Celebrating the women of India

Photograph of Sri Mata Amritanandamaya Devi, Amma, The Hugging Saint of India

Sri Mata Amritanandamaya Devi

India, sexism and the media

On May 27, the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper, ran an article by the paper’s India correspondent Stephanie Nolen entitled, Female face of power reflects change in India. The story is about how Nolen sees it is a paradox that five of India’s leading political power brokers are women. Nolen says, “…it is startling in the context of the intense discrimination against women and girls that permeates every aspect of life across class, communities and geography here.”

I find “sweeping, ethnocentric statements” like this depressing. Nothing against Nolen, who is a top-notch reporter and an excellent writer; and I realize that there’s lots of evidence to support this charge. Here’s my problem. This statement makes India sound like a bleak and dismal place, full of gloomy women chained to their stoves. It dismisses the MANY cheerful, accomplished, successful and outspoken women in India. It overlooks the strengths and advantages of traditional culture, such as strong family bonds. It’s written by a western reporter (from Canada), which makes it sound as if the west is free from sexism. It fails to understand the diversity, complexity and fluidity of India. And it reinforces the worst stereotypes about India.

It’s also not my experience. This is the reason I’m not working in mainstream media (though I have a degree in journalism). I don’t believe in so-called “objectivity” and I don’t want to write “sweeping, ethnocentric statements.” I like to write in a subjective genre — creative non-fiction or personal narrative — because I believe truth is in our subjective experience of life.

I am only a traveler, I have only spent about 14 months in India, but when I am there, I live in an Indian household. The women in that household are strong, expressive and, in my experience, rule the roost. I found the same to be true when I lived in Japan. Women have power, but it is largely private, not public. And I have met many strong, independent women all across India. So, in response to the statement that sexism permeates every aspect of life, I would like to celebrate the women of India.

Women I admire

Photograph of Kuchipudi dancer Shobha Kormabil

Kuchipudi dancer Shobha Kormabil

I would like to tell you first about Geeta, who I live with in Delhi. She is small-boned, fair-skinned and beautiful, was married at 17, (in an arranged marriage) and had her first child on her 18th birthday, 45 years ago. She has a relaxed yet firm way of keeping her family together and on track, and of organizing and running the household. She doesn’t interfere unless necessary. But when she issues a command, everyone obeys. Geeta carries the keys to the store room; she is the only person who can access the room with the locked door, behind the silk curtain, that contains all the family treasures. Until about two years ago, Geeta wore a sari every day of her life. Recently, she started exercising, going for walks, wearing pants and even jeans, and going on vacation without her husband. At 63 years of age, Geeta has raised her children, and is now coming into her own, and no one is stopping her. She’s a strong woman, yet very feminine. I adore her.

Photograph of Freya, Bangalore, India


In Bangalore, I met Freya, a young Muslim women who breaks all the stereotypes. She wears western clothes, has short spiky hair and drove her motorcycle across India on an eight-month odyssey. And blogged about it. She works in social media, has a photographer boyfriend and pursues a modern and creative lifestyle. I bonded with Jaya in Bundi, and called her “sister.” Jaya is a late-20-something young women from a very traditional family and very traditional culture who is fiercely determined to live her own life and is not the least interested in getting married. She speaks freely and is a refreshingly unselfconscious person.  Her family owns and runs a haveli hotel, and she works hard and takes responsibility for the management.

In Mumbai, I stayed with Jasmine, a writer, who is as strong, as confident and as sure of herself as any man could ever be. She had a successful career as a banker before she quit to become a writer. She has tackled her career as a writer with strategy, ingenuity and absolute determination. She is very inspiring. Shobha Korambil, in Chennai, is a married woman, with a daughter, who devotes a very large amount of her time and energy to her dance career. She is a beautiful woman and, I am sure, an exquisite Kuchipudi dancer. Also in Chennai are the women teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, past and present — who are remarkably intelligent and strong.

Photograph of Dr. Vanadana Shiva

Dr. Vanadana Shiva

I also want to mention a few women in India I admire, and haven’t met. Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned environmentalist, eco-feminist and author, educated in Canada (Ph.D in Philosophy) and founder of Navdanya, a research facility, seed bank and centre for environmental activism near Dehradun.

Arundhati Roy is a novelist who won the Booker prize for The God of Small Things. She is also an outspoken activist who often finds herself mired in controversy, but she never backs down. Whether you agree with her often controversial views, you have to admire her courage and conviction. For example, she donated the $30,000 in prize money she received for The God of Small Things to the Narmada Dam protest.

Sri Mata Amritanandamaya Devi, known the world over as Amma, “the hugging saint,” is an inspiring spiritual leader who seems to have super-human control over herself (she can give darshan to thousands of people, by hugging them, for many, many hours on end without a break and without tiring). She has attracted legions of followers, and uses the money they donate to help build hospitals, schools and provide relief for tsunami victims, among other worthwhile projects. (I was hugged by her at her ashram in Kerala in 2006.)

