting them, whereas in fact, its because they’re threatened by women having control of their own lives.
My opinion and observation.
It isn’t just men but society as a whole that hold this view because of the strong ties to religion. Traditional ‘Sita’ the Hindu goddess is still viewed as a model or purity who is willing to fulfill her role as daughter and wife. Something that every woman should aspire to be, under the guise of ‘honour’ and ‘purity’.
Families constantly worry about losing face in society because of the actions of their daughter whereas sons are permitted the freedom to do what they want.
Mix into this a complicated caste system and an aspiring new middle class it makes for a complex set of rules and believes that are full of contradictions, making it almost impossible for women to make any of their own choices.
“the modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age old traditions, part sex goddess, part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measures. A profound fear and deep, almost pathological, hatred of the woman who aspires to be anything more than a mother and wife is justified on the grounds of tradition. The battle is fiercer than ever before and it can no longer be fought in seminar rooms and government meetings. [for feminists] the battle will have to be fought on every issue from dress code to mobile phones to love marriage to divorce to the right education”.
Sagarika Ghose, Deputy Editor CNN-IBN quoted in Hindustan Times
If you watch any Bollywood, Hindi, Indian based movie the storyline and plot tends to follow the same tedious lines. ‘The hero’ is portrayed as some hapless male who will do anything to win the affections of the girl. Predictably at the start of the movie the girl is dismissive almost annoyed by the attention, constantly refusing to acknowledge or accept the ‘heroes’ attention. As the movie develops the hero performs more and more ridiculous acts to get the girl to say yes. Some of the films are funny and harmless but many portray an accepted role for the ‘hero’ to almost stalk the girl until she eventually gives in and says yes.
“Whats truly terrible is the manner in which film heroes for decades pestered, stalked and forced their unwanted attentions on heroines in a thousand films, yet ended up getting the girl. That sent a message to men that pestering girls is what heroes do, and a girls ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’.
SA Aiyar, The Times of India columnist taken from India Dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
This was also cited by friends I asked about Indian culture and the things that really need to change.
“The portrayal [of] women in Indian movies is the leading cause for crime against women. Unfortunately it has become a major entertainment concept in India”
Indian woman, Tamil Nadu
The Delhi gang rape made headline news across the world and continues to be widely talked about. But has the media helped to bring the issue of women’s rights and women’s safety to the forefront or does it exacerbate the problem?
For me the newspapers are no better, used as a way to quote politicians ridiculous views on the situation and scaremonger rather than provide a platform for real discussion and change.
For months after the Delhi gang rape newspapers across the world were full of stories of other incidences of women being attacked, both Indian and non-Indian. Perhaps to raise the profile and get people talking.
But I question whether it was the media that really forced the government to tighten up its laws and implement fast track systems. More likely it was the hundreds of thousands of people that took to the streets to protest.
This was without doubt one of the most horrific attacks in modern history but a few months later and the media move on to other stories, the issue forgotten, not discussed in a public arena and ignored.
In May 2014 the vicious attack and rape of 2 girls became headline news again and not just this case but plenty of other cases too.
Click on the photo.
A few weeks later, 21 June ‘The Hindu’ newspaper does not have one single article about this issue.
I suspect this is the same for all other national papers in India too.
12th July, one article relating to a case in 1993 involving a women who was gang raped by 6 police officers but never found justice.
This was a small article on page 4 of the paper.
The Delhi gang rape sparked fury amongst its citizens, thousands took to the streets to protest, whilst others, just as angered, took to expressing their views in public forums.
I came across this really powerful blog when searching for images of the Delhi protests. It is definitely worth a read. I contacted Akshar to ask for his permission to reference his blog, his response
“I will definitely feel very honoured and proud if u give a reference to my blog [….] I am not a trained professional I just wrote my heart out whatever was going inside me […] you definitely have my permission”.
The blog received 500 views in 5 days of being posted!
