A new column by Sam Osaki

 

My goal is simple: to observe and share what I learn from my observations of how women live, interact, and find un-traditional means of empowerment within a non-western context.  The following summaries are generalized points of reference with key questions that I hope to discover on my own

India:  India has made recent headlines since the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year old physiotherapy student on December 16, when demonstrations erupted in the capital calling for increased public safety measures for women and a fast-track course through courts for rapists.  Though some see this movement as a watershed moment for women in India, others point to the deep-seated patriarchy and discrimination that will continue to work as barriers to any immediate change.  Despite significant gains in constitutional rights for women, India continues to rank as the “4th most dangerous country” in the world for women, according to Thomson Reuters Corporation.  Violence, harassment, and workplace discrimination against women remain rampant – particularly in the city of New Delhi where I will be staying for a good portion of my time in India.

Senegal: The largely second-class status of women in Senegal is deeply rooted in tradition and religion, but significant gains have been made in recent years, especially in urban areas.  Senegal has the highest polygyny rate with around half of all women in relationships with polygynous men.  Despite constitutional protections, women continue to face extensive societal discrimination and only 20% are involved in paid (typically low-skilled) employment.  Problems are compounded in rural areas, but women’s groups have formed in cities to address violence against women.  Women are also spearheading village-based solidarity networks and have been particularly influential in developing grassroots committees for better education and health facilities. (Summarized from everyculture.com)

Argentina:  According to the Global Gender Gap Report prepared by the World Economic Forum in 2009, Argentine women ranked 24th out of 134 countries for available access to resources and opportunities for women relative to men.  The current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was the first woman to be elected president of Argentina, having succeeded her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.  Despite these overwhelming gains for women, including full integration into Argentinian cultural and intellectual life, the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor reports that approximately 70% of women working outside the home hold unskilled jobs, and Amnesty International reports that a woman died of domestic abuse every two days as of February 2012.

Beyond the purely factual data I hope to absorb about women in the countries I visit, I am looking forward to the more qualitative learning that is bound to take place in the formal and informal interviews I hold.  Namely, I am looking at the following key questions:

  1. How do women see their role in society and in their relationships to others?
  2. What makes a city “safe” or “unsafe” for a woman?
  3. What are the trends in the status of women? How have they changed in recent years?
  4. What institutionalized forces remain as roadblocks for the achievement of a higher status?
  5. What does it mean for a woman to be empowered/exert authority? How does that differ across cultures?

I hope to do this thematically and to provide insightful anecdotes that shed light on what it means to be a woman in the world today.

  1. I.               On Love and (Arranged) Marriage

aunty

Depicted above: Indu Chopra, or “Aunty”

My first interview of the trip took place over a cup of hot chai tea in my host-mom, Indu Chopra’s, spacious flat – and because we call our female elders “Aunty” here as a sign of respect, I will refer to her as such for the rest of this post.  Boasting a Masters in Economics and having worked for several years as a teacher, Aunty is a testament to the equal status women have achieved in many areas of Indian society. And since Aunty is the proud mother of four grown women, I figured she would be the perfect person to ask about her own perception of love and of a custom that most Westerners find to be particularly strange – arranged marriages.

“Marriages, you know,” Aunty began with all the sagacity of her 68 years, “are created in the heavens before you are even born. It is all written in the books.”

Aunty’s mystic beliefs might have seemed odd, were it not for my current residence in one of the spiritual capitals of the world. She went on to say that before she had even arranged her eldest daughter’s wedding, a fortune-teller had predicted it. Fate, she intimated, is what brought about these life-long unions – putting it at a level beyond anyone’s control.

According to Aunty, it is a parent’s duty to the child to direct him or her in life, and so it is out of love, rather than any sort of need to control, that arranged marriages are set.  Emotional love may just be an ephemeral feeling, so it is up to the parent to take an objective view of the prospective partner’s education level, personality traits, and family background before any relationship is developed.  When marrying off her own daughters, Aunty was insistent upon putting them at equal footing with their husbands. If a family asked for dowries, she rejected them immediately, and if her daughters did not like a suitor she chose, she felt no qualms about rejecting the other family.

Experience, as the saying goes, is a hard teacher – and it was indeed through experience that Aunty learned.  When married, she was forced to pay her husband’s family a high dowry (and consistently reprimanded for not providing enough) and to live in the house of her verbally and emotionally abusive mother-in-law.  While there, she had no voice – she was forced to quit her job and work as a servant to the house for over two decades.

Regardless, Aunty sees arranged marriages as a tradition so integral to what it means to be Indian that she could not conceive of any other way of doing things – and that is simply the way it is.

 

Samantha Osaki is a junior Civic Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Urban Studies and English.  She is currently studying abroad in Delhi, India; Dakar, Senegal; and Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the International Honors Program: Cities in the 21st Century.  Strongly devoted to both women’s rights issues and education reform, she is an Assistant on the Programming and Research Committees of Seneca International and the President-elect of Penn Education Society.  Apart from being a blogger for Seneca International, Samantha also keeps a student travel blog at http://boundlessandmindful.wordpress.com/

 

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