I have been thinking a lot about the situation of women in a patriarchal society such as India. My experiences in Koraput have really made me value the sense of equality that women enjoy in Western societies. I was born into a family and a society that does not undermine women and promotes equal opportunities. In fact, I used to get annoyed at those convinced feminist activists who are constantly on the lookout to start a discussion in order to defend women’s rights and make a point of the injustices that women have to continually face. I just took it for granted. We are the same as men and don’t have to constantly be shouting it out. Doesn’t this show that we are different if we have to constantly fight for rights that we are obviously entitled to? This is what I used to think and it probably still applies to my Western perspective. I never had to change my behaviour or ambitions because of being a woman so I never understood why so many women had to constantly emphasise the differences and the need for a fight. We are different, men and women, but that does not mean we are not entitled to the same rights and liberties.
I think that three months in rural India have significantly changed my vision. For the first time in my life I was made aware of the limitations that come along with my gender (according to the society I was living in!). Not only did we have to cover ourselves up at 30 degrees when men ran around in shorts and tank tops, the patriarchal governance directly affected my life. I can understand the covering up as a sign of respect, especially if we consider the key role that religion plays in society. But no one would rent out a room or apartment to three single women because, why would girls live alone? They are to be living with their families or husbands. Anything else is inappropriate and wrong. Luckily, after three weeks, we managed to get a house through our boss’s father in law. Luckily, we thought… He imposed a curfew at 8pm. This was such an unusual limitation for me since I have been allowed to come home at whatever time I found appropriate since I turned 16. If we weren’t at home by 7.30pm he would be calling us to remind us that we had to rush home. We then were never allowed to walk alone anywhere and should always avoid the dark. What I found worse was the fact that I had to change my behaviour to the point that I found my personality constrained. I am naturally a friendly person and more than that I am curious. So, when people came up to us asking where we where from, what we were doing in India and just generally greeted us, I would always respond and hopefully engage in a conversation to find out about them. I was later told I should avoid any conversations with men from the age of 14 to 90. Look down when they address you and only talk to children and women. Especially as they consider Western girls to be “less conservative” because of the reputation we earned in India during the 60s and 70s. All the hippies that arrived then preaching free love and engaging in open sexual relationships left a legacy. Western films and programmes in which sex is openly exposed also aid in completing this vision of how loose foreign girls apparently are. Consequently, no looking at men or being friendly to anyone. Not even married men as we later found out that adultery, although regarded as an outrageous immorality, was quite present. No one talks about it but everyone knows it happens. At first I thought they were overreacting and I could still be nice to people irrespective of their sex. However, a week before leaving Koraput we found a message on the outside wall of our house: “Can I do sex to you? You sexy dolls!” Hilarious for us but also creepy when Ashley found a boy in her room whilst having a nap. One could say (and I am sure the traditional girls in our office would say it) that we encouraged it by being friendly or not behaving appropriately. The point is that we did not break the rules at any point but because people expected foreign girls to be more open, go out clubbing and engage in relationships before marriage, there was nothing we could do. The preconceptions were so strong that nothing we could do would change their minds.
I had heard a lot about the matriarchs within the tribal population so I thought that it would at least be different there. What I discovered was that women were perceived as the strong pillars of their communities and hence were those who took the burden of the villages’ responsibilities. Not only did they have to work in the construction of roads and houses, farm the land and collect firewood, they also had to complete all the household chores, cook, clean and look after the children. In fact, most times the men in the villages were drunk and sitting around. So I guess that is what they call a matriarchal society. So much for gender equality…
Finally just say that I am very grateful to Simone de Beauvoir and her feminist counterparts. Their fight made it possible for me to be born to a society in which I take it equal rights for granted. A world that made me believe that those that are continually asserting gender equality are out of line and exaggerating. For they are not. And we should learn from this to contribute a little to the consciousness of rural women in India because the Status Quo must not remain so.