Women's rites

February 13, 2007 at 4:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          "Why?" they ask me.
          Well, let's see... How can I formulate an answer they will understand?
          "Why don't you live with your parents?"
          "Why do some American women never marry or have children?"
          "Why is your husband not traveling with you?"
          I am asked these questions endlessley as I bump up against Indians in trains, taxis, restaurants and shops. I was prepared for their preoccupation with marriage and family (I call it a preoccupation -- they would merely call it an interest) but I never expected to be asked questions that are rarely voiced in America unless a burgeoning friendship is apparent. It has made me glad that I bought a cheap gold-plated wedding ring on the Internet before I left and have worn it on my left ring finger while I've been here. Being "married" gives me something to talk about and deflects some of the inevitable astonishment that people express when they see a woman in her early 30s traveling India alone. 
          My "husband," when I tell people about him, has alternatively been an architect, an archaeologist, and a novelist. Sometimes I'm about to meet him at the next station, sometimes I say he is working in Mumbai while I travel the country, and sometimes I say he wasn't interested in coming to India with me. Saying these things usually stops the questions (unless they start asking about my children). It also lets Indian men know that I'm not "easy." Apparently, in most places here, if you're traveling without the accompaniment of a man (father, brother, husband) you're loose and up for grabs. If you're traveling like that at night, you're sometimes considered a whore.
          Honestly, as a woman born after the feminist movement, it has only been here in India that I have begun to truly appreciate the freedoms that I as an American women have. But while I get to go back to those freedoms, women here must continue to live in a society that Ramachandra Guha, an Indian sociologist and environmental historian, calls "caste- and kin-bound." And so most Indian women, kin-bound, are pretty much expected to marry young, move in with their husband's family, immediately have children, and keep the home. I have no doubt that many, many Indian women have no problem with this kind of life, and appreciate, even crave moving through the rites and rituals expected of them. But what about the ones who want something else from life? Particularly the poor ones, who don't have as much opportunity as upper-caste women?
          And what about the women who lose their husbands early on?  Widows here, mostly the lower-caste ones, are expected to wear white, aren't allowed to remarry, and are so shunned by society that they seek refuge in communities of other widows, further secluding themselves. Watch the extraordinary Indian film "Water" (banned from Indian theaters but recently nominated for an Academy Award) and you will learn, as I did, that Gandhi's legacy goes far beyond kicking the British out of India. He also set in motion a new, more compassionate vision of life for Indian women. Yet the discrimination against widows remains.
          What, also, about the female fetuses that are aborted after parents learn they are to have a daughter?  In Hindu society, sons remain with their parents all their lives (while daughters move in with their husbands' familes); for this reason, parents crave sons so they will be taken care of later in life. There may be other reasons why they crave sons, but the fact remains that families often keep trying to have a son, further bloating the Indian population (now at 1.2 billion, I believe).  
          And what about the poor women who can only offer a meager dowry to the families of their new husbands? I asked an Aurangabad taxi driver what the biggest problem facing India was. He surprised me by saying, "the dowry problem."  Poor women are sometimes found mysteriously dead, the victim of a "kitchen fire" or some other domestic hazard. Later, the authorities figure out they have been murdered by their husband's families so that the husband can remarry and obtain another dowry. My friend Dee forwarded me an e-mail from an American friend of hers who recently visited India and shared this story:

          On the 15th of December Sangita caught fire. Doctors say she burned for over 30 minutes. When I went to see her in the hospital on the 6th of January, 22 days after she was burned, her face was black with 22-day-old, 3rd degree burns... She was shivering uncontrollably, and looked to be in horrible pain... How Sangita burned is not a mystery, although she refused to tell the story. In Uttar Predesh it is not uncommon for a married woman to be doused with kerosene and set alight by her husband's family so that he may divorce her and his family receive a new dowry from another bride. This is most likely what happened to Sangita. Her in-laws were home when she was burning, but she had to call her brother who lives across town to come and bring her to the hospital. No one responded to her screams. Sangita has a four month old baby in the care of her in-laws, which may be some of the reason she did not speak up... Sangita died on January 13th, after I was back in the states. Her story horrified me, but what is even more disturbing is that in Uttar Predesh alone, over 2,000 burnings for dowry get reported each year, and this is believed to be a significantly low number.

          Here in India, I've been answering a lot of people's questions, but when it comes to asking them, I don't tread on territory such as this. But if I were to ask ordinary Indians why such things as dowry murder, the banishment of widows and female infanticide happen, what would they say?  Maybe they wouldn't know how to answer. Or maybe they would think, How can I formulate an answer she will understand?