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two women in India   

India Journal - June 29

By Meredith Jagger
Edited by Jason Arthur


I didn't come to India as a feminist or to make a specific study of women here. I have always found women's studies a bit one-sided, not because gender inequality is acceptable, but rather the approach to being a "feminist" seems a bit flat considering that everyone needs an advocate. But I am female. As simple as that may sound, in India, few things besides the roaming cows are simple.

Having so prefaced myself, I have to concede that India is a place where standardized gender roles are more visible. For example, on the initial ride from the Chennai airport (after a mind numbing two-day air journey), I was fixated on the view of women riding "side saddle" on the backs of motorcycles and bikes, which were consistently driven by men. It seemed so archaic, so British, so Jane Austin, to consider sitting that way. After some sleep and a bit more observation, it was apparent that the traditional sari isn't conducive to peddling.

Men also sit sidesaddle when dressed in lungis (rectangular piece of material sewn into a tube with one seam, worn mostly by Islamic men as a type of wrap skirt) or dhotis (the Hindu version that is a similar piece of traditionally white cloth that does not have a seam and is tied differently, but to similar effect as a lungi) when the passenger on a bike or motorcycle.

Nevertheless, it still strikes me that this scene of skirted people could be misconstrued as a restriction on women since they more frequently wear "inhibiting" clothing -- maybe eighty percent of the time compared to men who over half the time are in Western attire.

Yet when speaking to Ulrike Niklas, a Tamil specialist and professor at SASP National University Singapore, whose passion is South Indian village life, she was quite adamant that the Western perception of the "poor oppressed Indian woman" was incorrect. In the villages, and three fourths of India's population live outside of cities, it is common to remark, "That poor man," when a husband returns home and the door is shut, because it is his wife who tells him what to do, when and how. She is the queen of her domain. And while Dr. Niklas concedes that abuse of women is presently occurring in the rising Indian middle class, most Indian women, in her estimations, don't feel oppressed.

In three weeks of observation, I have seen Indian women who maintain poise and beauty that Australian supermodels should envy. It's less physical beauty, however, and more how they present themselves. Their bodies are worn from hard work. It is nearly impossible for me to tell the age of a woman here because it is so mutable, but their grace of movement is astounding. Because of the hard physical work they are trained at an early age to do, their posture is impeccable. Daily, they carry heavy loads of produce or buckets of water on their heads. Even the women who sweep with long wispy wooden brooms, spending a large amount of time bent double, move with a fluidity that seems noble.
woman in India This view of Indian women, as strong and beautiful, however, has made being a western female in India more difficult for me, given my specific personality, than I think it would be if I were able to maintain the story for myself that these women were oppressed and in need of liberation. I felt very out of place at first, both among Indian women and even with the other females I'm traveling with, because I am "low-maintenance" when it comes to my appearance. I was asked when we were packing if I was bringing makeup, a reasonable question given a tropical climate's potential effects of a tube of lipstick left unattended in a suitcase. My response, "I'm bringing as much to India as I usually wear...none."

I feel as if I have developed a fairly tough shell against western media portrayals of the feminine ideal. It is comparatively easy to discount models who are as tall as I am (5' 10") yet are at least 60 pounds lighter. But in India, I haven't picked out an ideal body type. Females of every age, shape and size wear saris, often revealing a bit of stomach, which is refreshing in one way, to see what I interpret as self-confidence, but also a bit unsettling. How does my sense of self fit here?

I realized after beginning Kolam lessons, however, that India's feminine beauty and strength extends beyond women's bodies to their daily work. One task in particular, kolam making, has come to my attention because of course related research I am required to conduct while in India.

White decorative pattern on the ground Kolam is a process of drawing designs in rice flour (traditionally) or limestone (used frequently now because it is cheaper) at entrance-ways to homes and in Hindu places of worship. The act itself is supposed to be a form of worship since the rice flower is consumed during the day by insects and birds. The result looks almost like a chalk drawing since the process of sifting the power through one's hands is so fluid.

The designs all begin as a dot grid. Then, they are completed by making flowing designs around the dots. There are not supposed to be any gaps in the rice flour because kolam is a ward against malicious spirits; gaps might let spirits pass through into the home. I have been "apprenticed" for a brief period to an expert kolam maker and have no expectations to do more than dabble in an art which takes a lifetime to master.

I find the process very relaxing. It makes me focus in a way the rest of India doesn't seem to let me. It is also comforting, I don't know if I'd go as far as to say empowering, to learn a tradition that is for females only. I do feel more in place, however.

Tomorrow (June 30) I am going to interview my teacher via a translator about her art, but the actually transmission of craft surpasses verbal boundaries.

Meredith Jagger is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

See the previous installment of Meredith's India journal