F=E in India

I’ll be honest. It was hard concentrating last night on the Akanksha homework assignment. While the rest of my classmates diligently poured through dated studies on the state of Indian education, I stayed up late into the night, my computer screen lighting up my face in the dark, reading article after article on Wendy Davis’ filibuster and the Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and the Voting Rights Act.

Not only has this been a week for gender, this has been a week for women. Perhaps it’s just because Feminist Circle and Feminism at Andover comprise much of my newsfeed, but I was so inspired by the number of strong, dedicated, passionate female leaders who showed up in the headlines as I read.

Wendy Davis in sneakers and a back brace, speaking for 13 hours to protect the marginalized women who would no longer be able to afford safe abortions. Protestors, almost all female, shouting from the balcony of the statehouse when conservatives tried to pass an illicit vote. Leticia Van De Putte, , Senator, who returned from her father’s funeral to hear Davis speak and defend her, saying “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” The women and men who fought for years for the right to be recognized as married, as human, under the law. And finally the journalists who wrote and wrote and wrote about these women [and men], [even calling out Justice Alito for rolling his eyes when Justice Ginsburg spoke.] They have moved me with their words.

And yet, with all of this exciting news in the States, I am 8,000 miles removed from it all in India. Here I am in a foreign country studying problems and issues that I have no power to change while change happens right across the Atlantic.

I am frustrated because there isn’t much I can do beyond writing this blog post.

Restrictive gender and cultural norms abound here, perhaps more apparent to me because I am foreign. The first night we stayed at ESI, Suresh-bai quietly asked us girls not to wear shorts outside of our rooms. How ironic, how hypocritical, I thought, that an organization that tries to empower women simultaneously wants to control what they wear. Of course that wasn’t Suresh’s fault or intention, but I still felt irritated by a feeling of injustice that was only exacerbated by the 100-degree heat.

In Dharavi, our tourguide casually informed me that traditional Indian women were not allowed to look any man except her husband in the eye. He said it harmlessly, perhaps not meaning anything. But it has certainly changed the way I now interact with strangers; instead of smiling at people on the street, I hesitate and wonder if I should look down.

And then there was the airport, where we were told not to sit a certain way for fear of seeming “lewd.”

Such cultural norms have shocked me, but more importantly have affected Indian women. At the Anganwadi, while the young school-teachers opened up to our all-female group almost immediately, the teachers placed with a male translator were more reluctant and passive, saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

At the municipal school, famously reformed by Akanksha, the inferior, Hindi-medium classes were predominantly female while the higher quality English-medium classes were predominantly male.

Even at the Riverside School, the male presenters didn’t hesitate to interrupt their fellow female classmate although the opposite never happened.

And I have heard the excuses:

“We are guests here.” “It’s tradition.” “We need to respect their culture.” “Girls might be quieter but they definitely do better in school.”

But the evidence is there. If not in my own experiences, then in the numbers. The female illiteracy rate in India is nearly 20% higher than the male one (India, Census 2011). Female infanticide and suicide rates soar in comparison to the statistics among males.

I’m a visitor here. And yes, it’s been a great two weeks; I’ve been some of the kindest, most generous, most inspiring people I’ve ever known. When it comes down to it, I’m just passing through [though I plan to return in the future]. I may not have the right or the knowledge or the ability to change anything, but I know that something needs to change.

Gender inequality exists here.