In January 1989, after finding I had gained a distinction in U221, and before launching into the 4th level course "Perspectives on Family Studies" I decided to use part of the holiday I had planned in India to study the impact of changing work practices in that country on family life, and particularly upon the role of women within the family.
I was fortunate to be offered board and lodging, and library facilities, by Dr Mrs Usha Khire at the Institute of Psychology in Pune. The Institute could not have been more helpful, despite the letter notifying them of my arrival never being delivered. I was introduced to several families, given meals and accommodation, and permitted to ask as many questions as I wished.
The Institute is part of a larger project to select children from all over India, educate both them and their families into providing a stimulating and thought-provoking environment, and then train the children not only in the traditional educational spheres, but in decision making, leadership and other values designed to prepare them to be future leaders of the nation. It all sounds slightly fascist, but it didn't come over that way, the kids seemed happy and stimulated, and ex-pupils returned to the institute to do both research and teaching.
There is a prevailing optimism throughout India. Maharashtra, the state I was in has only introduced free education for girls in the last few years, and yet everyone seems convinced that women will soon be in all the occupations and professions, and that there is no hint of discrimination. All professions are open to women, and there are already some women entrepreneurs and industrialists.
My first interview, as a pilot, was with Dr Khire's daughter. She said that as almost all women are working, they can no longer look after others, like their brother's or sister's family. Old people, on retirement, go to the house of a son, rather than to a daughter.
The first problem was to establish the difference between an extended and a joint family. A joint family is where two brothers and their wives and families, live in the same house. An extended family, is where the man's mother has returned to live with her son after the death of her husband. When there is a combination of the two, the mother in law rules the roost, the two wives defer to her in all matters of domestic arrangement, food purchasing and cooking.
In the last 15 to 20 years women have started earning to supplement the family income, but men still won't do the housework. If the mother is not working she doesn't like the son doing the housework, she still prefers the daughter to do it. I suggested that if the wife was in a well paid job her husband might stay at home and care for the children, but no-one had ever heard of this happening.
There is much more competition for education, the entrance examinations have become much stiffer. There are streets full of doctors surgeries, and there are lawyers outside the high courts begging for work. Women are still rare in mechanical engineering, because, I was told "it is a physical job". I argued that on every construction project I passed I saw women carrying heavy baskets of debris on their heads, "Yes but those are working class women".
There are few women in computing, though this a growth area for women who are already present in electrical and electronic engineering. Medicine and teaching are still the main areas for women "because of their caring role". After marriage a woman doctor might help her husband if he is also a doctor, but is unlikely to be in practice on her own.
In answer to my stock question "Are girls cleverer than boys?" I was told that the tendency of girls is towards hard work, "Girls are surpassing boys". An educated women ceases to be a burden on her parents, and doesn't need a dowry. Education is to get a better job not to broaden the mind.
In the working classes (as seen by these middle class people) the men sit at home, or drive a rickshaw to raise beer money, and the women work on the roads, or building sites, but they are still worried about their children.
I then spent some time with three male students, and the topics for discussion ranged far and wide, the lure of the city, television, corruption in government, women in politics. The overall feeling was the need for a return to Gandhian values. The discussion was terminated by the nightly "load shedding" power cut.
I met one woman whom everyone else thought "liberated", Vineeta Nagarkar. She thinks divorce is the final form of liberation. In the lower classes a woman will leave her husband readily for another relationship whereas a middle class woman will not. Separated and divorced women are not treated with respect. She felt she could not go to a restaurant alone and order a meal, nor would she go to a cinema alone.
Her husband was one of three brothers each of whom could only prepare one course of a meal. When they married, they each found they were unable to cook a whole meal for the family.
Next I visited the Navathe family where we discussed domestic violence. Mr Navathe suggested that if a sweeper's husband gets drunk and beats his wife, say, three times a week, she won't leave him, not only because of social conditioning, but because her parents won't have her back. The same applies to a middle class family, the parents have arranged the match, and to accept the daughter back would be to admit they have made a mistake. In an upper class family however, where the woman's brother may be a factory owner, then the woman can afford to walk out. Divorce was a luxury for the affluent.
We then discussed education. From 1890 women have played a visible part in Indian politics. In 1920 Gandhi asked women to come out of their houses and into politics. Girls going to school were harassed in the period 1910-1915. The marriage age then moved up to 14. Mr Karve, a social reformer, married a widow, and was ostracised by society, but went on to found the first women's university in Pune. Between 1938 and 1944 girls were sent to boy's schools, where they seemed to do as well as the boys, suffering none of the subject discrimination apparent in western schools. The All-India test for sharp minds brings forward as many girls as boys. In the final tally for BA, MA, BT, etc. the number of girls exceeds the number of boys.
The next morning I tackled the Navathe's bookshelves. In "The cultural heritage of India" I found these quotes: "As mothers, creators and sustainers of life on earth, women have special duties to perform.....but these by no means lower their dignity and status, or narrow down their outlook and ideals." and "The Women of India are pictured as setting before themselves not only the ideal of domestic efficiency but also, and above all, that of spiritual supremacy, which alone makes one a conqueror in the truest sense of the term".
