Before I moved to India I did not consider myself a feminist at all. I had a very hardcore-feminist girlfriend who used to bring all our topics of conversation down to women’s conditions, and she was really annoying (we actually fell out). But the condition of women in rural India is so revolting that it is impossible not to be a feminist here… This post is about the condition of traditional Indian women as I have witnessed it, and I include ‘rural’ in the word ‘traditional’.
My relationship with women in rural India is not easy. I would very much love to have more to share with them and to do something to empower them because I feel for their hardship, but I get excruciatingly bored in their company and – most of all – I honestly feel most of them don’t actually want to change. It is mind-boggling to see how conditioned and brainwashed the human mind can be, and I have never met more brainwashed than the female traditional Indian mind.
Discovering traditional Indian women
When I arrived in Kishan’s family in 2008 to learn about traditional Indian families and learn Hindi in immersion I just had no idea. His sisters were super sweet (they still are!) and it was nice to discover their lifestyles and to spend time with them. They loved decorating me like a doll and they used to laugh at my attire and habits. It was culturally very interesting, for them as much as for me I think. I got to know how they lived, how they cooked on the floor, how they spent time together. They too seemed interested to find out about my foreign self, but it never went further than what they had in front of them, i.e. me in their context. They were not interested to learn anything about my life in Europe; all they seemed interested in was to make me one of them.
More than ten years later my presence never inspired them to change. Even though I speak Hindi and we can communicate pretty well, it is exactly the same today – well, except that I am no longer a subject of curiosity to them. In all that time, I only remember having had one ‘deep’ conversation with Kishan’s youngest sister, in which all she asked me about Europe was if life there was that hard for women. That’s it.
Traditional Indian women: my relationship to them
In the beginning I was feeling uncomfortable about my freedom and my ‘educatedness’ around them. I was going out as I wanted to meet men or other tourists, I was eating out, and I talked to anyone as I pleased. I was becoming uncomfortable because I was wondering if they might not be envious of my freedom. All they did all day, every day, was cooking and sweeping (sometimes three times a day) and mopping the floor, dusting shelves, tidying, spending hours making chapatis, cleaning rice and lentils and wheat… And praying morning and evening. When they were not working, they slept, chatted or watched TV. Sometimes one sister would make a tunic with the sewing machine and another would practise henna tattoo on her arm or learn some Bollywood dance moves from a show on TV. They hardly got out of the house except to go to the temple.
For many years I felt bad for not doing so much cleaning and cooking, even though it was accepted because I was considered as a guest. I kept comparing myself to them, but it took me a long time to realise (or rather, to accept!) that there was no point in feeling bad because they were not envious with my way of life. They were too conditioned to think that their way of life was right. They didn’t want an alternative, if they did it was inaccessible for them or frown upon by their community, and respect from the community – reputation – means EVERYTHING in rural India. Tradition is SO important to them that they prefer to suffer than to challenge it.
For a few years, when I was free from work because I still had money, I basically had nothing to do when I came to Khajuraho. So when Kishan’s sisters had time we would play some games like Ludo or Rummikub all together. But Kishan’s mother never played because she has never played such games in her life. By the way, I sometimes used to play card games with Kishan and some male neighbours as well, but women just don’t play card games. As time passed though we stopped playing games, because I started having too many things to do and we lost interest, and the sisters got married and left the house to live with heir husbands anyway. Today I only share the practicalities of daily life with my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law when they visit, and although we enjoy one another’s company it doesn’t go further than that. Sometimes ‘culture-clashes’ still occur due to Hindu rules, but generally we have successfully learnt to live together.
As for other female relatives and neighbours, all they want to do with me is make me wear sarees and bangles and toe-rings and a bindi and the sindoor in my hair parting (the symbols of married women). And when new women meet me they just ask if I can cook or make chapatis or sweep the floor. They have absolutely no interest in knowing how else life can be. If I am in the room with them, even though I speak Hindi, they ask questions about me to my mother-in-law rather than ask me directly. It feels like to them I am a source of intense curiosity as well as both wonder (because I am so free and educated) and despise (because I don’t belong to any cast, I am ‘impure’, I am not good at house chores and I don’t wear all the things married women are supposed to wear)… So I used to sit on my bum in a corner, uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to say, but today I no longer try to fit in to make them happy. I only make an effort for my close family.