Click on the quote below to read it.
“I have tears in my eyes writing this article. I haven’t slept last night thinking about her. I don’t know why but I am attached to her emotionally as if she was my family member. Damini is no more! May her soul rest in peace”
‘She may have slept but she has awaken the whole country’, Akshar Goswami, Jaipur, Rajasthan
1991 and the census indicates that the gender balance in India is 927 women to 1000 men, a notably drop from 1947 the start of India’s independence where the balance was 946/1000.
For children under 7 the imbalance is more notably still and in some states such as Bihar and Rajasthan the sex ratio is amongst the lowest in the world 600:1000.
But why is this such an issue?
This isn’t a blip in statistics or some strange phenomenon its a result of gender selection.
The government banned sex-selection in public hospital in 1978 but this just led to the set up of private clinics.
Slogans such as “pay 5000 rupee today and save 50,000 rupee (dowry) tomorrow” openly displayed.
In rural parts of the country the practice of ‘Kuri Mar’ is still prevalent. ‘Kuri Mar’ literally translates as girl killers. Shockingly in Punjab one of the most common ways to dispose of an unwanted baby girl is to place her in a pot, dig a hole and bury her.
There are also many examples where families choose to let their daughters die through lack of medical intervention.
“In one village, I went into a house to examine a girl and I found that she had an advanced case of tuberculosis. I asked the mother why she hadn’t done anything sooner about the girls condition, because now, at this stage, treatment would be very expensive. The mother replied, then let her die, I have another daughter. At the time the two daughters sat nearby listening, one with tears streaming down her face”
Government doctor, India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
Even amongst wealthier Indians, families are openly choosing not to have girls, as this example shows.
“My husband and I fought over my desire to have an abortion. I told him this society does not value girls and I do not want to give birth to another one. When I gave birth to my first daughter everyone pitied me. They all told me I could not have a son. The taunts from my family and from my in-laws that I would have faced for not having a son forced to me to abort. Knowing the amount of harassment my baby would have gone through after birth, I think it is better to die”.
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
The government now has schemes in place to encourage parents to have baby girls but the fact still remains that to have a girl in India is expensive and does not offer the same security to parents as having a son.
Perhaps the biggest culprit is the expectation that comes with marriage and dowry.
Arranged marriage is still the norm in India. The family choose the husband/wife for their daughter/son based on caste, religion, social standing, perceived wealth and a belief that this person is the right match. In fact adverts are openly placed in newspapers in the pursuit for the perfect match and there is no holding back on what this perfect match will be. Open statements about required caste and skin colour!
At this stage the family then discuss dowry, a payment made by the girls family to the boys family. Despite this practice being banned in 1961 by the Indian government it still continues and is openly accepted as a normal part of the marriage process. The amount of dowry varies greatly from family to family, from multiple times the family annual income to a substantial amount of the overall families wealth.
Once agreed the marriage takes place but the threat to the girl/wife does not end there. Even when married in what is perceived to be the right and safe thing for any ‘decent’ girl she is still vulnerable to attacks and abuse from the boys family relating to dowry.
Following marriage the boys family often place demands for more money from the girls family. If this does not materialise it leads to abuse and in some cases murder of the girl, thereby ‘freeing the man’ so that he can marry someone else.
“some estimate that as many as 100,000 women are burned to death each year in dowry-related disputes and another 125,000 die from violent injuries that are rarely reported as killings. Victims frequently face ‘stove burnings”, where in-laws pour cooking fuel over women and set them alight, so it appears as an accident”.
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
I’ll never forget the stories told by the medical volunteers of the number of women admitted to hospital because of attempted suicide. All in an attempt to escape their marriage.
The simplistic western view would be, if you’re not happy with your husband/wife, make it work or leave but that just isn’t an option here for women.
