À la Une

WELCOME

Hi there! Welcome inside my thoughts and experiences while I’m here in Ahmedabad, India. I’ve never ‘blogged’ before so brace yourselves…

I’ve embarked on a two month journey to intern at the Society for Women’s Action and Training Initiative (SWATI) in Ahmedabad itself. I’m an MA student reading Gender Analysis and International Development at the University of East Anglia, UK and this professional and cultural experience is everything I’ve ever wanted. No truly. India has always been my dream destination being the white cliché girl that I am (working on this by the way) and having got obsessed with gender, I couldn’t escape the call to work for a women’s organisation. So here I am, and this blog will hopefully be the exhibit of my ups and downs (there are always downs) and my personal insights as a cultural alien trying to defeat patriarchy in India.

Bus journeys

Last Tuesday I conducted the first interviews for my dissertation with survivors of domestic violence in the community health center of Radhanpur, a rural town in the district of Patan, Gujarat.

The journey there was a three-hour drive in an air-conditioned car with a driver, the organisation director and the translator. I saw an incredible amount of animals that day, probably indicative of how rural the district of Patan is. The casual cows were rivaling with large buffaloes, goats with a variety of coats – some shiny some curly, stray dogs, small donkeys, wild pigs, several camels used to tract loaded carriages and even a mouse in the health center. Of all the animals the cows are the most peaceful, utterly unbothered by humans or their vehicles, oblivious to the loud honks directed at them when they casually stroll on the roads. Despite the honks being loud enough to pierce their eardrums, I have not witnessed a single person brand a stick or kick at them like they might to dogs. If I hadn’t know before, I would definitely realise now: the cows are sacred. 

In honour to this the state of Gujarat is vegetarian. Although some places do prepare and sell dishes with poultry I have not seen anyone consume meat so far and I have not either, feeling I would betray the Gujarati people if I did. When I asked about the reasons behind the prominent vegetarian diet, I got a cluster of reasons. Excluding animal product means guaranteeing consumed food is fresh in a place where it is hot all year long and conserving even fruit and vegetables is a struggle. The first lot of bananas I bought turned completely black in a few days. Meat and eggs are also considered to warm the body, leading to symptoms like heat rashes. From a gender perspective, these foods may be discouraged for young girls as some believe them to promote early menstruation, something which is unwanted. My translator, a Master student in Public Health, explained her mother was upset when she admitted having given up vegetarianism to eat chicken and eggs – as women should not indulge in products which warm the body.

However, Gujarat has lots of dairy products. Milk is sold in all corner shops, in small plastic bags which are painful to buy for my environmentally concerned self. The full fat milk is so rich it can curdle over night if left on the counter. My colleagues often pop to the dairy shop to purchase cow daki to have with their lunches. Milk and yogurt bear a great place in Gujarati’s diets and are believed to cure most symptoms, I was thoroughly encouraged to have ice-cream, milk in my rice or sweet yogurt to cool my stomach down when I was ill. A complete contradiction to what I was taught!

My following trips to and from Radhanpur were not as smooth as the first one but I did get to taste many of the local processed snacks which Gujaratis swear by on transport. As the bus drove into the Radhanpur bus station, passengers were jumping into it while still in motion and many had already gathered around the doors to push their way through. Others were smartly securing their spaces by throwing one of their possessions through the window onto a prized window seat. Some appeared ready to climb through the windows but thought twice, perhaps prevented by the bars going across, effectively limiting the potentiality for a grown body to squeeze through. I myself felt excited at the possibility of monkeying into the bus but decided against it as I attempted to scramble through the loud crowd of bodies. A member of the health center staff, concerned that ‘us people’ would never make it, skillfully managed to slide through the crowd and secure two seats by the window for myself and the translator. As we seated a show of pani and snack vendors paraded through the bus corridor carrying bottled water in ice buckets and colorful garlands of snacks. Each time the bus stopped, keen hands opened the windows to push through some beverage and food in exchange for a couple of rupees. New passengers, caught up by time, were still exchanging belongings and cash thought the bus windows with their relatives staying behind on the platform, as the bus rolled away from the platform. 

