I have now been living out of the United States for ten weeks. Ten weeks seems like a tiny blip on the timeline of an entire life, yet I feel as if I have learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons already. For all the adjusting I’ve done and the grace I’ve been shown in learning to live in a foreign culture, there are still some aspects of this life that will never sit well with me. One of my largest stumbling blocks is facing the way women are viewed in Indian culture.
Right out of the starting gate let me preface what I am about to say as my personal, albeit strong, opinion and experience. I will not make the claim that I fully understand what it is like to be an oppressed woman in today’s world and I will also refrain from making this a feminist bash on all things male; that is not my style. This is merely a snippet of my current struggle for understanding in my ever trial-filled time of adjusting to life in India.
From what I have been told and what I have seen, women here are regarded in many ways as second-class citizens. I do however hear many Indian Christian men convey their respect for female leaders in ministry, so I will stick to vast generalizations that don’t necessarily account for the other end of the spectrum. Please know that I acknowledge there are no absolutes, not everyone is the same or thinks the same…obviously.
When I was first in India, I had a discussion with an Indian man about how women are openly treated as inferior to men within their culture. My initial experience was quite the opposite; I was merely one woman in a mix of many people who were all treated like royalty--it was sometimes even difficult to accept; everyone seemed to love us and almost be in awe of our…whiteness, maybe? Forgive me if that sounds ethnocentric, I realize it does but I couldn’t get past the fact that people seemed to think we deserved a greater level of respect and every explanation I ever received about it had to do with the color of my skin (it’s related to the Hindu caste system and how the shade of skin is directly relevant to one’s caste level…it’s complex and not worth getting into, I don’t even understand it completely). Anyway, post mission trip royal bliss, I began to understand more of the realities of Indian culture for a woman (sort of), after all I have been living these realities out (sort of). Even from my sheltered and protected circumstances, I noticed immediately that men and women are not on equal planes, even if solely for the reason that it’s inappropriate for people of the opposite sex to have prolonged interaction when they are not married. Suddenly I was thrown into a world of men that wouldn’t address me directly, invite me places, or shake my hand…yet they would extend all these polite formalities to my male teammate and friend. I was able to get past certain aspects of these social norms, it was just a bit of an adjustment to my thinking. I mistakenly thought, “no big deal, I can totally do this!” Before I knew it though, I seemed to be excluded from things merely because I am a woman and not a man.
The toughest thing is feeling like my freedom is impinged because I am a woman. I have been told that I am not allowed to live alone and it is ill advised that I go anywhere alone as well. I admit that I don’t know all of the cultural nuances regarding Indian men and that many of these restrictions are in place to perhaps keep me “safe,” even if the Indians around me do resort to the most conservative meaning of the word. I suppose this is where my pride jumps in and kicks and screams while proclaiming, “I am a strong, independent woman who can take care of herself!!!” Frustration ensues.
For all the ways Christian Indian men go out of their way to avoid being alone with me, addressing me, or even sitting next to me in a vehicle, the whole of the culture outside my sheltered walls seems to digress from feeling the overwhelming need to always be appropriate. Case in point: whenever I walk outside I am constantly stared at by men AND women; they don’t see a lot of white people here. Ok, I could handle it if that’s all there was to it but when it comes down to men actually following me around a store just to smile, stare, and make comments under their breath, it’s really quite tiring. Even when I am out with another male (who, because his skin is also white, is inevitably assumed to be my husband), it doesn’t seem to stop them from giving me their attention…though when I am out alone it is exponentially worse. Men start to actually make their in-poor-taste comments directly to my face, even from across the street. I have even had a group of guys on a motorcycle follow me down the street while I was walking, leave briefly to rally more of their “bros,” then carry on following me like a pack of salivating dogs. Forgive me if I sound insensitive, I don’t hold this view of Indian men because they are Indian, many Indian men are extremely respectful and fun…so let’s not throw the “R” word around, that is not what this is about.
Moving on. All my circumstances here are forcing me into a constant state of varying amounts of discomfort. I say this more as fact than in a negative sense, being consistently challenged is what’s creating learning and growth in my life, for which I am very thankful. In the meantime, my very strong-willed character is being broken down and redefined as I learn and relearn what it means to be submissive to people and situations which are beyond my control. As much as I feel frustrated by the fact that people here seem to think I am limited because I am a woman, I know that I am learning a great deal of patience and grace, both things I normally lack.
I am still formulating my thoughts and opinions of Indian culture; that is something that in our humanness we will inevitably do. I can offer peace of mind that there are many things about India and the people here that I love and appreciate; I don’t want to paint the picture that Indian culture is all bad when it’s quite the opposite. This woman-ness issue is much more about my personal ego than anything else…I apparently have a lot larger ego to deflate than I thought. The more I think and write the more I feel I am just a prissy white girl whose first experience in the Eastern world is getting her panties all in a twist...which is probably true. Even though coming from Orange Country I KNOW what a prissy white girl is...and it's not me...but the truth is, I am white-bred, raised and cultivated to be comfortable and "safe" (there's that dang word again). In any case, regardless of my ignorancies (is that a word?) and shortcomings based on my limited environment growing up, I am glad to be here and facing challenges that I wouldn't otherwise face in the States. Most decidedly, widening my worldview and understanding of culture is worth the pain.