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Living in a Man's World: India

The women of India are like butterflies - beautiful and dazzling, and quietly so. They move about the streets in loud splashes of red, pink, and green; their dark kohl-rimmed eyes framed by colorful gossamer fabric, toes and fingers painted and hennaed, ankle bracelets and bangles jingling as they walk, gold jewelry sparkling on brown skin. But with all their flamboyance, they move in the periphery of vision - the women are an enigma in the man's world that is India.

My one and only real encounter with an Indian woman - one that didn't entail the purchase of something or the refusal of a begging hand - happened towards the end of a 2-month journey there. She tapped me on the shoulder from her seat on the bus and asked my name, if my boyfriend, Benjamin, was my husband, and if ours was a 'love marriage' or arranged. I told her 'love marriage', although it was a little white lie - Benjamin and I assumed the titles of Mr. and Mrs. on arrival to make our Indian hosts and acquaintances more comfortable.

Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that we fibbed to make me more comfortable. Their society is conservative in matters of dating and marriage and single women my age are considered spinsters - pathetic, undesirable, and unlucky. Plus, western women are thought to be tramps and I am not - and didn't want - to be either.

The woman passed the information on to her mother, auntie, and sister. A soft simper erupted from the group... titters, I suspect, from women keen to know the freedom of choosing her own mate and, perhaps, autonomy in other aspects of life as well. I was disappointed that this was my sole contact with a woman in India, and the nature of her question was telling. It's a country that seems to be obsessed with marriage (we were asked by everyone we met if we were married, for how long, and with how many children).

And it's a country where a woman's worth is defined by marriage; it's a place where women live in the shadows of their husbands. Even in the newspaper, a woman is introduced to the readers as the wife of So-and-So and the daughter of So-and-So before getting on with her story.

It's ironic - but perhaps not, now that I think of it - that my knowledge of Indian women has come mostly from their men. But women are not accessible. In the marketplace, it's men who conduct business. They are the workers in hotels and restaurants and shops. Men sell tickets at museums, run the counters at train stations and travel agencies, drive taxis, tailor clothes, and hawk souvenirs. For this reason, most of my encounters - as a traveler - were not with women, but with their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. And so I cannot wholly trust the accuracy of what I know, save for my own observations and experiences of being female in a land where the sexes are as separated as the sunrise is from a midnight moon.

It's surprising I learned anything from the men at all; they would rather ignore me - that is, when they weren't leering and shouting obscenities like, "Hey, you, suck my balls!" At our hotel or on the street, men would greet Benjamin as if I wasn't there, with a cheery, "Good morning, sir." They would inquire, "Would you like another drink?" expecting Benjamin to order for me. And if I paid the bill, the change would be handed back to Benjamin.

Conversations were made with him as well - I found myself sitting next to Benjamin in silence, as if ornamental or transparent. Once in a while, I was addressed as 'Sir' myself - out of habit, I suppose. For a time, I was convinced this was meant as a compliment, as the expression 'Sir' is for the privileged. It didn't take long to feel isolated and lonely. And although I was traveling with Benjamin, I felt like I might as well be traveling alone... or not at all. My very existence seemed to vanish.

I wondered if Indian women felt the same, but I couldn't ask. I had so many questions, but no one to direct them to. I wanted to know everything - simple things - secret things. How does a sari stay on? Why the red dot? What's up with the red powder in your hair? I wanted to ask them about Indian society and their place within it; I wanted to know their opinions on marriage, politics, religion, fashion, children... what kinds of things, I wondered, will they teach their daughters... their sons... But what I learned about Indian women was gained from stories told by their brothers - and their knowledge was, predictably, limited. And, not surprising, revolved around marriage.

I learned from a young man, named Ali, that women don't work and don't want to because, he explained, "They spend their husbands' money. Why would they want to work?" The others talked of dowries - one young man works 2 jobs; he is desperately trying to help his sister get married (she's almost an old lady now that she's 27). His friend enlightened me, "That's why it's better to have boys. No dowry." And when I asked any of them, all of them, "What do your sisters think of all of this?" my question was met with a shrug.

To know India's women, I could only watch them. From the window of my hotel, on the bus, on the street... I watched these women, beautiful butterflies, flit and flutter around stalls at the market, walking down busy roads... their gauzy saris dancing in the breeze, with bare midriffs and the sultry shape of the lower back exposed... loud colors and delicate patterns... glittering garnishes and ornaments... nose rings and necklaces and dangly earrings and bindis and ankle bracelets and toe rings... jeweled bangles, paint and polish and henna and kohl.

These mysterious creatures, the women - the mothers and daughters and sisters of India - they entranced me with their exotic allure. So poised and proud and full of dignity they seemed, and despite their absence from my day to day dealings, my comings and goings, my everyday interactions, the more I watched, the more I felt I knew them. They were like me and I was like them: women living in a man's world.



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© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan