Women in India
January 27, 2000
Since my Hindi language teacher told me a story about a pregnant woman in Varanasi who was struck with sticks because she was pregnant and not married (only on her arms though, to protect the child), I had been thinking about women in India.
I came to India knowing that many marriages were arranged here. I was shocked though, to discover that the number of arranged marriages is over 90%. I was even more shocked to discover that flogging a pregnant woman as she walked down a public street in the middle of the day was acceptable.
You can argue that this system prevents many single parent families and would therefor help keep the population growth to a minimum but as of October 1, 1999 India broke the 1,000,000,000-population mark and introduced itself officially as 1/6th of the world's population. And of these billion people only about half can read or write.* In Varanasi my Hindi teacher says the numbers are worse. Only 20% of children go to school in Varanasi, the rest stay home to work with their families. Of this 20% in school only 20% are women. With a lack of education these families must rely on labor for their income and they therefor produce it, by having children and continuing the cycle.
Rasping though the Indian countryside in the third-class train the "cycle" sat on my luggage and me. For most of the three-hour journey from New Delhi to Agra I had a square, half notebook-sized patch of bench to sit on, a small girl in my lap, another perched, chin on my shoulder. And, just when I thought everything was settled, I saw yet another child scramble up the side of the car and hop not so delicately onto my backpack. I wouldn't have had a problem with this except that this laptop happened to be carefully wrapped inside it. I would have put that child on my head rather than see him hunker down on my pack.
The child on my shoulder's mother smiled down at me and winked the first wink I'd gotten in India. I readjusted the child on my lap and looked back at the woman, I wanted to show her that everything was okay and maybe wink back. But when I turned back to her I noticed yet another child strapped to her back and playing with her hair. All of the children, all of them hers, ranged in age from less than a year to three.
Even when faced with a break in the pattern like the pregnant girl in Varanasi, the culture swings to mend it.
In Delhi, after meeting a young Indian woman in the hotel I was staying in, I tried to imagine her life. I met Jaisute on the flight of stairs, practicing my Hindi I said, "Nemaste. Apko kaisa Hai?" or "Hello. How are you?"
In her bird-like voice she chirped and hopped around squealing that I knew Hindi. She at once grabbed my arm and we were off to what I believe was a mission to find a safety pin. We talked some and later that evening as I was packing up for my early morning train, Jaisute came and took me to her room to chat more. In our broken languages she told me that she had come to Delhi to apply for a 6-month visa for Britain. It was denied. She was hoping to go and help an ailing uncle living there and then return to India. The Indian government, thought otherwise. Jaisute folded up the letter and brought out her pictures. She is from a small village 100km south of Delhi where she lives with her father, sister and 5-year old daughter.
"Pati khaha hai? Where is you husband?" I asked. She said she had no husband. I pictured Jaisute walking down the street, pregnant and being hit with sticks. No wonder she wanted to go to London. I asked her if she'd tried to get a visa before and she said that she had when she was pregnant, waving her arms out in front of herself like she was with child. India said no. And India was saying no again for the last time. The letter said Jaisute was no longer able to apply for further visas.
"If you went to England would you come back to India?" I asked her as we exchanged addresses and earrings. She looked at me and smiled.
"Now I go America." Unfortunately I don't think the United States would be to willing to welcome Jaisute either.
It's been difficult talking to Indian women in India. Most of them go about their business while their children stick out their hands shouting "Hello". The men that I have been able to speak with all tell me that I will not, being a Westerner, be able to understand.
I was invited to the home of the owner of one of the Internet shops I used in Varanasi. He and his friend picked me up and we rode out to his house. The three of us sat cross-legged on the family bed, our shoes on the floor. The Internet owner's mother also sat with us as did his four-year-old daughter. And like most women in India, his wife cooked the meal and served us, bringing out heavy plates of food and drinks. Neither the elderly lady, his daughter nor his wife ate.
"Why don't we all eat together," I said and held out a chipati to the little girl.
He, without a pause between thoughts, said, "It's custom in India for the women to wait for the men to finish. Did you see? My wife's to have a baby this month."
So readjusting my living habits--eating, sleeping and working--is nothing more than holding a stranger's child on my lap for five hours. But trying to place myself in the social fabric rather, is like being hit with sticks every time I try to unravel it.
-Sarah Reed Bargren
*Looking at the recent Economist, Millennium Special Edition you get a better feel of India's illiteracy rate: "The United Nations reckons that between 1980-1995 the word wide rate of illiteracy among people aged over 15 fell from 31% to 23%. But that still left some 900m illiterate, more than half of them in India, only about half of whose billion people can read or write."