how the world sees america

Independent Woman and Good Indian Girl Too?

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Sukanya Rajarathimam, president of her local Panchayat.
Vellimallipattinam, Tamil Nadu -- Can you be too free? I just met two women -- a sixty-two-year-old politician and a twenty-two-year-old musician -- who are inspired by the freedom American women enjoy but are wary of becoming too much like them. They look to professional American women as role models of empowerment, but are concerned about the decay of the American family and of American morality.

“Women in America aren’t controlled by men like they are in India,” says Sukanya Rajarathimam, the president of her local panchayat (village government). She’s lived in a 5,000-person village outside Coimbatore almost her whole life. She earned a master's degree in geography and wanted to be a teacher, but upon marrying a farmer at 21, she gave up her career and became a full-time mom. She says she was happy to do so, but then again never really had a choice.

“America saved me from arranged marriage,” the young musician from Cochin tells me. Let’s call her Swati. She demands I withhold her identity for fear of being disowned by her family. Hers is an upper-middle class conservative family grooming her for marriage. But through good grades and a bit of luck, she got a scholarship to study in the U.S. and this experienced “opened up my life,” she says. If she hadn’t gone, “I’d have studied accounting or something and become a wife.” But in America she discovered her passion for music, “which never would have happened here.” She was also able to experiment with love before marriage with, heaven forbid, interracial boyfriends.

In contrast, Sukanya’s marriage was arranged for her back in 1966. It wasn’t until 30 years after matrimony that she was able to enter public life, after her husband died of lung cancer and a new law was implemented mandating 33% of local government seats be reserved for women. After his death, Sukanya's friends encouraged her to run for local panchayat president. She did and she won. Now she drives her own agenda. “American women are educated and independent,” she tells me. “I am like that.”

“But the one thing I don't like in the U.S. is how women leave their families entirely” and “change their husbands like saris [Indian garments]” when conflict arises. Indian women, she tells me “are different and try to change their husbands over time…to stop them from torturing us.” American women, however, are ready to “leave their husbands and the children are alone…so I don’t like families in the States. I want Indian custom because we have connection here.” Currently, she complains, women are “acting like Paris Hilton,” so divorce rates, drug use and premarital sex are rising. But is this America’s influence, I ask? “Yes, there are movies…and some girls come back here from there [America] changed.”

Swati is one of those girls. But it’s more complicated for her than Sukanya would imagine. Despite her appreciation for what the country did for her, Swati doesn’t want to live in America. America, she says, “is too anonymous. If I get sick or something goes wrong there, nobody comes for me. You’re on your own.” But in India, “aunties and uncles and everyone are there.” In addition, she says, India has a stronger sense of national community than America. “In the U.S. everyone is working on their own for their careers or money or whatever” but in India “there is the feeling that people are working to make India better, the whole country better. There’s a bigger sense of that sort of purpose here.”

So Swati comes home, makes the family rounds, touches the feet of elders, and sits for lunches and teas with one family member after another. All the while, she hides her American boyfriend and changes the topic whenever work, marriage, or her future come up.

It’s “a double life” she has to lead to keep up with her community and maintain her freedoms. Is that sustainable, I ask her? And of Sukanya I ask, can you have American women’s freedoms without loosening social expectations too? Their responses are markedly similar. Swati says, “Yes, but I have to be patient with the family, break it to them gently.” And Sukanya says, “Women here must act together for each other and their daughters.” Achieving advancement for women while maintain community, they both say, is a group effort.

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Comments (18)

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Dharma:

In responding to James Buchanan, comparing conditions in India to those in USA has very little practical value due to the vast differences that exist in the demographic and socio-economic conditions between the two nations. At the level of examining the forest rather than the trees, the general condition of widows in India is desperate and hopeless. A recent BBC website article titled “More Indians in 'city of widows’ comes to my mind -
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6919862.stm

Then again, I have traveled extensively in India by train and have observed entire families of modest means traveling together with grandma and grandpa, who were very tenderly looked after and seemed to commanded a good deal of respect.In contrast, many elderly female relatives of my own extended family failed to get the best medical care readily available to them, very sadly dying prematurely and sometimes in pain – relatively unthinkable in USA!

Having lived in USA for more than 37 years I am almost always bewildered by my family visits to India, since my experiences there are of an endless vision of striking contrasts, which begins the moment my feet touches the ground and mysteriously sheds away as my return flight finally takes off from this ancient and sacred land.

James Buchanan:

The US might demand more of an individual person in the care and maintanance of their health, but they are far from alone, particularly if they do have families. I'd like to see the perspective from an Indian wife and mother who's husband has died as to whether she's truly "taken care of" in their society.