Lets recap here, its the woman that make all the sacrifices when they get married. They move from their family home (sometimes hundreds of miles away) to live with their husbands family. Most are not permitted to work but confined to a life of being a homemaker, wholly reliant on the husband for income and his family for support. To leave your husband because you are ‘unhappy’ would make you a social outcast.
Who would you turn to for support?
Your parents? How?
They are probably hundreds of miles away and having ‘invested’ such a large part of their family wealth in your marriage (by dowry payments) do you think they would let you just walk away and take on the additional financial responsibility of supporting you? Not to mention the social stigma in having a daughter that failed to make the marriage work, because of course, its your fault not your husbands!
Your parents in-law?
The husbands parents are sure to favour their son over their daughter in law and will want to ensure that marriage at least produces a male heir in which to continue the family line.
Maybe, but if you consider that you may now be living in a rural part of India with no nearby neighbours and no opportunity to mix with other people, this is quite unlikely.
Rely on yourself?
Being a woman in India means you are less likely to have a good education in which to secure a well paid professional job. Your option is back breaking labour earning a 100 rupee a day or less and needing every rupee of this to house, feed and cloth yourself! You also face significant social stigma, unlikely to be welcomed and supported by the local community because you will be outcast as not fulfilling your duty (remember the aspiration to be like Sita). In addition your husbands family will surely spread vicious rumours about your moral integrity in bid to ensure their sons integrity and their family honour is upheld.
Perhaps for many women in this situation they focus their time, energy and effort on their children as a means of distraction and giving focus to their lives. This of course is not uncommon in any part of the world.
But in a situation where your children are and will continue to be your only source of comfort, support, company and meaning to your life which child will you favour more?
The boy or the girl?
The boy who will stay with you throughout his life, who will welcome his wife to the family home, who will produce grandchildren that you will see everyday.
Or the girl who will at some point leave you as she marries and moves to her husbands family to undertake the same ‘role’ and ‘duty’ that you have been forced to do. Leaving you alone to cope with your isolation.
I will let you draw your own conclusions.
So to avoid this do you become bold enough to chose your life partner, to have a love marriage?
Few would. The family traditions and values are so strong here that people (regardless of gender) do not do anything without the permission of their family. Those that do risk some pretty horrendous consequences.
To have any sort of relationship with someone outside of marriage is a complete no go.
In India it is not ok to have relations with someone you love but its ok to get married to a complete stranger? Let’s face it that’s what a lot of arranged marriages are.
In February this year I was invited to a wedding, the bride and groom had met each other twice before the big day!
They will now spend the rest of their lives together in the belief (by their parents) that they are the right match for each other.
It isn’t that love is frowned upon but a belief that ‘to be in love’ when you get married is not necessary, instead the love will develop as their lives together develop.
Perhaps this does happen but I imagine more often than not its feelings of respect rather than love that develop.
Think how many new people you’ve met (strangers), on the face of it they’re the same as you, same culture, same values, similar wealth. There’s probably been many times when your parents have said about someone, “Ohh they’re lovely aren’t they” in some vain attempt to indicate they’re the right person for you. But you know they’re not.
Imagine your views being ignored and being told, this is the person you will spend the rest of your life with! To be forced into a marriage with someone you hardly know?
I still don’t understand the benefits of arranged marriage, surely its better for people to be together because of love not convenience?
For people to have a choice about who they are with?
In India this is not even a consideration as marriage is one of many ways Indian society can control its women under the guise of protection.
There are still politicians that want to lower the legal age of marriage so that girls are married younger and therefore protected from rape and other sexual assault!
I admit that ‘love relationships’ do not always work out but at least people have had a choice about who they spend their lives with.
This quote from the famous poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1849 is often told to people who are grieving the loss of ‘love’.
The poem is actually about losing his best friend through illness, with this being the final line in what is believed to be a poem that was written over many years as his friend battled illness.
However, it is more often used in a romantic context.
“Tis better to have loved and lost: than to have never loved at all”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.