In the evening I went to see the Bolail family. They live on the middle floor of a house in a converted warehouse. It used to be one of the palaces of the King. Downstairs is a family with four brothers and their families, 15 in all, all ruled over by the grandmother. This family are tinkers, they work in the car factory in the day, and repair pots and pans in the evening and early morning. Upstairs lived a family with 30 under the same roof. They all described themselves as "middle class", and seemed very happy with the domestic arrangements. We then walked to the Deshpande household, where we had a meal. I still cannot get used to sitting down with the men to eat, while the women stand around and serve. As soon as you finish any of the small dishes of food, or the large pile of rice, it is replaced with more. Only when the men are replete will the women help themselves to what remains.
My next visit was to the Nagarkar family. Mr Nagarkar was an architect, and mentioned that there were more girls than boys in his architecture class, and that equal numbers of women and men graduated as architects. He suggested that men wouldn't take orders from women on building sites, and that they would have difficulty dealing with labour disputes, but he admitted that even in these areas attitudes were changing.
The fourth day of my stay I interviewed some local professional men, an optician, a lawyer and a museum curator. We talked about sexuality, they all seem to think A.I.D.S. is rampant in Europe, and are scared of western women for this reason. One of them admitted that sex was for the pleasure of the man and that most Indian men cannot understand that women too should enjoy the experience. So much for the land of the Kama Sutra.
My overall impression was that everyone thought women had equality, though through my eyes it seemed not. In all my discussions with couples, they insisted that decision making was shared, including major purchases. The women somehow felt that their supporting role was not a subservient or inferior one, that by their provision of food and clothing their contribution to the family unit was as important as that of the wage-earning male.
In discussion on arranged marriages and dowry I was told by one parent "I have given this child twenty years of love and affection, what more can I give?". The government has now outlawed dowry, but there are cases, especially in Rajasthan of women being burnt to death because they bring insufficient dowry. I was also told of occasions where a bride has turned up at the wedding ceremony to be told that the marriage is off because the dowry is insufficient, and someone in the congregation standing up and saying "I'll marry you without a dowry", and the marriage going ahead with a new groom.
I met one couple where the wife's sister was in an arranged marriage with the husband's brother, but the parents would not agree to the younger sibling's "love marriage". This went on for nine years, her father having said he would never accept less than a certain amount for the dowry. In the end he said "Well if I'm not going to get that, I don't want anything", and they were wed.
India appears now to be going through the problems that England went through 150 years ago. As more people work in the factories, family life is disrupted, the nuclear family becomes the norm, and there is no-one to care for the old and the ill. People are flocking to the cities believing the streets are paved with gold, and they end up living in the gutter under sacks. There is a big publicity drive by the government to get these people back to the villages. New settlements are being constructed, and I found it rather sad to see new houses, with an obviously adequate water supply, standing empty and surrounded by abandoned fields.
The dearth of trees is also a problem, as is soil erosion, and women seem to have taken on ecology as being their special sphere of interest. I tried to obtain a book entitled "Staying alive, women, ecology and survival in India" by Vandana Shiva, but was unable to find it in any bookshop in south India, should anyone out there know the publisher I would be very grateful for the information.
In my travels around southern India, I noticed many "Colleges of technology for women", which is something else I've not seen in the west. There are women high-court judges, (how many of those in Britain?) and women newspaper proprietors, and both women and men seem convinced that women are treated equally. Nearly all the staff at the Institute of Psychology were women, and in many of the businesses I visited the directors and the accountants were women who had worked their way up through the ranks. Indeed there seemed to be a lot of women accountants, often with men doing the book-keeping.
I bought two magazines in India. One "Debonair" is a 'girly' type magazine, though it does attempt to tackle one or two social issues, albeit from a sexist male viewpoint, the other "Femina" is very much like women's magazines in Britain, though an article on "Problems in Families today" is not about affairs or divorce as it would be in a western publication, but about the increasing isolation of the nuclear family, and the problems of caring for the elderly.
Its a funny country really, the men wear skirts and the women wear trousers. The men have ankle length shirts, called lungis, but it is so hot they fold them at the waist to make miniskirts, and they spend much of their time fiddling with these, refolding them and tucking them in their waistbands. Underneath the lungi they wear little khaki shorts, I don't know why they bother with the lungi. The women simply pull the lungi up between their legs and tuck it in the waistband at the front, to make rather inelegant shorts or culottes.
There seem to be a lot of young men going round hand-in-hand, or with their arms around each other. I can't work out if this is just an extension of their lack of inhibition about bodily contact, which I found quite disturbing at times, or whether some sort of homosexual relationship is used as a substitute for the unavailability of heterosexual relationships for this age group.
I think that equality for women probably stands a better chance in India than in the west, because they do not have the cultural baggage of the Christian church, and in particular the misogynist teachings of St. Paul. The Indian pantheon includes women with equal powers to men, and throughout history there have been women rulers and warriors, and great social and religious leaders. The country has many problems, but the people I met seemed only too aware of them, and they looked to the west to try and learn from our mistakes and avoid them if possible. I only hope they succeed.
Content copyright Jon Rouse 1997