To judge or not to judge

So how do writers and travelers approach social inequity and other issues in countries that are less developed, or less materially rich, than the ones we come from? I try to be very careful when I am in India and when I’m writing about India not to be too ethnocentric, not to practice what I call “cultural imperialism.” I wrote a blog about it called Sub-continental divide: How to write about about India.

I know that India has many social problems, but I also know it has many challenges compared to my country, Canada — such as a population of 1.2 billion. (Canada has only 30 million. But not to suggest that Canada is perfect. I don’t write about it, but my comfortable, middle-class upbringing in Canada includes abuse and neglect. I have experienced firsthand the downside of western culture, the break-up of families, alienation, anxiety, depression.)

Photograph of the women of India, in saris, shopping in Bangalore

The “ladies who lunch” in Bangalore

India is also a very, very different culture compared to Canada — it’s a very old culture with deeply embedded traditions (such as the caste system) and a very different philosophical and spiritual foundation — and a difficult place for westerners to understand. I’ve been trying for years and my Indian partner Ajay reminds me daily about the things I don’t get. I think Mark Tully, former BBC bureau chief in Delhi, expressed it best in his book India’s Unending Journey. He said that after 30 years in India, he finally learned to be certain about uncertainty — that is what India taught him.

Photograph of book India's Unending Journey by Mark TullyIndia is the wrong place to look for certainty. Contradictions are the order of the day. The chaos, the diversity, the Hindu religious tradition, the ancient wisdom — all of it expresses the flow of life, the fluidity; the duality, and the non-duality behind it all. It’s what I love about India. I can turn off my rational brain — the side of my brain that always wants to know, that likes things to be black-and-white, that wants to know the “truth” —  and just go with the flow. I can experience the full spectrum of duality, opposites existing side-by-side, without judgment or reservation. And if I’m lucky, I can get glimpses of the divine non-duality underneath the play of opposites; I can experience the spiritual truth of advaita Vedanta.

So for now, I will try and avoid “sweeping, ethnocentric” statements and stick to describing my own experience.

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9 Responses to Celebrating the women of India

  1. byaheng barok June 2, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    i am one of those who originally thought that india and its women continue to live in the old way of life. that was my first impression of india when i got there. i’m glad to have been enlightened when i met women in delhi. your blog post is equally enlightening.

  2. Mariellen June 2, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Thanks for your comment Byaheng,

    The great thing about travel is that it can help break down stereotypes and get beyond sweeping generalizations. You can meet real people and find out what life is really like The media paints such a one-dimensional, often sensationalistic picture. It also helps if you get a chance, like me, to live on the “inside” of the culture.

  3. Meliha June 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    I love how you avoided/refrained from making “sweeping, ethnocentric” statements. So many people go to south Asia OR have heard or some south Asian traditions (like arranged marriage) and are so quick to judge and think “their way is better.”
    After one of my first trips to south Asia (Pakistan), I realized: “Hey, they might do things really different here, but it seems to work for them so who am I to judge/criticize?”
    I’ve been meaning to write something on my site about it, but just haven’t gotten around to it…maybe one of these days…


  4. Mariellen June 12, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Hi Meliha,

    I would love to read that blog, I hope you write it. It’s unfortunately true that many people have a very egocentric way of seeing the world — but luckily, there are lots of others who try to understand rather than judge.

  5. Bret @ Green Global Travel March 8, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    Great piece, Mariellen! Happy Women’s Day, and Happy Birthday! Sharing now…

  6. Shubhajit January 3, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    I’m not here defending India and men brutal actions in this society. but it is not like every women is raped and molested here, still India is a country where women rule the family life, decisions are made with the permission of women in almost all middle class families. it is the place where Women are worshiped in temples, yet they are brutalized in the hands of men.

    A nation is getting stronger and gain vitality through the strength and gentleness of women. but with the changing course of life, and if you believe in the time line of ancient Hindu scriptures, things get deteriorating gradually. Who says India is only one? Look at the American’s dream..every 2 minutes someone in the U.S is sexually assaulted. Each year there is about 2,07,754 victims of sexual assault and 97% rapists will never spend a day in jail. There is no point hating Indians and Indian structure..it’s a problem of humanity, the nature of evolution, don’t blame it to a nation alone..http://www.rainn.org/statistics

    • Mariellen Ward July 22, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      Very good point, thank you for adding it. It seems we are living in the Kali Yuga … human nature is evolving, I think; people are becoming more conscious and enlightened, but oh so slowly. A step forwards and a step backwards. And you are absolutely right, it’s not about nations, though some places do seem to be evolving faster. But then some places, like Canada, have a small population, a wealth of resources and high GDP. We are blessed.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo essay: Mumbai LocalMy Profile


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