Will the real India please stand up?

Elaine Watkins —  May 29, 2014

I think it’s important that I preface this entry by admitting that social justice had, quite frankly, nothing to do with why I was in India.

I moved there with my family in 2009 after my dad, who works for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 50 company whose name isn’t important,was transferred to an office in Chennai, a city of roughly 8 million souls on the southeast coast of the country. There could not have been more social and economic disparity between my world and the world of so many Indians. My world had air-conditioned luxury cars, and chauffeurs who called me sir instead of my name. My world had security guards, maids, gardeners, cooks, paid vacations and 5-star restaurants; and if I wanted it to, existed primarily behind gates and tinted glass.

Most of my neighbors didn’t have shoes.

It’s also important to mention that I certainly wasn’t there to look for gender inequality. I was there because I had to be and as a teenager I had no regard for the messy realities of third world injustices. I say that not to oust myself as heartless and indifferent to the plight of others; that’s simply not true. I say it to preface the fact that despite the world between us, gender inequality was one of the few things we shared.

It didn’t seem like subservience and social inferiority of women was exactly considered a “problem” in India. Gender roles were so deeply ingrained in its cultural fibers that the plight of half the population wasn’t seen as discriminatory, but rather a way–the only way–of life.

There are forward-thinking members of every society, and some progress is being made towards ameliorating the situation, (organizations like Read Asia use literacy, health and social awareness, and micro-enterprise to raise the status of women all across the country), but believe me when I tell you, there is still work to be done.

Many women are considered the physical property of their fathers or husbands; their rights are non-existent, independence is limited, and opportunities are few.

Boldfaced newspapers filled with stories of the most recent dowry death or local rape now recycle through my mind.

Whenever someone came to our house for repairs or deliveries (all of which were frequent), my mother would typically answer the door, but was ignored if my brothers were around. I directed our driver because he wouldn’t look her in the eyes. I bartered at the market and walked close to her so she wasn’t grabbed by wandering hands.

Our driver’s wife got pregnant while we were there, and I’ll never forget the devastated look on his face the day he told us that his wife gave birth to a daughter. People would regularly praise my father for having been blessed with three sons, and for his good fortune of having “3 out of 4 successful births” (the fourth being my sister).

When I would see children returning home from school in the afternoon, I noticed that few of those uniforms were worn by girls. The examples were everywhere and each one told the same story of discrimination and subservience.

I’ve been asked before about my experience in India and what I thought of the horrifying injustice towards women. But honestly, what I saw didn’t horrify me. In fact at the time, it didn’t faze me.

But as I look back on my years in that beautiful country—the colors and the smells and the music and beautiful faces of the Indian people—I have a lot to say about how it changed me. Not necessarily the poverty, but the injustice—the injustice that permeated both worlds. And I’m just not prepared to live in a world immune to this kind of injustice towards women. I truly believe it will be up to us, the ones in the air-conditioned cafés and offices around the world—to catalyze big change in our lifetime.

Read Asia is one organization working in India, but there are many others. Be intentional and be informed.

By: Sam Vannette, Casual Writer and Culture Aficionado