All types of people adopted the public bus, field workers whose faces and hands seemed scorched by the sun, women in glittering clothing snacking on nuts, students with earphones stuck in their ears, women carrying young children who slept continuously through the rattle of the engine and the bumps in the road. I noticed the jewelry and clothing was different from what I had seen so far. Some women bore weighted earrings which purposefully folded down the top of their ears, many also had tribal-like facial tattoos, small crosses on their cheeks. The four-and-a-half-hour journey was everything but boring but I was grateful to relieve my back and shower down the accumulation of sweat and dust from the thirty-five degree, non-air-conditioned bus travel, when I finally reached Ahmedabad.

Chai, gender and religion

It has been more than twenty days since my journey in India began and it feels as much like a blink of one eye as an eternity. The reason behind that is that I have learnt so many new things whilst enjoying myself. However, recently the days have been going slower: I have been stuck in bed from the unavoidable Delhi Belly. I have to say I am disappointed with myself. I have travelled in Asia in the past, I enjoy spicy food, I have eaten street food from carts before and have never been ill, yet here I am, and I haven’t even allowed myself to try the street food in Ahmedabad yet! Apart from the chai of course.

Making chai is an art. You can find chai vendors at each street corner, some on carts that they wheel in at dawn, and out well after the nightfall, some are fixed, on simple tables with gas stoves. In a big pot, on a high flame, the water is boiled, the tea leaves are thrown in and the whole milk comes next, along with the spices. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, fennel seeds, each tea place has its secret recipes, and lots of sugar crystals, necessary to take the bitterness out of the strong black tea. The tea is continuously boiled and frothed up with a ladle, the result is a creamy shot of burning tea that I’ve become obsessed with. Twenty rupees for a taste of heaven. While I drink it in an expresso-sized mug, many pour theirs into the saucer to cool it down and drink it from the plate itself. The masala chai is certainly not what has made me ill, it has been a remedy for my stomach and mind.

I drank the best cup of tea early Sunday morning in the tiniest open tea place with a direct view on the gate of the Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur. As the starting point to the famous Heritage Walk around the old city of Ahmedabad, the temple is said to be the first of the Hindu sect and was built by Lord Swaminarayan himself in 1822. It has several buildings, the main one is exceptionally colourful, to the image of its devotes in their vibrant-coloured clothing. Men and women pace around round the central isle, to make their presence know by the divine. Then as men are allowed close to the idols to pay their respects, women stay behind the barriers to that purpose, sitting on the floor, they rest and pray with small children. I was lucky enough to witness a prayer’s chant, sang by women and men alike, it resonated within the walls. The women’s temple is a few feet away, more intimate, it feels more like a home. Indeed, women live within the rooms of the temple and on the bannisters they hang their scarlet saris to dry. At each corner I found women making flower garland for the holy offerings. A large ballroom-like space dominates the center, where at eight in the morning, half-a-dozen women were sweeping, mopping and scrubbing. On a loud speakerphone a man’s voice was preaching gender roles in Hindi, my friend translated: women should be dutiful house carers.

This explicit separation of men and women’s spaces and roles in Hindu culture is not surprising but frustrating to me in terms of gender equality. As I perceive it, while men are able to get closer to the divine, women are left backstage, less holy and more sinful. A vicious circle which prevents women of menstruating age to enter some temples as they may dirty the icons simply by the nature of their gender. When I first visited a Hindu temple I was saddened to see a large notice informing women on their ‘monthly time’ not to enter or they would suffer the consequences. The woman’s natural body is viewed as unholy yet having a reproductive body is necessary for societal acceptance as the pressure to bear children is immense. This difference of gender access to religious spaces goes beyond the holy, it carries social and political meaning because it is coupled with power. Seemingly, men have the power to physically enter a space without being imposed boundaries and as such, the symbolic power of having greater proximity with the divine. Then, as I understand it, women seem to have less religious ability and less symbolic power, thus they may embody a lesser gender within Hindu society and culture.

The conciliation of gender politics and religion is a controversial and ongoing debate which needs a lot more importance than is currently being given by the media. The taboo which surrounds religion and gender should be addressed through dialogue which the media has the means to provide space for. I would love to hear your own thoughts and arguments on this issue as there is never one truth, and the truth is certainly not that of a white atheist woman in a country which is far from her own.

