The fight continues
I have a confession to make. Honestly, it’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed to have felt this way: A little over two years ago, before I went to college, I would never have called myself a feminist.
I imagined feminists to be crazy women protesting abstract wrongs in society that just didn’t exist. Oh, how I was so wrong. Crazy women? Maybe, yes — I’m certainly crazy to an extent and I now proudly consider myself a feminist, but abstract wrongs in society that don’t exist? Absolutely not; equality is certainly far from being achieved; the fact that this week’s presidential debate, as the LA Times reports, “Was the first time gender inequality in the workplace has been broached in a major way as a key election issue,” speaks truth to this.
Walking along the streets of Jaipur can be incredibly intimidating at times, not just because I’m conscious that I’m a foreigner, but because the male to female ratio of people walking about is about 5:1 — if not more. Gaggles of young men stroll about, holding hands and shoulders, heading slowly to whatever destination they’re going to, but I hardly ever see large groups of women. Shopkeepers, tailors, rickshaw drivers, security guards, and vegetable sellers are all likely to be men.
Most women (myself included) in Jaipur are advised to be home by dark or 9:00 PM at the latest to “protect ourselves” to which I have to ask, “Who are we protecting ourselves from?” The obvious answer: men who are likely to rob or sexually assault us. Yes, I do have to be careful — I stick out more than the average Indian, but why is it accepted that it is a women’s responsibility to protect herself? Aren’t we taught that theft and sexual assault are wrong? So why are women being punished?
For weeks now, I’ve felt comfortable walking long distances in Jaipur. Honking horns and buses driving by within inches of me don’t scare me anymore. But when I walk past a man I immediately drop my eyes and look at my feet to avoid eye contact with him. Inside, a little voice warns me that if I make eye contact I’m eliciting some form of flirtation. Though I always make a conscious effort to make eye contact with others back at home, I feel powerless to do the same here because of what I feel to be different gender dynamics here.
Though, at times, I see glimmers of hope for a more gender-equal society in India. A little over a week ago, my program took us on an excursion to Bikaner in western Rajasthan to interact with girls at a local all-girls college (in addition to meeting and discussing with Hindu Pakistani refugees). The girls at the college were so incredibly different from any other women I have encountered in India so far. They were talkative, flirty, curious, and most importantly, confident. But these girls are the exception; they’re upper-middle class and are able to afford a good education. They’re confident because they’ve grown up in an environment that has fostered their curiosity and told them that they have value in society. The power of education in enabling confidence is almost startling.
While we still struggle with gender inequality (gender wage gap, maternity leave, etc) in America, we have come a long way. I am fortunate at home to walk with my head held high, making eye contact with anyone coming my way, to interrupt a man when I feel he is making a mistake, to know that if I’m sexually assaulted the man will be reprimanded, but the fight still continues — at home, and abroad.
To end on a happy note, one of my favorite moments on my trip to Bikaner:
It sneezed in my arms! SO cute! Tomorrow, I head back to the Himalayas to visit a village called Dharmashala. I will be interacting with local village women and a women’s empowerment NGO to learn about their work raising awareness about violence, health, and education.
For more posts and pictures of my semester abroad in India with the SIT program, check out my personal blog here.
Filed under: Shelly Le's Study Abroad Blog