I'll put major money on the table that those opinions skew STEEPLY in favor of American culture real quick.

Muddy:

Sanjay: Sorry to surprise, American Women don't have to wait for men for much other than bathrooms. Women can ask men out on dates if they want to, and many do. They can also make it obvious they want a date if they want. Of course if the women asks the man out, they may have to pay for dinner, but that is cost of freedom. As for marriage, if you think that women are waiting for men to ask them without prompting, you need to get out a whole lot more. While in many cases, it may be the man who offically asks the Women for marriage formally, but in the large majority of cases the topic of marriage has been discussed between them many times before the offical question. Many men "decide" to ask the question after the women says something along the line of "when are we getting married", with the often overted stated alternative of ending the relationship, if the man doesn't independently decide to ask the women to marry him.
Women also pop the question themselves more everyday.

meghan:

A few sentiments:

I think many of the isolated feelings these women have come from the fact that they don't have family or contacts in America. If I went to India, where I have no family or friends, I'd most likely feel the same way.

I will acknowledge, however, that in American many times we are expected to deal with certain things in a more independent fashion. As an individual I thrive on that, I was excited to leave home, claim my independence, but always knew that if I was in trouble my parents and my family would be there for me (though I can't say that this is everyone's experience). The thing is, the principles that America was founded on lend to this atmosphere. The idea espoused by the founding fathers, especially Ben Franklin, was that freedom is worth that risk, it is worth risking some of your safety for. I believe the quote goes something like this -- Those who would trade their freedoms for safety deserve neither. With that cultural understanding, I'd risk some of that back up, some of that cushion in the case of failure, if it meant keeping my freedoms.

These sentiments are simply a result of growing up within a different cultural mindset. I think it's wonderful that an Indian woman who has lived in America and disagrees with some of the practices of India still values the culture of her country and would like to see it preserved in some ways.

Last thought -- I can't go anywhere without hearing about Paris Hilton these days. If those outside of the U.S. are starting to see American women as replicas of Paris Hilton we are in trouble -- in my experience this is far far from true. The only people I know who like her, don't like her because they want to be like her, but because she's an easy target for ridicule.

BV:

Amar C. Bakshi's ( the author ) disturbing indian view is hidden in the article again. Women are good in work places and their contribution to the economy cannot be wasted. But women behaving just like men, that should be condemned, isn't it?. Amar's views are very narrow, but he presents them like balanced thinking. Persuasive writing in American Style ?? or Washing Post style?? Hope there are more clever and capable women in America who can clean more men's wallet with the help of lawyer than the help of a pole and cheap perfume. ( I guess both works!!).

Dharma:

Hi Amar,

Thank you. Panchayats or village level governments are responsible to plan and implement programs of economic development for the village. They have judiciary powers to resolve local disputes by arbitration and mediation. Panchayats are empowered to levy and collect taxes from the village. Panchayat members are elected by a democratic process and are required to hold their deliberations in public and open sessions. In the context of the hierarchy within the institutions of India’s democracy, the Panchayats are the most decentralized and elemental entities of government.

Mrs. Sukanya Rajarathinam, having lived in her 5000 person village for almost her whole life can be expected to be intimately aware about the exact nature of the problems facing her community and may have invaluable insights about the most optimal methods of solving these problems. She is an excellent example of how women can be empowered in rural areas.

The success of Panchayats depends on the wider government machinary for sustained and effective delivery of financial, material resources and human expertise needed for the economic development of the village and in improving the local infrastructure. A village may need such basic necessities as clean water, electricity, good roads, transportation facilities, primary health care, sanitation, local banks, teachers for local public schools, efficient markets, weather and rodent proof grain storage, refrigeration facilities for fresh produce, postal services, telecommunication links such as radio, television, phones, internet etc. to name just a few. Evidently a Panchayat by itself cannot bring about such extensive development without ongoing support from the district, state and national level governments and private entities – all working together harmoniously. In almost every activity listed above, women can be encouraged to participate on equal terms with men.

At present most rural women are locked in a very limited space – that of caring for their homes, husbands, families and farms, a role that requires little or no formal education. The challenge of rapid development of India’s villages can be accomplished only with the education, empowerment and emancipation of women, and their full and equal participation in society. It is my opinion that human resource is India’s greatest wealth and women represent its better half, despite being in the minority. India cannot afford to waste away this vital resource any longer.

Sanjay:

Women in America have not taken advantage of the social and sexual freedoms the society has given them. For example, women wait for a man to approach them, ask them out, pay for dinner, propose marriage etc.
It is all male driven. Women have "chosen" to act to like pieces of meat, even in the good old USA.

