Male & Female In India

Today’s the last day of my 3-week trip to India (click here to see my travel blog), so here are some observations on gender and male-female relations.

* First, it really matters which India we’re talking about—Muslim, Sikh, Kerala, tribal, etc.. For example, most women here in the south are so liberated, even Catholics use birth control; in Orissa, by contrast, a friendly adolescent girl said I couldn’t take her photo because “my husband wouldn’t like it.”

* Regardless of location, though, India remains a sexually conservative country. Clothes don’t reveal women’s bodies. This seems normal after just a short while here, and then any Western woman wearing a revealing top or exposing her legs looks dramatically provocative.

* Couples simply do not hold hands in public. This is made even more obvious by the fact that women hold hands with their girl pals/cousins, and men hold hands with their male chums/cousins. One never sees couples of any age kissing or even nuzzling.

* In America, all women wear jewelry, although real gold is reserved for the well-off. Here, even the poorest woman wears gold earrings &/or bracelet every day of her life. Her home may lack hot water, her village may lack reliable electricity, she may be washing her few clothes in the river, but she wears gold while she’s doing it. It’s a matter of family honor. In some areas the custom is silver rather than gold, but it’s real, beautiful silver jewelry.

* The families of girls and young women still pay dowries to the family of the man she is marrying. Sometimes dowries have to be borrowed, which can set back a girl’s family for years. And sometimes, the groom’s family demands a second dowry payment a year after the couple is already married. Imagine the problems that creates for everyone.

* Most marriages here are arranged or semi-arranged. Newspapers are full of ads looking for suitable marriage partners. Unlike in the U.S., the looks and social class of both parties are explicitly discussed.

* Little moments: it’s funny (albeit sensible) to see able-bodied men walking with open umbrellas in the blazing sun; it’s amazing to see women, young and old, working road construction (shoveling gravel, carrying bricks, etc.)—while wearing full-length saris.

* The saris are, in fact, beautiful—colorful, flowing, absolutely nothing like western clothes. And young women wear them as much as their mothers and grandmothers–they’re not in any way considered “old-fashioned.”

But they certainly limit mobility and a whole range of physical movements. You simply cannot effectively run in one. In this respect saris are like the bustles, corsets, and other complex dress of Western women until just a few decades ago. In America’s wild west films, the primary symbol of independence for women is pants.

* As in Islam, Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism, Hindu religious duties—which is to say, Hindu religious privileges–are segregated by gender.

* Aborting female fetuses because they will become girls is actually increasing here, as gender identification technology becomes cheaper and more available. This has enormous ramifications for many parts of society, including marriage, economics, and arrangements for the aging. Everyone decries it, and it’s even against the law. But how do you criminalize technology in a capitalist, democratic country?

In America, religious people have criminalized technologies like stem-cell research and abortion in an attempt to impose their moral vision on others, or to create “a more moral society”—both clearly unacceptable in a democracy.

But in India, criminalizing gender testing and gender-oriented abortion is based on avoiding a scientifically demonstrable problem—which makes it a more complicated issue. Still, it’s troubling to criminalize technology for any reason. And it opens the door to banning other troublesome technologies, including, say, chemical food preservatives, the distilling of alcohol, and of course boom boxes that play any music that I don’t like.


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