Women in rural India: a typical day in their lives
Traditional Indian women’s lives can be summarised in four things: house chores, religion, family matters and beauty-related stuff. Hardly anything else.
Here is a typical day for women in rural India. Although life has improved a lot in our house since I have arrived in the family (for instance we have a proper water supply now so we no longer need to fill buckets every morning, we have a washing machine and a maid comes to make chapatis everyday), this describes a typical day for my female neighbours and for Kishan’s sisters in their in-law families.
She gets up at 6 am, sometimes even earlier. She sweeps and mops the entire house, then fills buckets of water for the day (or part of it) – she might have a water pump in her house, if not she goes outside to the nearby pump and brings back pots of water on her head. In remote villages some women still go to get water at the well, and some might have to walk far away. If she is married, while out to get water she often has to cover her head and face completely with the end of her saree to hide herself from her husband’s elders who may see her on the way. Then she goes for a bowel movement – many of them don’t have proper toilets at home so they have to go to a nearby field to relieve themselves. After that she takes her bucket shower – often cold. Many women don’t shower naked but in their petticoats. (Hindus shower AFTER bowel movement for purity reasons – find out more Hindu rules here). While she showers she also washes all her clothes by hand, as well as that of her children and husband, sometimes also those of her parents-in-law and house clothes (bedsheets etc.) She may also wash the dishes before shower. After that she gets dressed and performs the daily puja (prayer) which implies cleaning all the deities’ statues with water, worshipping them, chanting and doing japa (meditative repetition of a mantra or a divine name). The ritual can take from twenty minutes to an hour, maybe even longer on certain festivals. Before or after prayer she cooks chai (tea) for the family, and she might cook some breakfast as well – a rice dish called poha or a kind of flat breads called parathas – for the family and her children to take to school. She might have breakfast herself, in any case only after prayer. I quite often hear my mother-in-law on the phone reminding her daughters not to work too much and to take time to eat, because they often have a tendency to get caught in their chores and they get weak! Then she cooks for the entire day – usually rice, lentils, a vegetable dish and chapatis (simple flat breads).
Afternoon & evening routine
If she is married, she is the last one who has her lunch – after the men of the house and after her in-laws, and she usually eats in the kitchen while the men (and visitors) eat in the ‘common room’. She takes a nap after lunch. In the afternoon, she may have to fill the buckets again so that there is enough water in the house for the rest of the day, and she may also sweep the floor once again (there is a lot of dust in India!) Then she washes the dishes again and puts them away. Every couple of weeks or so, she cleans the wheat and spreads it out to dry on the rooftop before a man will take it for grounding. (Families typically buy wheat for the entire year and store the grains in an enormous round metal container). If visitors come round the house, she (particularly the daughter-law) serves the guests – starting with a glass of water, then chai and snacks and biscuits – making sure her head is covered with the end of her saree. When she is free, she may rest and spend time chatting with the women of the house, or she may watch some series on TV (usually series dealing with religion, Indian ‘history’ or conjugal matters), or she might make ‘candles’ out of cotton and small containers out of wheat dough for prayer purposes. A few times a year she fasts for her husband or for a deity, or there might be a festival for which she has to cook various pastries and sweets. Sometimes in the evening she changes her saree and makes herself beautiful go out to the temple (a man takes her there or she may go out with other women, but not alone). When she comes back home she performs another (short) evening prayer for the house, called ‘sandhya‘. She is usually free after this, but she may have to cook another vegetable dish if the one she made in the morning was not enough.
Traditional Indian women: their relationship to men
When they are children, girls and boys play very freely together. After puberty everything changes, and the divide between teenage girls and boys gradually widens until they reach adulthood.
Traditional Indian Women and men live parallel lives
Except between siblings, traditional Indian women and men don’t have much to do with one another. They don’t share any interests or any conversation topics except for religious or family-related subjects and the practicalities of living together. They certainly don’t do anything fun together, because friendship between men and women is inconceivable – it is considered something else and frown upon by the local community. As I see it, this is certainly why rural Indians remain very immature when it comes to emotional awareness. Even as adults they behave like teenagers with regards to love and intimacy issues – you see it very much in Bollywood movies.
To me it feels a bit like men and women have parallel lives – as though they live in separate bubbles.