Amar:

Hi Dharma and Lucas, thank you for your comments.
Just one thing I'd be curious about from you both is what the value of local punchayat governments could be. Sukanya Rajarathimam spoke at length about female Self Help Groups (basically fund pools used, ideally at least, to advance female issues and create enterprises by and for them).

Dharma:

Lucas Westmaas’s observations about democracy and the condition of women in society are proven and well documented. It is widely acknowledged that a family unit with a caring literate mother supervising the family home offers the best chance of overcoming many social challenges such as family planning, good nutrition, health, hygiene, education of children, and promotion of social and cultural values. Promoting literacy among women greatly leverage the billions of rupees the government spends on social programs and ensures their success and effectiveness.

The future of democracy in India depends on how quickly and effectively the recent spurt of economic growth and wealth creation fans out from the cities into the rural hinterlands. At present rural India is suffering from neglect and apathy. Debt among rural farm families is escalating and small farmers are retreating into oblivion. Rural to urban migration has reached critical levels. Today, India has reverted back to the ranks of a net food importer, after having produced surplus food stocks for over 15 years.

Mahatma Gandhi observed that India is not to be found in its few cities but in thousands of its villages. This is equally true today as it was during Mahatma’s lifetime. It is in rural India that overall literacy and specifically literacy of women and their empowerment is particularly crucial for the transformation of India.

Lucas Westmaas:

To add a little back-up to Dharma, the world average female-to-male ratio (if memory serves) is around 103 or 104 females to every 100 males, primarily because females naturally live longer. So that means that if the female ratio is as low as 93 females to 100 males, most likely women are not getting adequate health care.

One of my (American) professors posited that a big reason democracy in many Middle Eastern countries fails to take route is the disempowerment of women — for example, in Saudi Arabia, where there are 120 men to every 100 women, a really staggering disparity that can be somewhat explained by the presence of temporary guest workers. In Shanghai, I believe the number is 120 men to 100 women as well, but there the population is much more permanent than in Shanghai. I wonder what that means for the future of Indian democracy? (I mean this as an honest question, not a statement in the form of a question — I ask it as someone with little knowledge of modern Indian history or politics.)

It works both ways:

It is true in America your family circle might be smaller and less able to be supportive if something goes wrong. This is obviously not always true as many people in the US still have large families, but it can happen.

The parallel, however, is that you don't have 50 people telling you what to do all the time. Would you trade the possibility that if you get sick you might not have a village caring for you for the chance to avoid having your entire life dictated via an arranged marriage at age 16 to someone you've never met just because both families think it's a good match? The freedoms offered by America, not the least of which is that of social mobility and choices in lifestyle, more than offset the slight possibility that your lifetime of choices in light of that freedom lead you to dying alone.

Dharma:

The life stories of the two Indian women cited in the article - Mrs. Sukanya Rajarathimam and Ms. Swati, can at best have anecdotal validity.

Millions of women across India are required to subjugate their lives and voluntarily give up their individual liberties, for the benefit of their husbands, families, society and community. It is true that with growing literacy among women, their conditions have marginally improved in certain states such as Kerala and West Bengal. However the ugly reality is that women in India are aggressively victimized starting from the womb to the tomb. Female feticide (gender-selective abortions) is rampant, albeit against Indian law. In the rural areas female infants are killed routinely by prolonged exposure to the elements. Girls are denied the same nutritional care as boys and are also denied the same opportunities in their education. In much of India girls represent a "liability" since they entail the payment of a dowry as a precondition for their marriage - also against the law. Evidence that the female population is routinely neglected can be found in their declining numbers - with 93 females for 100 males as per 2001 Indian census.

The government is aware that the empowerment of women is a prerequisite for India's ascension to the ranks of world's great powers. Yet there is a general sense of apathy about the issue. Instead the ruling Congress party has gone out of its way to divert world attention and project a false image of the status of Indian women, by resorting to the tactics of the spin doctors and electing a relatively unknown female candidate to be the President of India!

laura:

"America,“is too anonymous. If I get sick or something goes wrong there, nobody comes for me."

I've heard this before. Having never grown up anywhere but America, I wonder if it's true that we have to cope with problems more independently than others. Or does this sentiment merely reflect the feeling of someone with no family and fewer contacts in America.

Amar:

Thanks Guarav, got it.

Gaurav Garg:

"Village Government" is Panchayat and not Punchiyat as you have written here.

PK:

I am definitely one of those double-life livers! but htings are gettng better across india i feel. i went to school in the uk and now retruned to mumbai with a british husband. messy but my family is understanding

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