Eager stares

Earlier today I experienced a full blow of Indian culture at the annual Hindu procession Jagannath Rath Yatra. Crowds of people gathered in the streets, seeking the highest points to get the best view of the decorated elephants and chariots on the first day of the festival. I have to say, the spectators were more entertaining than the spectacle itself to me. Many had dressed for the occasion, I noticed young girls had applied makeup and dark kohl contoured men, women and children’s eyes. Keen onlookers could be spotted everywhere, from the top of buildings, to tree branches and squeezed on top of buses. They could have been there minutes or hours but they waited under the blissful slight drizzle of rain, seemingly brought about by the holy event.

When all eyes weren’t on the procession or phones desperately trying to capture the the parade, many were on me. Only white shade among the colours, people passed the time by looking at me with curiosity and leant in to listen to the English conversations with my Indian chaperones. My lip piercing arouse inquisitive looks from women standing close by to whom I tentatively explained it was the same as the ones in their noses. They freely fiddled with it, trying to understand how I could take it out. The Gujarati women had done the same. When walking away I wondered if the numerous pairs of eyes looking at me were more intrigued by the presence of a foreigner among them or the strange piercing I bear.

In fact, as a young white woman walking in the streets and parks of Ahmedabad I get my fair share of stares. Some stares are glimpses which quickly look back down at their phone or the road ahead. Some stares are long enough to consider my pale face. Some stares linger a little longer, following me as I walk by, and some are literally a turn of a head from within a rickshaw or, more worryingly, from a two-wheeler which momentarily looses focus on the unexplainably busy roads of Ahmedabad. I have actually been concerned for the safety of these people as they get honked at through the traffic.

The looks come from all pairs of eyes, young, old, male and female. Only the cows seem oblivious to my whiteness. It has made me uncomfortable at times, sure, but I have learnt to get used to it and so far mostly only good things have come from this unsolicited attention. Because a stare means I can also stare back! I can stare back at the women I admire so much in their dazzling garments, I can stare back at the men skillfully making chai from the small stove on their cart, I can stare back at the lively children running around in the streets and riding the horses at the night market. This ability to stare is something I am slowly teaching myself to do because it feels so unnatural, almost illicit. My education has prohibited me from staring because it is rude. It’s rude to stare because it’s invasive, it’s unwanted and makes you feel unsafe. But human beings are curious, and we look at one another constantly but with the art of pretending not to. Here in India I have not felt like people pretend; they don’t pretend when they stare, they don’t pretend when they share and they don’t pretend when they help. So my whiteness has undoubtedly brought about whole-hearted stares but along with it it has delivered honest interest, will to assist and true desire to showcase their culture to me. For that, I am grateful for their stares.

Single?

Within the first few hours of landing in the sizzling weather of Ahmedabad city I was asked twice if I was married. As I have been queried now time and time again in the ten days since my arrival, I realize the question is not so much whether I am married but when am I going to marry?!

Marriage is one of the major social institutions in India as it a traditional requirement for Hindus which make up 80% of the population. Beyond religion, marriage is the culmination of a girl’s preparation to the gendered roles she has been pre-assigned to, on the basis of her sex. Commonly a bride moves out of her natal household and into her marital family, simultaneously adopting the position of wife, daughter-in-law and expectedly of mother too. Marriage then provides women with a three-times-over confirmed identity which is condoned and celebrated by the majority of Indian society.

Then of course, their concern is legitimate and kind-hearted: when will I be confirmed in my womanhood? But from the height of my Western-bred twenty-one years of age, wanting to travel the world and live everything I can before being stranded by marriage responsibilities, the question is daunting. A harmless profiling of my inquisitors gives an insight into the embededness of the marriage ritual here in Western India. 

Suspect number one was a woman in her 70s, mother of three children including one unmarried hardcore feminist woman, she misunderstood my definition of family. When I said my family lived in the South of France, I meant my Mum, Dad and brothers. Not quite the husband and son she asked after. I narrated my dreams of travel and adventure to her before any wedding plans with my now long-term boyfriend.

It was those stories she translated to Suspect number two, the female cleaner. Intensely looking at me, she put her hands together as a sign of union and raised her eyebrows inquisitively. I shook my head for the negative. A Hindi conversation between themselves and a male cleaner followed, of which I had no part in, partly because I cannot put two words of Hindi together. Yet, I strongly felt that the matter wasn’t simply about my personal love life, but about what it meant about me and how I perhaps didn’t conform to their social expectations.

