Women in Leadership: Substratum

22 Oct

Women in Leadership: Substratum
Niharika Singh
GALS Board


Substratum
                              

India is a nation on the threshold of miraculous change, charged with optimism and a new energy, characteristic of a confident and enterprising people. Behind the exuberance, however, areas of rot of social stigma and patriarchal dominance shield half the population from experiencing any of this glorious dynamism.

I worked with women in North India. The argument for female empowerment there does not require the invocation of any lofty ideals or the complex analysis of subtle inequities. It is a basic and undeniable report on the sub-human status of the region’s women. As a child born into a cosmopolitan, urban environment of Mumbai and raised by doting parents, I was unaware of the extent of the horrific constraints imposed upon women in my country. The government sponsored educational films that aired on national television seemed ridiculous and unrealistic. The films shied away from stating the true nature of the problem, and the plots were cryptic and uninformative.

My exposure to the injustices suffered by North Indian women came from my mother. She tried to buffer me from the whole of the incredibly hurtful truth by engaging in a series of gentle discussions. Unfortunately, these facts could have no gentle introduction. There was no easy way to learn that your brother’s birth was a cause for celebration in your grandparents’ village, while your birth was an occasion meriting unspoken condolences to the unlucky grandparents. Your grandmother was sorely disappointed by your birth because you were an undesirable product. My mother, enlightened, fearless, could not claim her inheritance because such a claim would be met with incredulousness and accusations of ungratefulness from her parents and brothers.

Within three months of the first discussion, I was in the field, campaigning for female empowerment.

What I encountered in Rajasthan and Haryana was what I had heard about, and much worse. Even today, when it comes to the status of women in the region, North India is living in the dark ages. To encapsulate the status of women is easy: they are commodities. A daughter is a liability that has to be married off as soon as possible, a dowry arranged, and a wife is a laborer bound within the four walls of the home.

Women are raised on tales of female sacrifice for their spouses, and brainwashed into believing they have no identity distinct from their husbands. Daughters are overworked at home, tending to their brothers who must go to school. Boys will become men, run homes, and feed families. Girls will only become women, and the best a woman can do in life is get married to a man of her parents’ choice. Women eat last at the table, do not expose their faces outside the home, and play no role in any decisions impacting the family.

The plight of widows has been chronicled recently in a series of period films. Truth is little has changed since the times depicted in these movies. The shaven heads, drab white sarees and ill-omen status are no relics of the past; they are a reality of today. If a woman’s father, brother or husband dies, she cannot attend the religious ceremonies before cremation for she brings bad luck with her presence.

The list is endless, there is no end to the indignities women are subjected to, but the worst by far is the impression that they are responsible for their own plight. The greatest obstacles to my campaigns spreading awareness about the equal rights of women are the women themselves. Statements describing the equality of men and women are met with stunned silence. They seem so outlandish, so preposterous to these battered women, who have engrained in their ethos the idea that they are so base, so vilely inferior to the men.

It is painful, encountering such puzzled looks. It is heart-wrenching, seeing the empty looks in their eyes. It was inspiring, catching a slight glimmer of hope at the end of our successful sessions.

We must tell them the truth. They must fight, if not for themselves, then for their daughters. It is this advice that I apply myself when I feel myself running out of stamina. It is a strange feeling, having been a disappointment before learning how to crawl or speak. How can I be so wrong without committing any misdeed, any sin? My existence is an act of hubris. Therefore, I must fight, for the women I meet, for the children growing up in my country today and for myself.

Niharika Singh is a member of the GALS Board and a third-year in the College. A proud Indian, Nikki is in charge of fundraising, programming, and making us laugh during meetings. 

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