18.6.08

"Every day is Fathers' Day in India."

I answered my own question after having asked my host father if the holiday was celebrated here. Stupid question. Not only is every day Fathers' Day in India, but every day is "Man Day" as well.

I've never considered myself a feminist- partly because I think women ARE equal to men where I come from and partly because I associate it with hairy armpits and crunchy granola and women like Nancy Pelosi. But Jodhpur is making me a feminist.

Monday night I was invited over for dinner at Cynthia's host family's house. She lives with a Rajput family (Rajputs were the ruling caste of this area back in the day and have a pretty high social standing...they are part of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste) that includes a mom, dad, two sons and their wives and children...and one daughter who is married but lives at home because her hubby is MIA.

At some point during our huge meal the topic of conversation became women and how they are treated here. Jaia, the 26-year-old host sister (and only woman in the house who speaks English), related some information to us about what happens when a woman is pregnant, the discrimination against having girl children, and what a woman can and can't do during "that time of the month."

Here's what I learned:

When a woman is 7 months pregnant she goes back to her parents home (which is usually in a different city/ village) to prepare for the birth. After the baby is born she stays there for another couple months. "The scientific reason for this is to keep the wife away from her husband so he doesn't try to have sex with her." Direct quote. Also, baby showers are held after the baby is born. One is held pretty soon after the birth and the other is held a month or more after that. I'm not quite sure why, but the mother can't wash her hair until the second baby shower. I'm pretty sure the husband isn't involved in any of this. I also get the impression that the men stay totally out of the whole pregnancy process (except conception) and have no idea what the woman goes through. I suppose that the mother stays at her parents for a few months after the baby is born for the same "scientific reason" that she goes there in the first place.

There are also some interesting things that take place during the actual pregnancy. As you may know, female infanticide is common in India (and especially in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana.) Honestly, when you hear about the crazy debt some people acquire in marrying their daughters, the insane dowry requests made of families, the lack of education for girls, the prevalence of child marriages, and the fact that around 50% of women here are victims of domestic abuse, it becomes more understandable why a mother wouldn't want to put her child through what she's been through.

Having an ultrasound to find the sex of a baby is illegal here, but according to Jaia, many women do it. If it's a woman's first child, she may keep the girl. But if it's her second or third, the baby girl is often aborted. It's something that isn't usually talked about openly, but is widespread. Certain superstitions also surround a woman's pregnancy. Jaia told us that when she was pregnant with her first child she did everything she could to ensure that she would have a boy. She had good reason considering that her mother-in-law told her, "don't even come back to my home if you have a girl. Just stay away." So she held a coconut over her belly. (I'm not sure, but it's believed that this will make the baby a boy.) And when she was taken to her parents' house at 7 months, only men came to fetch her, because it is believed that being around only men will ensure that the baby is a boy. I'd heard before that baby boys born here are welcomed into the world with rejoicing, while girls are welcomed with silence.

Speaking of superstitions and lack of education, Jaia also told us that until she was 17 she thought that one could get pregnant by kissing. Evidently many women are totally left in the dark about anything sex-ed. I've heard quite a few stories about arranged marriages (yes, most marriages are still arranged) where the husband and wife met for the first time on their wedding day...and the wife had absolutely no idea what to expect, and was essentially raped on her wedding night.

And for women who aren't pregnant, there is a whole different set of rules, which I find even more odd. For 3 days during "that" time every month, a woman cannot enter the kitchen, cannot touch the water basin, and cannot enter the temple or approach the family's temple. She is unclean. Additionally, she sleeps on the floor so as not to contaminate the bed her husband sleeps in with herself. And, for some reason or another, she doesn't wash her hair during these three days, only her body. I just read a book called The Red Tent that tells the story of Dinah from the Bible and gives a vivid picture of what a woman's life was like during Biblical times. Interestingly, the same rules applied back then. Since the women can't enter the kitchen and are pretty much isolated, they either prepare the food the day before or the men get to cook.


It's hard for me to comprehend all of this...and I don't think that I should accept something as a "cultural difference" when I think it is an absolute wrong. I can accept having no TP, cows being worshipped, women dressing modestly, and the idea of the world being your personal toilet...but women being treated as objects and 2nd class citizens is unacceptable to me. I want to be immersed in this culture and abide by cultural standards, but there is a fine line. I find myself a little less open-minded and a lot more opinionated this time around in India. It probably has something to do with the fact that I'm in a very conservative area...and something to do with the fact that I'm a little older and more comfortable with my own opinions on things, even though my opinions generally aren't politically correct or popular.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. Women are slowly becoming more and more empowered, as a story in the Fathers' Day edition of The Times of India illustrated. I can't find the link...but here it is in my words, short form:

Laxshmi Kumar, a long-time resident of a poor Rajasthani village, was sick of her alcoholic husband coming home drunk and angry. She was sick of cooking dinner for his lazy ass only to be beaten up and thrown out of her hut. So this Saturday night when he arrived with liquor on his breath she said, "ENOUGH!"
But Sunil, her husband, wanted some chopati, subji, and daal. He was drunk and hungry. When she refused to cook his dinner he grabbed her and proceeded to beat her. But not for long. Laxshmi had said "enough," and she meant it. Within seconds she had found her kitchen knife and cut him, LORENA BOBBIT STYLE.
The next day, when questioned by the local authorities, Sunil quietly replied, "I deserved it."

I thought this story was so great I retold it to my eldest supervisor, Shashiji. Despite the uncouthness of the story (and the fact that she is a good Gandhian) she agreed that Laxshmi had done the right thing. More women should follow Laxshmi's lead. It would not only cut down on women being raped, but it would also help stop the spread of AIDS since many of these poor village men are the same men who migrate for work and bring home AIDS. (1 in 5 people in Jaisalmer, the neighboring district of Jodhpur, has AIDS. This is where most of the migratory labor is done.)

These are just some of my many thoughts on gender relations in India and why I would be the worst Indian wife ever. Mom don't worry, it's not going to happen.


xoxo

2 comments:

Pam said...

Well said my little Alabama republican feminist....

Pam said...

Also, I read a study on domestic violence against women in India. The study showed a dramatic reduction in violence against a wife who owns property. So Gravis is on the right path with their programs to educate women and with their micro-credit programs for women. If families who love their daughters would give them the money intended for their dowry and let them use it for education and getting their careers started...it would probably change men's attitudes and actions toward women. I think that it would work a lot better than campaigns to stop violence. In this case,economic might makes right.