The Women Of India -- Keepers Of Conscience

IN India, women are brought up to speak in whispers. Their demeanor must be gentle, their manner polite and their laughs subdued. The general idea is that women should be seen, not heard.

So a mother dreams not so much of a daughter who will leave her one day, but of a daughter-in-law who'd liven the house with the jingle of her anklets and bangles. A man visualizes a wife who'd change his life with the fragrance of jasmine in her hair and the aroma of delicious cooking in the kitchen.

And the woman. She just hopes for the best.

While this represents a facet of the Indian woman, it is not a complete picture. Recent books by Western authors and current media coverage continue to project an ancient, romanticized and outdated view of the India of today.

Rarely has the modernization of democratic India, its attempts at self-sufficiency and development caught the attention of Western writers.

On Aug. 15, India will celebrate its 43rd anniversary of independence from British rule. Being an Indian, I seek this opportunity to talk about the women of India - women, because in any civilization they are the barometer of a nation's growth or vice-versa.

I choose to write about the women of India because there is far more to them than the Western media portray. They are easily the conscience keepers of the nation. Even though a large percentage of women are uneducated, they believe in exercising their franchise. Women have been in the forefront in recent years in bringing about dramatic political changes in the country.

They comprise nearly half of an estimated 800 million people in India. In fact, women were the secret of Indira Gandhi's success as a politician. They are there everywhere - as politicians, scientists, doctors, engineers, pilots, architects, professors, attorneys, judges, bureaucrats, executives, journalists, filmmakers, teachers, laborers, peasants, mothers, wives, daughters, sisters . . .

Women of India cannot really be straitjacketed into a stereotype. The women in rural India (and 80 percent of Indians live in rural areas) are in a different situation than the women in urban India.

THE bride-burning issue, for instance, is an urban phenomenon - very recent and interlinked with inflation.

(Bride burning or dowry deaths are localized occurrences in New Delhi and two or three neighboring states, in which newly married girls are either forced to commit suicide or are burned by in-laws for providing an inadequate dowry. Most of these deaths occur among low-income groups and are passed off as accidental deaths while cooking.)

A stringent central (federal) legislation bans the taking or giving of a dowry and recognizes bride burning as a non-bailable offense. New Delhi takes the lead in numbers of bride-burning incidents, and since most of the international media are based in the capital city, such happenings outweigh all other news.

However, recently some newly married women and their families have taken advantage of the anti-dowry law , in order to break up the extended family of the in-laws by alleging harassment where there is none.

In India a woman does not marry a man alone; she marries into his family so that his responsibilities toward his family become hers. In a way, she turns her back on her own family; that is why perhaps there is a yearning for sons . . .

Yet, in parts of South India, the birth of a girl is considered auspicious because she is seen as an incarnation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. In several states of north India, this status is bestowed upon the daughter-in-law who leads all auspicious ceremonies in the household.

A few states in the country - Orissa, Assam, Nagaland and Kerala - have a matriarchal society. Access to property and the choice of beneficiary lies with the women (mother) in these states.

IN some ways a rural woman wields much more power from behind the veil than, say, a working woman in urban India. The city woman has frittered away much of her influence, in pursuance of that elusive goal of equality with men.

Imagine the scene: The village men with ``hookahs'' (traditional smoking pipes) sit around in a courtyard. They discuss the weather, the crop, a new tractor in the village, fertilizers, seeds and so on. The woman of the house is busy cooking on a mud stove in a kitchen. Sometimes the kitchen could be an extension of the courtyard or the main living room of the family.

The woman may have her face covered by the veil of her sari. Her eyes may be watering from the smoke from the stove that requires wood as a fuel, but her ears would be tuned in on the talks in the courtyard. (Eavesdropping is not considered impolite. In fact, it could be a favorite pastime of some.)

The moment she hears something she doesn't agree with, she sends a subtle message to her husband. It could be with the jingle of her bangles or just a cough. And the husband would excuse himself and come in. The wife would whisper her dissent. The husband would go out and sing a different tune.

A rural woman is in some ways equal to the man, but only as long as she works in her own field. She accompanies her husband to the fields and shares his workload in plowing the field, sowing, weeding, harvesting and even visiting the mandi (marketplace) with him, where grains are sold.

But she does a lot more than that. She trudges several miles twice a day to fetch at least two pitchers of drinking water for the family. She goes into the woods to collect fuel for burning. It's her job to tend the cattle and take care of the children.

Her day normally begins before dawn and ends after dusk. Chances are, she is illiterate. Her home and the gossip at the village well are her world. She knows not of any other power except the power she wields over her husband or strives to wield.

Payment for the household chores she does would be unthinkable in her world. She would die of shock if she were to be introduced to the idea of equality with men in the way a modern woman would see it. Her dreams center on getting her children happily married. The idea of educating her children is only now taking shape.