- Women do the things women are supposed to do and men don’t interfere in woman-matters. Men do the things men are supposed to do and women don’t interfere in man-matters. Traditional Indian women make sure the house is clean, cook and raise children. Men provide an income, deal with DIY or repairing things, do the shopping and take people places. You won’t see a father change a nappy but it is him who takes the children to school because it involves going out and driving. Many women don’t even go food shopping (they never do in my family except on special yearly markets), which is where the culture of ambulant sellers comes from.
- When I go out for a chai in the evening with Kishan, I am always the only woman (unless we meet some foreigners). And obviously men go out for a drink only among men.
- When there is a formal family gathering – for example when we visit Kishan’s sisters in their in-law families – men and women are always separate – in two different rooms or on one and the other sides of a room if there is less space in the house. And men eat together in the common room while women eat together in the kitchen (only after they have served the men).
- Women deal with birth while men deal with death. Men are forbidden in ladies’ wards in hospitals (even for an ultrasound), and women don’t go to cremations.
I FIND THIS SO, SO SAD!!!
Traditional Indian women depend on men
In rural India, women depend on men. As a local teenage girl said in an interview for the documentary Body & Soul, “when a girl is a child she depends on her parents. If she wants to go out she depends on her brother. After she gets married she depends on her husband. And when she is old she depends on her sons.”
Traditional Indian women and girls are so over-protected that they can’t do many things for themselves so they become vulnerable and they are conditioned to think it is normal. In many villages some may still not go to school if there is too much work to do at home or if the family doesn’t have enough money. Even when they do, the education in village schools is so poor that children can hardly read and write their own language.
In Khajuraho I think most girls do go to school, but education consists in learning everything by heart without any incentive for analysis, critical thinking and understanding. In Hindi, the verb ‘to learn’ is confused with the verb ‘to remember’. So basically all children learn is to do and repeat what they’re told, which doesn’t help them much later in life! Boys are usually raised to be more independent because they go out and do things. But girls stay at home from a young age so they don’t get the resources that would allow them to stand on their feet, because boys and men do everything for them outside the house. They stay behind, and they are extremely shy. When I ran auditions with my cousin Olivier to find local teenage boys and girls for his documentary Body & Soul we selected all the girls who dared turn up because only five did – out of at least thirty boys! We visited many schools to talk about his project and we couldn’t believe how shy and vulnerable most girls were! We actually frightened most of them.
Most girls and women don’t go to the town centre by themselves even if it is just a fifteen-minute walk. I give private English classes here, and most of my female students come together with a girlfriend. If one can’t come the other prefers to skip class rather than coming on her own, even for a ten-minute walk in daylight! One of my thirty-something sister-in-law once told me her head would spin if she walked that ‘far’ (fifteen minutes). One evening a seventeen-year-old female relative of Kishan’s had come to visit our family. Some of his sisters where here too and I had gone out with all the women for shopping. We all had taken a rickshaw into town, and when I decided to walk back home on my own with my daughter Kalyani in the baby carrier, she asked me in shock if I wasn’t scared. It was not even 8 o’clock and I had about ten minutes to walk! Another time my mother-in-law told me not to take Kalyani out to visit a neighbour too often because otherwise she would grow to like to “wander”. She has also accused me for being “so free”… Of course, they don’t travel on their own either. Whenever Kishan’s sisters want to come back to Khajuraho he or his brother has to travel hours by bus or train to go and pick them up, and their husbands or male relatives usually come to take them back home.
Unfortunately women here are so conditioned into believing that they are inferior to men that very often it is actually them who carry this culture of self-imprisonment and dependence.
Traditional Indian women: Life after marriage
Most marriages in traditional India are still arranged, with parents (or big brothers) finding husbands for their daughters (or sisters) and wives for their sons. A Hindu woman traditionally leaves her own family right after her wedding ceremony to go and live with her husband’s family who are often complete strangers to her – a drastic change in her life from one day to the next. In her new family she basically becomes a servant and she has to be ‘well-behaved’ and obedient out of respect for her in-laws. She has to be well-dressed to please her husband and she is supposed to look after her husband’s parents.
