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Reflections on Women, Honor & Society in India

Growing up, I was fortunate to have an uncle who owned a plastic surgery clinic in Florida. Though his practice had the usual patients - boob jobs, rhinoplastys, tummy tucks, the works - one particular case has stood out to me my entire life. The patient in question was named Bilkis Khatun, a Bangladeshi girl whom my uncle took in and supplied reconstructive surgery for following a brutal acid attack she suffered in her sleep at the hand of an angered and rejected suitor. While Bilkis stayed with my uncle and underwent multiple skin grafts and cartilage reconstructions to put back together a face heavily burned by the chemical chaos that had become her life, she and I would exchange letters because, after all, she was only a year or two older than me at the time. I myself could not have been more than eleven or twelve, and it seemed so frightening to me that someone just like me could have to endure so much pain. It was the first moment I was forced to come to terms with the realities of the world outside of my little Minnesota town.

While Bilkis was not from India, the cultural similarities in her “honor crime” have shadowed me on my journey throughout my time here, and made discussions regarding domestic violence and female oppression all the more interesting and poignant. During one of our very first lectures at Madras Christian College, Dr. Miriam educated us on the ever-still-low role of women in Indian culture and the atrocities that accompany that status. Especially noticeable in her discussion was the role dowry and wedding-related topics played in the degradation of these women. Issues regarding dowry are one of the leading causes for domestic abuse and murder of Indian women. Despite being illegal, virtually every marriage in Indian society involves a dowry in some form, and the tradition is responsible for a lot of hatred toward daughters (which leads to gender-related abortions and infanticides). Religious motivation prompts women to stay in these abusive relationships, which may incur abuse from the husband and/or parental in-laws. The cycle of abuse is especially notable because it often involves a diffusion in the mother-son relationship, which is in turn taken out on the daughter-in-law.

Violence against women is a topic that arose in many of our readings, including “Dowry and Violence Against Women” (Rastogi and Therley). Consistently highlighted was the relationship these women had to the men in their life: "In India, ‘married women are respected because they have conformed to the social expectations of male control. Unmarried, separated, and divorced women continue to be objects of slander and gossip because they symbolize independence from men’ (Fernandez, 1997, p. 441). [...] It is [also] important to note that all of the women involved in dowry-related violence (perpetrators and victims) are related to each other through their relationships to a man. [...] Therefore, we can validly assume that any power that women have in Indian society is closely associated with and derived from the male figures in the family" (70, 72). This association with men seems especially hard to deal with when the types of men commonly associated with Indian culture are like those presented in the New York Times article “The Good Men of India” as the more commonly-heard-of (though less popular) type of man: "Indian cities are awash with feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure, fighting poverty, exhausted, denied access to regular female companionship, adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography, newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence - and not able to respond to any of it in a safe, civilized manner" (Sankaran 1).

Though Sankaran’s article goes on to describe a more holistic and morally-relevant male figure, the truth remains that Indian society is rift with men that perpetuate the cycle of female abuse, and women that fail to fight it. Never was this aspect more apparent to me than in an active discussion I had with Dalaut Ram students regarding the media-popular Delhi rapes. I asked a simple question, like “who is to blame for these rapes?” and the answers shocked me:

“It is twenty percent the woman’s fault, and eighty percent fate,” one girl answered.

“NO! It is never the woman’s fault!” another responded, horrified. “It is always one hundred percent fate.”

That both these girls pushed the perpetrator away from blame in this conversation is a clear indication of a pervasive trend in Indian culture to let religious tradition (here, in the indication of fate) allow for the propagation of an abusive cycle that pushes for the degradation of women.

Obviously, their opinions may not be the norm, and are certainly not the growing trend, but the aspect of religiosity that permeated the conversation was enough to leave me reeling as I left campus that day.

The fact is, in Indian culture, reputation matters and continues to matter, regardless of where blame is being put in cases of domestic assault. As noted in the article “Working the Night Shift” (Patel), women that defy conventional societal roles are still stigmatized, even if the conditions of the problem are well-known and accepted: "It is culturally deviant for women in India to be out at night. Women who do night work are often assumed to be night club dancers or sex workers. [...] Women who are out at night may be unsafe, subject to harassment, and many call centers find they must provide door-to-door transportation to get women workers. [...] In a sense, women who are out at night are symbolically ‘polluted’" (4). erhaps one of the most difficult aspects of working in a call center is the focus on night-time stigmas. Women who work in a call center at night are, of course, afforded exceptional opportunities to maximize enjoyment of the daylight hours (more time spent at the mall, time away from family to spend with friends or significant others), but the consequences of working continuously and contradictory to their internal clock may in turn mean than many of these women are emotionally unhealthy, and subject to mass stigmatization by society. Even though many people understand the role the call-center workers play in their respective jobs, even daring to venture out into the twilight with the other “ladies of the night” and the subsequent men that lurk haphazardly in the shadows means that these women are often seen as “unclean” and thus unworthy for social and especially marital interaction. Safety also becomes a primary concern for call-center workers, with rape and harassment being primary concerns for the women employed by such companies, and often safety “reinforcers” (like police) are just as likely to harm the women that would otherwise trust in their protection.

When it comes to trying to wrap one’s head around issues of female oppression in India and neighboring cultures like Bangladesh, I can’t help but be overwhelmed. Careful discussion from professors like Dr. Miriam certainly help, but at this point I’m still struck by the enormity of the issue rather than feeling comforted by its potential to change.

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