India is a difficult country to be in for a woman, especially if you’ve just arrived from a place as liberal, open and tolerant as London.
In London, people constantly talk about women having to smash through the “glass ceiling” where management-level positions are concerned and bridging the gap between the genders, especially in sectors like finance and tech.
In India, a woman would be fortunate to see the outside of a kitchen and the inside of a school, let alone a board room: in Rajasthan, India’s largest state, only slightly over half (52%) of women can read and write. Given her circumstances, a woman is considered blessed to be able to shirk all responsibilities and leave the four walls of her home, what more talk about this elusive and far-fetched idea of a “glass ceiling” which is all the rage in the West.
When Darren and I walk around the streets, it is Darren that the many different salesmen (always men) address first (this could also be because he is white and I look like a local). Indian women seem to still be confined to their homes to cook, clean and care for their husbands and children.
Indian women are always someone else’s wife, mother, sister, daughter-in-law – their duty is to always be of service to someone else first and never themselves; their identities seemingly lost in someone else’s.
Maybe knowing ourselves (or at least thinking we know ourselves) is a privilege granted to those of us who live in liberal countries; a privilege we don’t realise is a privilege at all until we see that it isn’t so freely afforded to everyone.
Our camel safari guide told us that his tips would be used to send his two sons to school, but not his daughters. His reason? Because his daughters would eventually marry and be provided for by someone else’s sons so there was no need to provide them with the opportunity to learn to read and write. This patriarchy is so deeply embedded in society that no one questions it – it’s just the way things are and women have accepted it as their fate.
Women are fighting all around the world to be treated as equals, but to extremely varying degrees: a woman’s fight for workplace equality in Iceland is a different kettle of fish altogether compared to a woman’s fight for individual expression in India.
Indira Gandhi becoming India’s first ever female prime minister back in 1966 shows that women rising to positions of power isn’t a distant dream here. There couldn’t be a greater achievement than being the head of government of the world’s largest democracy, but the country still has a long way to go before women are released from the shackles of patriarchy and allowed to express themselves just as freely and openly as men are allowed to, as well as are provided with the same opportunities.