Thursday, 17 May 2012

Contemporary India and the Woman Question

A number of happenings in India of late, as well as reading Rama Bijapurkar's best-selling, We Are Like That Only is making me wonder if entrenched attitudes towards the fair sex, and women's own mindsets in the new middle classes are taking an adequately progressive turn. Before I carry on, I must admit that by virtue of growing up in the nation when it was transitioning to a global, capitalist modernity (and hence being on the cusp of the pre and post-liberalisation generations), I am both personally and politically invested in the woman question. It continues to be contested territory in many a developing society, and globalisation brings social and economic aspiration with a grain of human development index-defying salt.

Hearing about and watching the first episode of Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate on the issue of female foeticide via the Facebook posts of India-based friends has not been quite the mass solidarity high, but it nonetheless vindicates my choice to be an independent woman in the diaspora. While incredibly fortunate to be born into a family that values girl children and their education, I occasionally bear witness to pangs of nostalgia from parents and grandparents about 'simpler' times when they didn't have to worry about their daughters' marriage prospects and subsequent familial roles. This has often translated into implicit pressure to find or arrange a spouse since my early 20s, in the hope that the constancy of their pleas (and my own imaginary body-clock) will eventually make me relent. A number of women living in India would probably make pragmatic rather than romantic choices in such matters, and Bijapurkar labels this phenomenon a kind of 'womanism'. I am not sure if it is my exposure to western feminism, or my eternal idealism, but such an apologetic assertion of women's rights seems less than desirable to me. What stings even more, as Khan pointed out in his research for the program, and as Mitu Khurana (a doctor who was harassed by her in-laws into aborting her twin daughters, but stood her ground) makes evident in her blog, is that a better than average educational and social standing seem to make matters worse.

A piece in The Guardian on the Aarushi murder case, and what it says about the warped values of the new Indian middle class, is worrying. It is not my intention to steal the aspirational thunder of this particular yet heterogenous group, but exposure to the world of consumption and opportunity (primarily via satellite television) comes at a huge moral cost in a nation with a) a large population that bolsters a competitive attitude towards material and social wealth; and b) a historically huge income gap that make take centuries to be bridged, even at the current rate of annual GDP growth. That these personal/political battles are played out through the popular media on the bodies of women is a key issue that needs institutional and grassroots consideration beyond ephemeral news cycles highlighting particular crimes only until the ratings are favourable. I think India's middle classes are in need of a more open dialogue on gender issues; this would be a real test of their respectability.