As a mother she has a better say in the matters of the family than she had as a daughter. She does not choose her life-partner, but she never complains. She has not known many men to find out how one could be different from another. Caste, looks and economic status are normally the considerations.

Marriages are arranged by the elders in the family, and such traditional marriages are time-tested. In India, romance between husband and wife begins with marriage, rather than leading to marriage.

If a poor peasant woman does not work for herself but alongside her husband as a casual laborer in another's field, or at a construction site, she tends to get exploited. Her work is usually counted as unskilled labor and she gets paid as such - with unequal wages.

Social scientists who recognize the hard grind of domestic labor a village woman goes through (even if ignorance is bliss for her) have a difficult time convincing her that some of her workload could be reduced by using different tools.

Appropriate technology, i.e., use of science and technology to reduce the burden of housework for rural women, is growing into a big movement in India now. Several voluntary agencies have addressed this problem based on the Gandhian model of self-sufficiency in villages.

Women are introduced to the idea of using innovative mud-stoves with long chimneys that would not blow the smoke into her eyes. Agricultural waste products can be used as a fuel instead of logs or twigs. It's important for the women to be able to make such stoves for themselves for reasons of economy.

Bio-gas, generated from the dung of farm animals, is being encouraged as a medium for cooking. The burner is made of mud because woman, earth and hearth are traditionally closely linked in village life.

Making compost by dumping the domestic and farm garbage in different layers and harnessing the kitchen waste water into a soak-pit (an arrangement of stones and pebbles that allows water to seep into the lower layers of the soil) are steadily being introduced into the lives of rural women.

Several ongoing programs now involve women in the construction of low-economy houses with well-ventilated kitchens and indoor toilets.

In several parts of the country, rural women are organizing themselves into forming cooperatives of self-employed traditional artisans, textile workers, weavers and so on.

DURING the struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the women of the time astounded world-renowned leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru with the exemplary moral strength and the resilience they displayed.

At the time that Gandhi, Nehru and other male leaders were in jail, women became the torch bearers. Observed Nehru, the first prime minister of free India, in his book, ``Discovery of India'': ``Most of us menfolk were in prison. . . . And then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle. Women had always been there of course, but now there was an avalanche of them, which took not only the British government but their own menfolk by surprise.

``Here were these women, women of the upper or middle class, leading sheltered lives in their homes - peasant women, working-class women, rich women - pouring out in tens of thousands in defiance of government order. . . . It was not only that display of courage and daring, but what was even more surprising was the organizational power they showed . . .''

The first flag of free India that was raised on the magnificent Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15, 1947, was hand made by women. The tricolor (as the Indian flag is called because of its three colors - orange, white and green) that symbolized the freedom of India was presented to Nehru by a woman freedom fighter on behalf of the women of India.

Woman power in India is seen as the inner strength of women which makes them the natural leaders in society. Women in intellectual and spiritual pursuits believe in ``vasudhaiv kutumbakam'' (the entire universe is my family).

For women, the emphasis is to realize their hidden self, to rise above the physicality of man-woman. They must seek within themselves the strength to lift themselves from narrow-mindedness for a deeper perspective into the problems of the human race.

Woman as the natural teacher (guru) to a child has a social responsibility. The key is to extend the filial feeling into the society and welcome the society into the family so that the world is seen as a large family and the good of all is an essential ingredient of being. The famous Indian hospitality stems from this thought.

A large group of women in urban India have broken away from the traditional mold and are devoted to proving themselves in the proverbial man's world. As everywhere, women have to work doubly hard at showing that not only are they equal but sometimes even better.

The Indian government has ambitious plans to translate into implementation the equality of status enshrined in the Indian constitution. But there is little talk of changing the attitude of men who now enjoy (in cities) the benefit of their wives contributing to the family income without their contributing to the domestic chores. This is now becoming an issue with women's organizations in the cities.

Besides, with the mother's role so well-defined in the Indian way of life, some people are advocating recognition of part-time jobs for women, with equal salaries, preferably at home, so they could be near their children.

Paternity leave is a dream still, but actually not so far-fetched. With the extended family system still around and house-help available, few women would care if their men did not play the father. But most Indian men do. It's just in their blood - so far.

Most women's organizations have based their struggle for equality with men on the Western model. Germaine Greer and other Western feminists are known among the educated elite women of the cities.

And even though there was no bra-burning movement in India, wearing pants and short hair are sometimes seen as signs of equality. In any case, bra-burning would make little sense in a country where most tribal and poor women go without brassieres, anyway.

Gargi Parsai is a reporter for the Hindustan Times of New Delhi, India. She is currently reporting for The Seattle Times on an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.