The Power of Femininity in India

When I think about womanhood, I think about my mom. I’ve been lucky enough to learn about femininity through her empowering, elegant example – always reminding me that the purest form of beauty is not in a face or a body but in unconditional self-love. I grew up surrounded by women with university degrees stacked like jingling bracelets on their small wrists, women who rise before the sun (and before their husbands) to spread peanut butter on wheat bread in blazers and pencil skirts. I grew up knowing that I should never waste tears over a boy, that girls go to college to get more knowledge and boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, that with enough effort and enough talent, I could outrun, outsmart, and outperform any boy in my class. I was always characterized as “precocious,” but I think I was just lucky to learn confidence, to simply be told “yes, you can.”

This is a privilege I had not yet fully appreciated, not until my visit to India. Being a woman in India was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I spent a week saturated with both unease and admiration, embracing a culture that shocked me but also left me brimming with hope. The deep- rooted Indian patriarchy permeated my skin and my hair like the curry I had eaten for lunch, always lingering no matter how hard I tried to wash it down.

I learned about honor killings, widow immolation (Sati), and marital rape. I learned about the caste system, and how, according to Hindu societies, I am a woman because I didn’t fulfill my duties in a previous life, but with good behavior, I may be lucky enough to be born a man the next time around. I learned about dowries and arranged marriages, and I read an ad in a Delhi newspaper for an “issueless” divorcee “looking for a young, beautiful wife.” I saw nearly naked men floating in clear water at the base of a gorgeous waterfall while their wives watched from the top of the hill, their brilliant saris dripping in sweat in the 90-degree heat. I saw and I was angry.

Indian women are angry, too. While speaking with other college women from a local university, I told them what I saw, and they met my difficult questions with tougher answers. This is the generation of change, they assured me with shining eyes. They boasted their computer science, mathematics, and engineering majors, constructing future travel plans and careers in their heads just as I do, confident that all their dreams are at their fingertips.

These women, Jorjee, Beeya, and Anitta, are college-educated, formidable, and fierce. Instead of allowing patriarchal tradition to smother their ambitions, they continue to burn stronger and brighter. One day, I know I will meet Jorjee in Las Vegas (her ideal American vacation), I will hear about Beeya’s success as the next tech goddess and Anitta’s prowess in whatever field she decides to go into, because I know she can do anything she sets her mind to. I believe they, and women like them, will break the centuries-old mold that has hardened around India.

Inequality breeds hatred, egotism, discrimination, sorrow and pain – but in its downfall, it also gives rise to incomparable strength. India has enraged me, yet also deeply moved me in ways I could not have anticipated. I am the woman I am today because I have always been told “yes, you can,” but I am now more of a woman after meeting those you were told “no, you can’t” and watching them do it anyway.

Images courtesy of: Stephanie Harris