Greetings all, and welcome to my first-ever post on Young Mormon Feminists! I’m a recent convert to the YMF community, and I so appreciate the insightful and intriguing conversations happening here. I’m grateful for this avenue to contribute and hope I can do the discussion justice.
A brief intro to me, my brand of MoFem, and my current, unusual whereabouts: my name is Erin Moore. I’m 24 and grew up in Simi Valley, California. BYU was my home from 2007 to 2011, and I left with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in sociology. I loved my time at the Y and am forever indebted to those who opened my eyes (some of them unintentionally) to gender stratification, and I’m most appreciative to mentors who taught me to speak, write, and think critically about social issues. In many ways I still consider myself a budding feminist. Strong, even stubborn faith in God keeps me active in the church. Skepticism about our organization, culture, and leaders does not deter my participation; in many ways doubts increase my interest in the church. They keep things intellectually stimulating and motivate me to find others looking for support and answers. I love traveling, eating, writing, and drawing, and if I could find a job combining any two of those things I’d be the happiest kid at summer camp.
Two days before 2012 became the New Year, I flew Los Angeles to Paris to Riyadh to Chennai, India, where I currently volunteer at a school for children from leprosy colonies. After seven months my work here will soon end, and I head for whatever adventure the universe has in store. But first and most importantly, I need to catch up on The Walking Dead.
For this post, I want to share some of my observations of gender stratification in India. As a sociologist, I tend to see the world through a macro lens, analyzing broad systems (official and unofficial) that guide and govern human experience. Race, class, and gender are sociologists’ main focuses, constructs which exist everywhere there are people. In many modern contexts, their effects are implicit or subliminal. But in India, with its 1 billion inhabitants and history of harshly rigid social systems, the relevance of race/class/gender is as plain as the cows by the side of the road.
For all that social structuring, and despite rapid economic development, India remains highly dysfunctional in terms of meeting the most basic human needs. Let’s briefly look at some data from the World Health Organization’s recent report, “World Health Statistics 2013.”
– In 2011, 8% of India’s population did not use improved water sources. That’s roughly 99 million people.
– In the same year, 65% of the population or 806 million people did not use “improved sanitation.” This is a tidy term for the separation of human excrement from human contact, a.k.a. flush toilets and septic systems.
– Between 2005 and 2012, only 58% of births in India were attended by skilled health personnel. (For reference, the global average is about 70%, with most developed countries boasting numbers well above 90%.)
Are these problems connected to/resultant from/aggravated by the marginalization of women? I insist that they are. While fully acknowledging my biased Western eyes, narrow vantage points, and likely misinterpretations, let me share some of the ways I observe India keeping its ladies down. Some of these points may appear small or inconsequential, but I feel that each of these observations demonstrate a fundamental gender inequality.
(*Important note: I am quite tall and extremely pale; these traits, aside from my being a woman, have unquestionably affected my experiences and treatment in India. For example, I’ve been stared at, pointed at, and yelled at in public by both women and men. In some but not all situations, this treatment was surely connected to my unusual skin color more than my provocative woman-ness.)
1. Men travel. Take a drive down a highway here and you might see one female driver for every twenty vehicles. Many travelers use scooters, and if there happens to be a female passenger she will ride sidesaddle, because it’s inappropriate for her to have her arms around the male driver or touch him in any way. I have theories but no evidence for what’s causing the decreased numbers of women out and about–perhaps it is perceptions about women’s role in the home, concerns for safety, or finite resources for travel more readily given to men. But whatever the cause, limited access to mobility, (not to mention the safety hazard of riding a scooter without holding on,) is marginalizing.
2. Men cut in line. Lines in general are tough to find, but if there is one, let’s say at an ATM, I have to be very assertive with my personal space to keep men from cutting in front of me. Interestingly, if I’m ever bold enough to say something (and I’m usually not) the line-jumper will step aside, extremely apologetic, as if he did not see me.
3. Standards of appearance. Indian women have immaculate hair, jewelry, and clothing. Even baby girls are adorned with sparkling bangles and black eyeliner. In some ways both sexes have high appearance standards, at least by comparison to slovenly Westerners. I often see men sporting collared shirts, shiny watches, and of course perfectly trimmed mustaches. Still, the social consequences for violating dress norms appear harsher for women than men. Daily I observe women and girls criticizing and correcting one another–if your braid is too loose, or your earrings don’t match your sari, or heaven forbid you forgot the earrings completely, you’re going to take heat for it. Though the modesty standards are much more strict, perhaps this constant criticizing is essentially similar to the fixation on women’s appearance we see in other cultures. I suspect the resultant objectification and dis-empowerment follow as well.
4. Men bare all. If I wear leggings revealing anything above the ankle, I am scolded. Men however are free to urinate and bathe by the side of the road. The courtesy of turning their backs to said road, however, is by no means a requirement.
5. Violence against women. Though I have seen women in public with burns (read this article for further explanation http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/health/03fire.html?_r=0) the rest of my experiences related to this subject are hearsay. Perhaps you read about the fatal gang rape in Delhi, perpetrated on a city bus last year. (Here’s a current BBC article summarizing the event and subsequent trials: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-23265994). To make a long, horrific story short, India has a disturbing variety of crimes against women are occurring with increased frequency; reported rapes for example rose 9.2% from 2010 to 2011 (Biswas 2012).
6. Discussing sons. When I ask people about their children, they say something like, Oh yes, my oldest son is studying up in Mumbai and my younger son is a teacher. End of response. Upon further discussion I often learn there are daughters in the family as well, but their whereabouts are only explained if I ask about the daughters specifically. If women are not acknowledged publicly by their own parents, how scarce is the acknowledgment of their triumphs, struggles, or needs in general society?
From what I’ve observed, there is one advantage to being a woman in India: airport security lines. I’m being completely serious. Because it is inappropriate for a male guard to inspect a female passenger, there are separate security lines for women and men. And because so few women travel, if you’re one of the lucky few who can afford the plane ticket you can expect to breeze through security, no problem.
Thank you all for reading. I welcome any questions or comments and wish you all the best in your personal searches for truth and understanding.
PS. If you’re interested in reading more about my experiences, particularly working with leprosy-affected children and adults, please visit my personal blog: eringofar.blogspot.com.
Biswas, Soutik. 2012. “How India treats its women.” Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20863860
World Health Organization. 2013. “World health statistics 2013.” Available at http://www.who.int/gho/publications/world_health_statistics/EN_WHS2013_Full.pdf