In India you don’t have the chance to love, not openly anyway. You don’t even marry an acquaintance, more often than not a stranger.
It is estimated that over 1000 women are murdered every year through honour killings. Killed because they choose to have a relationship with someone they love rather than agree to have an arranged marriage. What is more disturbing still, is more often than not the killing is undertaken by a family member.
“In December 2012, a young man by the name of Methab Alam calmly walked into a police station in the city of Kolkata, in east India, with the severed head of his sister in his left hand and a sword in his right, dripping with blood. He told a shocked policeman that he was ready to be arrested for the murder of his 22 year old sister, who had been married off at the age of 14 “for running off with a lover and dis-respecting the family”
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
Honour killings are not unique to India. Such incidents are regularly reported in the UK and other parts of the world.
In 2010 nearly 3000 honour attacks were reported to police and incidents of forced marriage 10,000.
It was only as recently as June 2014 that the UK government made forced marriage in the UK illegal. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-27863845
So what will it take to change all of this?
“India currently has 37 million more males than females and it is estimated that the total `missing` is around 50 million over the last three generations, thanks to abortions, infanticide, dowry deaths and other murders. By 2020 India will have an extra 28 million males of marriageable age. For context that is more than the entire male population of England. Given that India and China together represent approximately 36% of the entire world population, the sex ratio imbalance is unprecedented in human history and likely to have global implications”
“The problem isn’t just the police, politicians, justice systems, corruption or economic de-regulations: it is India’s unique brand of religiosity and ingrained ideas about the `honour` of women that makes it so hard to change attitudes”
India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women, Sunny Hundal
When I asked friends both India and non-India ‘What is your perception of woman’s a place in society in India?’ All without exception responded in the same way.
These are just an example of the response I received.
“female freedom is crushed in India, particularly because of religion”
Indian man, Tamil Nadu
“women are somewhat out of their shells but not completely. A portion of those who are out, are mislead or get lost in the name of modernisation. While the rest are still holding on to the name of tradition that is baseless. As a human their role is significant in society in all aspects, as a mother, teacher, nurse doc, etc.. Many things need to change still. Only 10% has changed”
Indian woman, Tamil Nadu
“Equality for women and respect for women in their own right …safety of women has to on the agenda now too”
Non-Indian woman, Ireland
I am not happy with how women are treated in India. They work the hardest, taking care of the family and keeping the household together and they get no credit or say so in their future.
Non-Indian woman, USA
There’s a real desire for change and I see pockets of it everyday but, all within certain parameters.
I read India dishonoured: Behind a nations war on women by Sunny Hundal (click on title to go to book) some months back but it sticks with me everyday, perhaps giving me the greatest understanding of the complexities here.
I don’t fully understand it and I don’t ever expect to but I’m respecting it more and more and respecting the women who are slowly making things change.
So whilst I’ve been touched by people’s reactions to the decision I’ve made I still conclude that what I’ve decided to do isn’t brave at all.
And the question isn’t why?
It’s why not?
No one in my family, my friends or even the society I grew up in are going to oust me for the decisions I make and the person I am. They might find it beyond comprehension to jump out of the western rat race and live in a country so vastly different on every level but all I’ve done is exercise my freedom to do that.
Yes I have to make sacrifices, adapt my lifestyle and perhaps accept that I can’t truly ‘be myself’ here but at any given moment I could go online, book a flight and within 24 hrs be back to a country where I don’t need to make any sacrifices at all.
Women here don’t have that choice.
Women here aren’t protected and honored.
They’re told what to wear, what to do, where they can go, what time to be home, who to talk to, who to marry, every inch of their lives is dictated by a set of complex cultural, religious and societal rules that stifles their freedom.
The women who are choosing to actively challenge these conventions through love marriages, pursuing a career, choice in clothing, they’re the ones that are brave.
India now needs to be brave enough to support more women to exercise their freedom and choice,
to live their own lives,
in a society that truly protects and honours them.