Diary of a Kenyan girl in India

Disempowered.

I have resisted blogging about the Delhi rape case mainly because so much has been written about it. Analysis has been done, polls conducted, demonstrations have happened, and I believe practically anyone with access to news anywhere in the world has in one way or another learnt about the horror that descended upon a young woman travelling in a Delhi bus.

I grieve for the young woman and her family and with all the women/ men and children who have been subjected to the brutality, shame and persecution that is rape. At this point in time no one should be vulnerable as to be raped-and of all places in public (what does that say of the society?).

I strongly believe that rape is a consequence of larger societal problems. Studies have shown that rape cases are highest in areas where gender inequality is prevalent. I however want to state that am not pointing an accusing finger at the Indian society (or my Kenyan one for that matter), where women are largely considered second class citizens. I merely want to provide a glimpse into what I have seen in these societies.

It always surprises me how powerless Indian women seem. I am not talking about the strong matriarchs of programs like “saas bhi khabi bahu thi” I am talking about the women I have interacted with through my work and through my network of friends. It always seems like they are angry and scared of someone, or something- usually their parents/neighbours/ husbands/ parents-in-laws or even the demanding kids! I have listened to so many heartbreaking stories shared by women who have trusted me because a) I am a foreigner and will not in any way rat them out to their families and b) because I am in a ‘love’ marriage, therefore I seem open, rebellious and strong, something they cannot be.

The stories shared are not of the rape kind, more like the secret desires to marry someone they love, or to work in a certain field than what they are allowed, to go out and party, to dress the way they feel and the burden of dowry which they will have to save up for before they are married. Some stunningly beautiful women think they are ugly because their skin is not white, some eat as little as possible because a man will not choose a `fat’ wife, some have had relationships while in college and are in panic of the day they will get married and be sent back home for not being virgins, and believe me, I could go on and on and you’d understand why I think a lot’s gotta change!

The women in the Southern state I have lived in dress as modestly as possible. You can never see their ankles, arms or cleavage (God forbid!). They wear jasmine flowers on their beautiful hair and to me nothing seems more pure than the smile of a South Indian woman. I sit next to them in the buses and trains where the genders are segregated. They laugh about men and talk about marriage and relationships as if they were at war- who has to do what, who cannot do what, who makes orders, and who makes who cry. Their powerlessness when it comes to their mothers-in-law and husbands are stories to fill an entire book. It’s sad.

I have been in trains with girls who are sobbing and crying the entire journey stretch far too many times. I guess it’s normal to cry but then again, in a train, publicly and in such heart wrenching manner ? What about those I do not see in their homes? I think some people are hurting. And hurting really bad. I can only imagine what it is, but usually it’s the same story- disempowerment.

The girls am talking about are middle class and even upper. They are engineers, doctors, managers etc; and they are not happy. It must be worse in the slums. A CNN story even states that the most stressed women in the world are Indian! When and how did things get this way?

I was very inspired when I came to India and found that Hinduism worships female deities(goddesses). I read the stories of kali, durga, lakshmi, saraswati, parvathi and so many more with such joy in finding a religion that worships female gods! From reading the mythical and even fictional stories (Immortals  of Meluha and Secret of the Nagas are a favourite at the moment), I have learnt that Indian women were even warriors who slayed their enemies with their swords. Also unlike in Kenya, women reach the highest political offices without even having been married and without anyone even batting an eyelid. The Gandhi political dynasty has the powerful Indira Gandhi and now Sonia Gandhi. To me, all these female symbols of power signify a society quite unlike mine where history shapers are often men, and women gods cannot even be imagined. (I have the advent of Christianity in Africa to blame for this.)

Which therefore begs the question, how did Indian women get so disempowered?

Make no mistake, am not critiquing the Indian society. I am not naive enough to think there is anything such as a perfect society. I come from a community in Kenya where women are somewhat considered `too strong’ and the consequences are there for all to see. I cannot count the number of households led by women, children who grow up without fathers as a norm and young men who have matured without any significant male role model- the results are being felt in young homes today.

You cannot have half a population that is intimidated and considered weak while wanting to thrive as a nation. India cannot progress without rethinking its gender issues which ultimately are human rights issues. At the birth of a child in India, if it’s a girl the parents are quickly reassured that they can always try next time for a boy. How is this possible today?

With the government banning use of sonograms to determine the sex of a child, am informed that the rich people are able to still do it (in India, like Kenya, anything can be `bought’). The abortions of female foetuses have resulted in skewed gender proportions, the results of which are being seen in society around us today.Who knows the effect of having a surplus of millions of males? Am no expert, but it’s definitely a crisis.

And what do the women who abort the female foetuses think of themselves? I doubt they think being a woman is great. I bet they feel burdened by their gender and we can only imagine how they raise their little girls.

Empowerment should start at home. The women who are currently incensed by the plight of their own can start by treating their daughters the same way they treat their sons (I have witnessed firsthand how Indian boys are treated like mini-gods). They need to stop burdening their daughters with the guilt and shame they have carried for being women from their own mothers. Society needs to rethink the dowry system that treats women like a liability. Parents need to impress upon their sons that women are not sex objects (Indian commercials are shockingly erotic and sensual). Most importantly, they need to know that that little girl or boy is watching mummy and daddy and creating their own sense of what is right, wrong or `normal’.

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Comments on: "Disempowered." (4)

  1. Great read Angie……

  2. Very well said. It all starts in the home where parents create the “normal” for their children. We have the choice each day to empower those we come into contact with; family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. We can change the world one person at a time.

  3. Angela, sad but true reading….it’s such a complicated issue that the positive changes will most probably be visible only in 20-30 years (pretty much when the current old generation dies off) … I strongly believe that proper education (along with sexual education and at least basic “values” lessons) and leaving some room for kids to express themselves (too much oppression in this society) is a good start. I’ve been working in an Indian environment for quite some time now and i can tell that my colleagues hardly raise their opinions and speak up during meetings, so much they were led to just do what is asked of them, do not question the authority and opt for being a part of the group rather than acknowledge their beautiful individuality and differences. Then there are these heartbreaking stories (mostly coming from girls, but there are few related to the young men as well) about not being able to marry who they are in love with, about the extravagant dowry and so on. One of my colleagues is simply getting married cause she is considered already old (26 years) and her parents are worried about her safety (meaning mostly financial) in the future. In this case she at least knows the boy and they have been friends, but there is no love, just the necessity of a marriage. As you mentioned, a family has to play an essential role, especially women themselves raising kids!!! sometimes I have a feeling that women here are their own worst enemies, especially when it comes to treating men in their families like gods…:(

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