I am going to diverge once again from the topic of architecture and urban form to recognize a piece of Indian society that quietly and unassumingly seems to hold it all together. I’d like to take a moment to recognize the force of women in this country and pay my respects to them as some of the strongest, fiercest, most beautiful people I have come across. Without deluding the complex cultural-historical background, nor turning a blind eye to the entrenched acceptance of restrictions placed on their social mobility, I want to share a few observations as a women coming from a very different cultural reference point. With that said, I would like to apologize in advance for speaking out of turn. I am going to be direct on behalf of the women whose fortitude is inherent to the quietness of their existence.
I feel slightly more empowered to speak about this subject because, indeed, I am a woman and by moving to Mumbai have entered into an unspoken social contract that continues to reveal itself to me. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that no amount of freedom I had before arriving granted me immunity from the nuanced gender silos that still exist here. Never have I had to consider myself a feminist – simply enjoying the virtually seamless existence women have with men in the US. This also means I have never had to confront my own femininity and explore it is something worth truly celebrating for its own sake. Growing up in a gender-neutral society has its pluses and minuses that I am only now coming to understand while living amidst a society that represents the opposite.
Here, the gender divide is very clear. Perhaps as a consequence of this, woman stick together. By virtue of my womanhood I have tacitly entered what feels like a social pact of the solidarity of women. Within the sometimes hostile, male-dominated atmosphere of the city it feels like a huge girls-only club that offers unquestioned asylum for all women in a time of need.
Yet, I cannot escape the awareness of my outranked place and very occasional vulnerability in society. I struggle with this awareness daily, every time I choose what to wear. It is superficial, yes, but the restrictions on proper attire for woman is symbolic of the limitations of our inability interact freely in society. I am not a rebel, so it has surprised me to feel such a visceral agitation to the point of outrage by this. Wearing a kurta every day and thinking twice each time I lace up my shoes to go for a run make me feel inhibited, bottled-up, and small. Elementary. But I feel bitter and upset on behalf of all women here who don’t even know what it feels like to wear shorts. Fashion is freedom! Burn the bra! I never imagined I would say this but with each day I feel the feminist in me rising. “It’s not your country”, I repeat to myself to quiet the voice. “You are a guest here. Let it go.”
It is because of this innate feminist spirit that all women share to some degree, however, that the status of women in India has undergone great changes over the past few millennia. Women hold positions in government, business, and community organizations. I happen to live in a city that is reflective of this change. As one of the most cosmopolitan and western-minded cities in India, Mumbai boasts a huge cross section of geographic regions and cultural influences that make it more socially progressive than other Indian cities. Also, aside from whatever other cultural repercussions it has, the overwhelming presence of Bollywood has transformed traditional expectations of gender roles.
These social changes are complex and are tugging on cultural roots that run deep. In pre-modern agrarian times, the amount of labor required to sustain a household necessitated a clear division of labor with the resulting consequence of gender discrimination. Though the industrial age had a transformative effect that narrowed these gender differentiations in the Western world, India has remained mostly unaffected by it. It remains much more akin to the agrarian model, merely being modified to adapt to outside influences and new dimensions of modern society.
India is one of the last surviving strongholds of differentiated gender roles, which as extreme and archaic as it seems, contains enough layers of sociological intricacy that make any unilateral judgment, pro or against, unfair. And like many of the country’s unique and inequitable social properties, the confused and often-misaligned assumptions of gender roles are taking place at the intersection of India’s B-line to modernization and her deeply rooted cultural values.
For starters, the single most significant feature of these cultural values is family. It is considered the primary duty of every individual to submit him or herself to the interests of the family. Gender roles and the custom of arranged marriage is an offshoot of this and also by tradition, the woman in the partnership defers to the man and relocates her life to his family’s home where she then defers to her mother in law. As the glue of the household, traditionally closer to children than the father, the mother’s influence on the family is powerful even though the father is still considered the head of the household. Mothers, therefore, are often recognized as the most powerful women in society. These are not my words but the words I have been told by men who acknowledge the role their mothers and wives have played in their lives. Even ancient Indian literature acknowledges and glorifies the mother as the backbone of the country and even so far as the noblest person in the universe.
Yet, discrimination and other more severe social challenges women face continue to be the norm. The increase in abuse and violent crimes against women, even while many of these crimes go unrecorded because the vocalization of such would render the woman unmarriageable, is real. In my own work in the slums I have been made acutely aware of how deeply ingrained this mistreatment of women is and how it goes so far to affect their right to basic amenities. Given the subject of my last entry it is relevant to mention that the lack of toilets is much more than a sanitation or infrastructural issue. Toilets are central locations of harassment and abuse of women. And even when harassment is no threat, women of conservative societies having without access to proper toilets suffer from extreme cases of constipation and bladder issues because relieving themselves outside in daytime isn’t culturally acceptable. These harsh realities are not realities experienced by men. These realities go beyond my petty complaint about clothing restrictions and shame me into thinking I can grasp what it’s like to be a woman in India.
The fact is, the women here are stronger than me. Not only that, they are stronger than the men. Even as the majority of them work in service or agriculture, in addition to maintaining the home, putting food on the table, raising the children, and balancing the family budget, they bring the beauty and gentleness to the streets. Faces worn with the burden of daily survival and the heat of the sun soften immediately into a smile. They seem to rise above it all.
I cannot help but feel a tremendous respect for my sex in this country, having an infinitesimally small taste of what they face and witnessing the dignity and ease with which they embrace their natural woman-ness amidst it all. My traditionally western impulse to break free from the dress code or offer a dirty look to a guy who looks at me inappropriately as a way to assert my equality every once in a while is pathetic. I need only see a motorcycle weave through chaotic traffic with a woman wearing a full burka driving it and two kids hanging onto the back to experience one of those reorienting moments when all my cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are turned upside down. I have seen the rebel exist under the surface. I have found an unspoken resistance to being marginalized and a deep seated self-awareness of their femininity. The women here are not afraid to be women. They own it.
India has taught me a lot about humanity and the built environment, but beyond all of that, it has taught me how to be a woman.