A Work of Art
Ever since taking a Philosophy of Art and Literature class at the University of Cape Town, I’ve grown a new appreciation for the discipline.
Finding a piece of art is like finding a piece of yourself, you know when you’ve found it.
The fact that the artist I ran into in Kerala, India had her studio next to the makeshift display room I found this painting in (and her lovely personality) made it all that more special.
The Roots of Chocolate
My hedonistic love for chocolate made finding a cocoa tree one of my most pleasurable discoveries during my time in South India.
Unfortunately though, making cocoa powder is harder than one would imagine.
The Line of all Lines
Waiting in a line of Indian men trying to get their hands on some of their favorite alcohol (while I attempt to get a bottle of water) made for quite a moment and experience during my trip to Munnar.
Women in India
Women in India have played roles less than ideal in a dominantly patriarchal society for centuries.
One of the most troublesome ways women have endured inequality throughout Indian tradition is the specific roles they fall into and how these roles have to be kept up and continuously proven. They traditionally play wife, housekeeper, cook and mother simultaneously (among other roles) while being dependent on a man to uphold the lifestyle they lead.
Because of this dependency, men traditionally have had the power to put women through unscientific (to say the least) and superfluous trials to continually prove their strength and purity.
Women traditionally, and still today in certain aspects of social life play puppets in a world where the strings are often held and pulled by men.
“As a woman, you weren’t the first preference when your mother carried you in her womb and from the first sight of blood signifying your maturity as a woman, you endure the weight of the families’ respect on your shoulders to act in accordance with societies’ standards. And at the time of marriage, you are a burden to your own family because of a dowry that must be given to your husband’s family, and after marriage your only duty is to keep your new family happy and move the family lineage forward by having a son.”
– Saanvi, 20 year old female college student.
So to understand this dynamic in India better, I met up with Anandana Kapur, a professor of my Indian Women in Fiction and Cinema class, as well as a self-proclaimed feminist to get a few questions answered.
Anandana Kapur is a multi-talented woman who is an exceptional filmmaker and social scientist. From her IMDB page, her “documentaries explore the sub-cultures of gender, identity and ritual practice in India. Anandana’s films ‘Much Ado About Knotting’, ‘Chamba Nede Aa ki Door’, ‘The Great Indian Jugaad’ and ‘Blood on My Hands’ have received awards and critical acclaim.”
Anandana, can you talk about what feminism is to you?
“The ability to create a situation where there is access to information so as to be able to make a personal choice, or political one. So that women don’t just have access to information in terms of trade or technical skills or literacy, but also in terms of rights or philosophical opportunities. I know very many women wearing the hijab (etc.) in deference to a religious or social tradition, but are very very progressive individuals. To me that is feminism. Because that is the ability to accept a different choice from yours, and yet find common ground for dialogue, recognize the idea of progress, and to say that debate and descent are very very important fundamental rights.
So to me feminism is essentially that, the right to descent, the ability to descent and the ability to act on information, such that I am able to make a choice that is independent. And that’s asking for a lot because it seems easy, but it means there have to be institutional changes, there need to mindset changes, there needs to be greater opportunity for participation.
So feminism is the ability to make informed choices and whatever be the nature of those choices.
What are the three most important issues women face today in India?
The first would be violence and institutionalized violence in the sense of how marriages and family homes have huge problems with violence against women, whether it’s emotional or physical. And in public spaces there is rape, there is abduction, there are trafficings.
Which brings me to the second, which is literacy. The quality of literacy is suspect because we are not really teaching them about legal rights or civil rights or sexual rights. Reading, writing and arithmetic are not sufficient.
The third would be a lack of political prioritization, where we don’t prioritize or look at women as a sector that leads to greater opportunity or greater traction. When we come up with schemes which are pro-mother or child, there is a lot of corruption. So that is the third, a lack of political way to bring about change.
So, there is violence, literacy and lack of political will.
What is one limiting belief that Indian women are told explicitly and implicitly as they grow up?
That you are vulnerable.
And that is used in various ways, whether it is curfew hours where a man can stay out later but a women can’t, or whether it’s some kind of profession you can think of but you can’t do. [So explicitly you are told] you can be overpowered physically, you can be manipulated and just that you are generally vulnerable. (Which is antithetical to what young boys are told, which is that you are powerful and that you can do what you want.)
And implicitly, you are better off surrendering to existing constructs, and it’s better to compromise, it’s better to adjust, it’s better to accept certain limitations that are imposed on you. And therefore, there is no conversation about sexual expression in our country, there is no conversation about women playing unconventional roles, all of that is missing.
Many women in India are not advised or allowed to go out at night, often times as early as 5 or 6pm. How much apprehension does the average Indian female have in living everyday life when considering the possibility of harassment and rape?
Some of it is based on heresy, because there is this idea of the mean world syndrome, that the world out there is mean, there is crime, you are most likely a victim and your probability of being attacked is high. But that is also based on the fact that we don’t have services that can cater to mobility after hours. We do not have a night bus system, we don’t have enough public transport in certain areas, so that does affect your mobility.
So the city space in itself is not very encouraging.
And going out, it’s not just physical. I can just be stared at and made to feel naked. Or I can be followed and hooted at. You don’t have to cross a physical boundary, you can do a lot from afar as well. There is a lot of street harassment. There are men who call out to you, or brush past you, and then of course it can devolve to other forms like groping and sexual assault.
What effects do a divorce have on women in India?
Very interesting, because we are a country of arranged marriages primarily where compromise is the key word. So you got taught to make it work no matter what happened. And now increasingly there is greater frequency of separation. There is a greater demand by women in terms of both sexuality, in terms of property, in terms of equality within the roles that are being played. So divorce now is more frequently heard of, it is less stigmatized than before, people are willing to now not say that it must be the woman’s fault and perhaps accept and say that it is probably two people.
The discourse is changing, there is less stigma, but does it make life easy for you? Probably not, because a single woman who is recently divorced (and I know of a few who are dear friends, who say that there is the automatic assumption that, “we’re available” or there is this assumption that we will not be successful and that emotionally and financially we need crutches and questions of trust arise).
So there is moral ambiguity around a divorced woman, but definitely lesser than before.
So how much helplessness is felt by Indian women today regarding the issues they face?
Yes, definitely helplessness.
And then as a professional, where camaraderie between and amongst men is okay, but camaraderie between a man and a woman is most often interpreted as the woman being available and the double standard that comes with it: that you have to prove yourself a little extra because you’re a woman.
So I can not step away and say that we live in a society that is equal, I have had enough experiences to tell me that it’s not. So while I see and have experienced inequality and harassment, I also acknowledge that you have to stand together to be able to make a difference and polarization is not the answer.”
Yet despite all the hurdles to be overcome, there is a ray of hope and optimism for women in India articulated by my yoga teacher, Bindiya:
“I think women today are much stronger than they used to be. They’re more outgoing, they’re more open to doing things, they’re more open to standing up for themselves, you know, taking on challenges. Coming out of the closet sort of thing. Women never used to say what they wanted to do or what they wanted to wear or what they thought, but now I think that is completely changed.”
A special thanks to Anandana Ji, Bindiya Ji and Saanvi for their help providing their reflections on the topic. This post wouldn’t be possible without their help.
’till next time.
Thanks again to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Foundation for making this blog a reality and to the University of California Education Abroad Program for hosting it on their website.
* For more information on myself and this blog, check out the ‘About Me‘ page in the left column at the top of this page. *
Ananadana Kapur IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3272151/