Suspects number three were the Gujarati women in Mount Abu. The fascination I had for them was undoubtedly mutual. I had the paradoxical feeling of being an utter outsider, ignorant of most things and teased when I couldn’t interpret their words but unconditionally included in their gatherings. Multiple times I was quizzed on my romantic status and I sensed the gossip when I admitted having a boyfriend. My phone, displaying pictures of him and I, was passed around to every woman who (to my amused delight) seemingly approved of his looks. I discerned their relief that I was not just a single white woman roaming India alone.

Strolling in Parimal Park after work one day I met Suspect number four and five. My white skin and unescapable foreigner look attracted the attention of some young people who came to say hi. Eventually the whole urban family greeted me warmly. After asking my name, the aunt’s question followed: ‘Single?’. The one-word-question was key to define me. As I would ask someone’s age, she asked of my relationship status. Suspect number 5, the woman sitting on the bench beside me was shocked and perhaps concerned to know that the boyfriend is not in Ahmedabad, or even in the country with me. She herself had, out of obligation, moved from Mumbai to her husband’s household in Ahmedabad when she married: ‘I have to live here, my husband is here’.

The final Suspect, a SWATI colleague, asked of my marriage plans while I was having diner with her, her husband and their brilliant ten-year-old son. Explaining I was in no rush she found puzzling that I would need to wait although I’d found the right person. She married just before her 30s, late in her point of view because having a child after thirty is ‘medically not as simple’ and less accepted here, in Gujarat. Girls marry and give birth early but are surrounded with their marital and natal families, facilitating the process and making it okay. ‘Everyone gets married’ she said, perhaps worried that I would find myself lonely in the future if I didn’t officialize the bond soon enough.

In hindsight, the matter was always brought up by women and never by men. Perhaps it is socially unacceptable for men to ask about a woman’s marital status. But maybe the wholly identity it gives to women makes it a primary concern for them.

Colourful saris

The sari (or saree) is the traditional Indian dress worn by women and gosh, they are beautiful. They come in the most vibrant colours you could imagine and probably wouldn’t dare wearing out in Western Europe.

When I boarded the night bus from Ahmedabad to Mount Abu, thirty Gujarati women were already in the bus. Each of them belongs to a women’s collective in their respective communities and receive more of less regular training on gender issues from SWATI. This time it was happening in the mountain station of Mount Abu, in Rajasthan. The chaotic organisation of the night bus was a spectacle for my eyes. All the women were dressed in brilliant-looking saris and adorned the typical golden jewelry on their noses and ears. Around their necks, ankles, wrists and toes more shinning accessories jingled together. I admit I couldn’t stop admiring and the women stared back curiously at me, a white woman among the sea of colours.

I wondered whether they had packed and dressed for the occasion. As the days went on in Mount Abu, each woman wore a different coloured sari from the previous day. They washed their garments in their bathrooms in the hotel and hanged them on the railings to dry in the mornings. As they dried I realised (quite naively) that the saris were not more than wide, long pieces of textile that they skillfully draped around themselves with matching cropped and fitted tops.

I found it interesting yet confusing that women in India may not traditionally wear clothing showing their legs or shoulders but the nature of the top can reveal their bare skin sometimes from bellow the chest to just above the navel. In my own mind a woman’s waist is more sensual than her knees and shoulders. I read up on this but didn’t find any consensus, some say it allows women to breastfeed easily, others claim it provides ventilation. In fact, the subject is sensitive because Western understandings of sexuality and what appears as sensual (including my own perspective) sheds a critical and, in fact, an objectifying eye on a traditional garment which Westerners do not own. The Indian community online is defensive of the sari and legitimately so; Westerners have no right in sexualizing it. In light of this I realize I myself looked at the sari with the sensual symbolisms of Western culture.

But the sari carries meanings of its own. A SWATI colleague explained that the sari is expected to be worn by married women as a sign of respect towards their husband. They may also cover their heads and sometimes their faces with it, in consideration for older men in the household. In her words ‘patriarchy works in various and curious ways’. Then it was painful to see a young girl attired in a kaki-coloured sari, walking behind – presumably – her mother-in-law on a day when she could have been in school.