Women’s work

Submitted by Pam Baker on Thu, 2006-03-23 10:52.
Women’s work

In Kausani, on the same trail where we met the boy porters, we also met this woman, carrying sticks and herding her goat. Somehow with all that she managed to bring her hands together under her chin and say “namaste,” which is both “hello” and a sign of respect. She grinned broadly when we returned the “namaste.” Normally we would say it first to an elder, but we were hoping to spare her the necessity of saying it back, considering the burden she was carrying. But she felt obligated to say it anyways. She appeared to be at least 80 years old, but it’s very hard to tell.

On the way back to Delhi we saw these four, an adult woman and three little girls who looked to be ages 6, 7 and 8. Here they are walking along the side of the national highway, just beside the roadside restaurant we had stopped at for a rest about halfway to Delhi. So you see the advertising boards that look much like they would in the U.S., and work that we would never see in the U.S.

We have been reading and hearing and seeing much about the position of women in India. In some ways it is no better and no worse than the position of men. Everyone from certain castes and classes has very hard physical labor to do. The boys and men carry heavier loads than the women most of the time, but we have seen women carrying bricks, rocks, or piles of sugar cane bigger than themselves. Girls and women have few choices, but then so do many boys and men. Some choices for males and females are made for them at birth on the basis of caste and family background. Other choices for individuals of either gender are made by their families; choices such as whether you will go to school, who you will marry and when, and what work you will do. This is true even among the upper middle class Indians that we have mostly been in contact with. (The children, male or female, of every dentist we have met are all expected to go to dental school.) The whole concept of individual freedom of choice does not really exist in the form that it does in the U.S. But the choices for girls are constrained even more than for boys.

After we gave our lectures for the medical and dental students in Indore, we were invited to the home of the dental school Dean for snacks and drinks. He has two children, a 10 year old boy and an 8 year old girl. The boy sat with us and was part of the conversation. The girl waited on us, bringing us tray after tray of goodies, as the cook prepared them. The Dean explained that normally his wife (who is also a dentist) would be doing that, but she was out of town at a meeting, and that “we in India train our girls to work around the home.” I was tired of biting my tongue by then and said, “we in the U.S. train our girls to do that too, but we also train our boys to do that.” To which he said, yes, he knew that was true, and that’s why he had not moved to the U.S. like many of his friends had. “In India the man is King. In the U.S. the woman is Queen.” Then he turned to his son and asked, “Would you want to marry an American girl?” “Oh, no, definitely not,” was the reply from the well-trained son. The daughter kept clearing our plates and made no comment.

Of course, his attitude can be interpreted two ways, and whichever way I chose I really hated my role as a “Cultural Ambassador.” If I interpret his remark to mean that American girls are not adequate to marry his son, then as the father of an American girl I should vent my outrage. If I interpret his remark to mean that American men are such weanies to let the women become the Queen, and men assume a lesser status, then I should challenge him to a duel. Either way the US Ambassador would not be pleased, (although the Ambassador himself either has a serious case of foot in mouth disease, or he feels OK at offending these male chauvinist Indian men.) What would Condeleeza do?? Some of these high caste guys have no problem putting down all the less “pure” men and all the women. If I were an Indian woman professional I would leave India as soon as I earned enough rupees for a ticket. Then to show his oblivious arrogance, two weeks later he emails me and wants me to find him and his orthodontist wife a fellowship to study somewhere in the U.S. for two to three months, and described the kind of housing he would expect to have while there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh yeah baby I jumped right on that one…………..?!!!!!?

Well, back to sweeter Pam.

The Vice Chancellor at Kumaon University shook Dave’s hand, but not mine. Actually this happened frequently, but this guy was the only one who apologized for it, and said, “It is not my custom to shake hands with women.” OK. Dave is Dr. Baker. I am Dr. (Mrs.) Baker. OK. People ask Dave about his work; they ask me about our daughter. OK. A lot of that happens in the U.S. too, but less now than 30 years ago. Being here in India has made me more conscious of just how much things have changed in the U.S.

A funny counterpoint to these attitudes happened when we were wandering around in Almora. A guy stopped us and wanted to chat. Somehow he got onto the subject of feticide. He said he was a surgeon, and he could not understand the refusal of many Indians to have girl babies. The ratio is way off from 50:50 in many parts of India, including some of the wealthiest parts such as Delhi. The hotel we were at in Bhimtal was hosting a meeting of what looked to be young, upwardly mobile Indians and their families. There were lots of kids, and 4 boys for every girl. (Maybe the girls were back in the rooms watching TV.) He asked if we had the same problem in the U.S., and Dave said no, there are actually somewhat more women than men in the U.S. The guy laughed heartily and said, “Yes, that’s right, isn’t it. These Indians will be forced to get brides from other parts of the world!” The irony of that filled him with glee.

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