Although I would consider myself neither a feminist nor an activist, I’ve always been fascinated by strong women in history. By women, who stood up for their rights, who found a way of expressing themselves in a male dominated world, whether in politics, science or through arts or literature. My bookshelf is full of works and biographies of great women. It was somehow no surprise that I decided to write my master thesis on Simone de Beauvoir, one of the founders of modern feminism. And somehow it was also no surprise that during my first experience as an aspiring journalist at a local newspaper, on a grey and cold March 8 back in the Nineties, I volunteered to interview the people in the pedestrian zone about what they think about the International Women’s Day. The reaction was very mixed. Not only men, but also some of the women I talked to, considered such a day to be superfluous. In Germany, for women there was no need to complain and to demonstrate, they said. They can vote, they can have a job, they can lead an independent life.
Yes, this might be true in large parts for Germany and the western hemisphere. But what about equality for women in the workplace? Payment? Being in senior roles? Are we really already there? And what about the rest of the world? What about women in countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, where just recently some women involved in the „Women to drive“ movement were arrested? What about harassment, sexism and raping? Isn’t it a matter of humanity and justice to recall from time to time the inequities still to be redressed? Inequities which according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum last October are still prevalent in many countries?
Considering the results of this report, which ranks 142 countries on the gap between women and men on health, education, economic and political indicators, I’m strongly convinced that International Women’s Day, more than 100 years after it was firstly celebrated, is still important. It’s a mark that gives those of us who are living in countries with a low gender gap the chance to be grateful, and to take action to create a sustainable change for women and girls that are not so privileged.
India – women are still disadvantaged in most areas of life
As a frequent visitor to India with a deep sense of bond with this country and its people, I feel the urge to spend some thoughts on the situation of the women in India today, on International Women’s Day. Despite gender equality being legally established in the constitution, India is one of the top 20 countries worldwide, where women are most affected by discrimination and violence. Yet women are still at a disadvantage in almost all areas of life, in spite of new laws by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aiming to support and protect women. This includes labour force participation, estimated earned income, literacy rate and health. Although according to the Global Gender Gap Report India has experienced a steady improvement of its overall score since 2010, in 2014 India is below average in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment and health and survival. It is yet the second-lowest performing country on health and survival, just ahead of Armenia.
Those of you who had the chance to travel to India will be pretty much aware of the sharp contrasts that are so characteristic for this country. This also applies for the life and the situation of women. During my travels, I spent some time in major cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta, visiting fancy cafés and restaurants that could also be in London, New York or Berlin. The girls and women who enjoyed their Saturday-after-shopping-coffee-latte-and-cheesecake at Café Turtle in Khan Market would equally be fitting into some hipster café in Berlin-Friedrichshain. In my typical German tourist outfit, I felt completely underdressed compared to these stylish women with their most modern western clothes, high heels, make up and jewelry. They laughed and chatted. Discussed the latest gossip, their recent holidays in Goa, how it feels to be back from studying abroad in the US and which courses the will take at University after summer break. Apparently these girls were from some well-off, well-travelled, educated, modern an open-minded family. Lucky them.
„Did your parents allow you to travel alone?“
Change of location: Train from Haridwar to Rishikesh. I just had settled myself into my AC1-Tier compartment, when a young woman came up to ask if I would mind her sitting with me. Her dad had told her, „Join this western woman and talk a little to her. Might be interesting for you.“. So she sat opposite to me and we talked. She asked me, if I was traveling alone. Yes. When she asked me if my parents had allowed it, I had to smile and told her that I was already 39 and that I don’t have to ask my parents. She looked at me with big eyes. Wanted to know how I lived in Germany. What, an apartment of your own? Who would cook for me? Doing my laundry? Cleaning? When I said, I do everything myself, her eyes even became bigger.
She told me her story then. That she was 21, a student of dentistry, her dad was a famous lawyer, her mother a teacher, she had a brother, and they lived in a big house in Ghaziabad. She had her own car, her own cook, who would prepare Chow Mein for her after her classes, and her own maid who would do all her laundry. Sounds like paradise. But it wasn’t. It turned out that she was living in a golden cage. I asked her if she had a boyfriend. No, her dad would not allow. She was also not allowed to go out with her friends. No girls’ gossip in a café or restaurant. No Saturday night fever. She was also not allowed to travel on her own. Her fellow students always spend a week in Goa in the semester break. How much she would love to join. But her dad said no. It was not opportune for a young woman, he said.
I think this is a typical example for parts of the Indian middle and also upper class: Although they are financially well-off and well-educated their views of what is appropriate for a woman and what is not, is still very outdated from our perspective. These girls can be lucky to get an education, but I’m pretty sure, that my conversation partner from the train is now married to some guy her father chose for her. I keep fingers crossed that he’s a nice one who loves her and treats her well.
Women in the countryside – hardworking and accepting their fate
On my first trip to India in 2006, I travelled through some rural parts of Haryana and Rajasthan. The first thing that striked me when we passed the small villages and the many fields was, that the men were lying around in hammocks or sipping chai and smoking beedies in front of the small shops, and the ones who did the labour on the fields and carrying home buckets of water on top of their head were the women. Regarding the fact, that in many rural areas women are not allowed to leave the house, these women might still be lucky as they had the chance to meet other women and do their daily business also outside their homes.
Despite the hard work and the hard rural life, these women seemed so incredibly strong to me. I’m still impressed by their upright thread, their elegance with the colorful saris and their facial expressions, which was a strange mixture of pride, seriousness, acceptance and fatigue. I learned that they were the ones who earned the money for the family and who kept the family together while their husbands were not working and sometimes addicted to alcohol. I hope that these women have not lost their strength and that they will sometime in life be rewarded for their hard work and their patience.
Empowerment and encouragement for more self-confidence
These are only two examples of many observations and encounters with the women of India, of encounters in a contradictory country, where the daughter of a wealthy and educated family might be as unfree as a Dalit woman in some rural village, who has no education and who is not even aware of her inner wishes.
International Women’s Day might be giving us the time for a little reflection on the situation of women around the globe and bring attention to those who are not as fortunate as we might be. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to India mid March, which will lead me to Tirmasahun, together with a group of my fellow volunteers of United for Hope. Tirmasahun still has a patriarchic structure, typical for the rural and poor areas of India. Many women are bound to their household and excluded from village life.
We already achieved some notable results. For instance, one woman is now teaching in one of the two schools. This is something we want to build upon. Education and literacy are crucial. On top, we want to improve their confidence and self awareness. We want to highlight how important every single one of them is for their society and support them in expressing themselves. During our field visit, we will launch several activities. We still start a comprehensive field study examining the women’s readiness, giving us a better understanding of the key issues. The second stage is the planned cooperation with an US university, which will design a corresponding training program.
You will learn more about it in the upcoming weeks. Keep in touch with us.
United for Hope, Alexandra