Riding in a car through the hills and plains of Rajasthan, I had a unique vantage point to observe rural Indian life. The vibrant green fields were filled with crops, palm trees, goats, and flashes of fuscia, neon orange, and the brightest yellows. These were the saris of the women of Rajasthan working the farms. On the roadside I saw women carrying enormous loads on their heads, loads that would have been hard work with a wheel barrel but was unbelievable with the tools they had—nothing but their hands, body, and a large piece of burlap overstuffed with grass clippings or string tying together sugarcane.
From the same vantage, I also observed many men. Most often, they were sitting around cafes or shops, chatting with one another and just hanging out.
I watched this over and over again for miles and miles. Women working, men lounging. Women working, men drinking tea. Men sitting in chairs, women squatting or sitting on the ground. And as I watched these scenes float past, my anger and frustration and resentment and pure sadness grew stronger and stronger.
It seems that if you are a woman born poor in India, you are born into slavery.
The injustice of this made my blood boil and engendered the most venomous thoughts towards North Indian men. It’s not just the inequality of daily work. It is so much more. Traveling here for two weeks has shown me some truly repulsive aspects of human character gone unchecked. It seems that men believe they are kings. Any river, fountain, waterfall, even just a running spigot in a city is an opportunity for men to strip down to their underwear (or less) and splash about and play and just appear to have a ball. And when white women walk by they do everything they can to get you to look over at them. Instead, we have to shuffle quickly onwards, eyes on anything but, and keep sweating in our clothes that must cover our legs and shoulders to keep out of the category of harlots. It is inconceivable to swim in any of the gorgeous and otherwise extremely tempting swimming holes. When women do bathe in the rivers, they remain fully dressed.
Men also feel it is their right to pee anywhere. Rarely do you see a wall on the side of the road that does not have a man watering it. I have spent some time wondering where women do their business, as public bathrooms are hard to come by.
Out of the hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, cars, and bicycles I’ve seen, I’ve seen three women on motorcycles, two on bikes, and two driving cars. But I’ve seen thousands riding sidesaddle on the back, never wearing a helmet and often carrying babies and children.
Men completely reserve the right to gape and gawk and yell out to any white woman walking or riding by.
I realized I was blind to a lot of it at first. Like smoking. I wondered why I would get such strange looks when I smoked because I saw many other Indians smoking. Once I had a “conversation” with a woman in my neighborhood (with her speaking only Hindi, and me only English) when she approached me and gestured towards my cigarette, questioning. I offered her one, wondering if that was what she was getting at. It wasn’t. She just seemed completely perplexed that I was smoking a cigarette. Yesterday, as I was inhaling a smoke, a man passed me and mockingly noted, “How macho.” I was confused as to whether it was my dorky “travel wear” but then realized it was the smoking. It was only then that it occurred to me that I had only seen men smoking and it was taboo for a female to partake in such a habit.
If that were the worst of it, then it could be passed off partially as bad manners and unfortunate work allocation. But then you hear the stories of female infanticide and the bride-burnings (and the skewed male-female ratios to prove it). And the massive dowries that must be paid to send your daughter off to work her ass off for her husband’s family. And girls who never go to school. And more double standards than standards themselves.
As this other world whirled past, I sat in the car fighting back tears first for the women who had such hard, unjust lives. Then I had a new surge of emotion for the women who fought to bring the rights that I enjoy in my own culture. I’ve felt appreciation for these amazing women before. But I don’t think it has ever continually brought tears to my eyes when I’ve thought of it. I want to build monuments in their honor. I want to kiss their feet. I want to thank them with every thing I have. Because here, I realize, that I owe everything to the people who came before me and changed so much of our culture to allow women to thrive. I see how life could be if I were born in the wrong country, in the wrong class, in the wrong gender, and it kills me.
My own culture has come a long way towards equality and allowing both genders to simply live their full humanity, and we still have a long way to go. But if you think that the women’s movement has won its major battles, just look around and you’ll find a billion or so women to show you how mistaken you are.