The symbols of married women in rural India
Traditional Indian women have to cover their head, and in front of their father-in-law and any of their husband’s male elders even their face. Countless times I have seen Kishan’s sisters pull the end of their sarees down to hide their face as soon as their father-in-law enters the room, and every time it makes me churn from the inside. This practice can be more or less slack depending on families’ ‘openness’ (one of Kishan’s sisters doesn’t do it), but most married women cover their heads at least.
Whereas men don’t have to wear any symbols showing that they are married, women have to wear seven (!!!)
- the saree, and they must cover their head/face with their palu (end of the saree),
- the sindoor (red powder in their head parting),
- a bindi (red dot) between their eyebrows,
- a mangal sutra, which is an ‘auspicious’ necklace that ensures the husband’s long life,
- churi (bangles),
- payal (anklets)
- bichhua (toe-rings).
Thus from her appearance you can spot straight away if a woman is married, but there is no-way to tell if a man is married or not!
A few times per year, Hindu women also have to fast the entire day for their husbands. However men never fast for their wives (and they do not wear any necklace to ensure their wives’ long life, either)…
Self-denial and a ‘property’ of their in-laws
Once married traditional Indian women depend on their husbands, and I would even go as far as saying that they are sometimes even considered a ‘property’ of their in-laws.
A few years ago one of Kishan’s sisters was having some health issues which we couldn’t diagnose. She came back to Khajuraho for treatment and because we were worried about her. The doctors in Khajuraho (and in her village) couldn’t help and we were considering trying out doctors in some big cities. We had two or three options, but we couldn’t decide where to send her because (as Kishan told me) “she now belongs to her in-law family so they have to decide”. I asked her where SHE wanted to go, but she didn’t seem to have any opinion about it. It felt like she didn’t even think health options were in her hands, which I found deeply unsettling.
Some years later, after our secret marriage had been revealed, Kishan’s eldest sister told me I should no longer consider myself French. “Now I am from [the name of her village] and you are from Khajuraho”, she said to me. I told her that there was no way I could deny my own roots, my own family and my life history, but in her ‘opinion’ I was supposed to forget all about my life before marriage. I felt revolted and really sad for her. I have witnessed another ‘practice’ implying that Indian traditional women have to deny their maiden life after marriage, and it is one that I find deeply symbolic. Women don’t even take their own ‘maiden clothes’ to their in-laws with them when they move after marriage. Not only do they go to live with a new, stranger family, they also give up their own wardrobe – a part of their identity! No more salwar kameez suits – not to mention jeans – after marriage, because their in-laws would disapprove! How sad! Instead they get new sarees in their dowry or as gifts during their wedding ceremony. I could not imagine having to part from my favourite comfy clothes after marriage!!! (By the way I do not wish to write about dowry in this long enough post, but although it was prohibited many years ago, it is still widely practised especially in more rural areas of India.)
The status of male in-laws in rural Indian families
We have seen above how traditional Indian women and men live kinds of parallel lives and how women depend on men. I also want to write about how much male in-laws are put on a pedestal in rural India.
Traditionally, the husband’s family is considered ‘superior’ to the wife’s family because they take the wife into their own family and support her financially for the rest of her life. To symbolise this, members of the wife’s family touch the feet of all the members of her husband’s family to greet them. Obviously it only goes one way.
When Kishan’s brothers-in-law and any relative male-in-law come to our house, my mother- and sisters-in-law treat them like absolute kings. Not only do they take great care so they have everything they need (like they are so good at doing with any guests), they also make sure the men do not get offended in any way and they respect all the codes that display their ‘superiority’. The men eat before everyone else and when women serve them they traditionally insist to give them more than they want even if they are full. They get a room and bed for themselves to sleep (if necessary the women give up their own bed and sleep on the floor). This is fine, but I think what comes next goes way too far.
Once a brother-in-law had spat red betel nut on the ground in front of our house, and although this is ordinary here I find it disgusting and I wanted to prevent this from happening for our guests’ sake, as we run a homestay and foreigners usually find it pretty gross as well! I wanted to tell him directly but my sister-in-law stopped me because she didn’t want him to be offended. Instead she wanted me to tell Kishan not to spit outside while her husband was in the room, so that he would not be told off directly but he would know that the message was addressed to him!!! Although I do appreciate how AMAZING Indians are at treating their guests, I thought this was way too much and I did later on (politely) ask my brother-in-law not to spit in front of our house…
Another respectful practice in India is not to call elders by their names. For example my nephews and nieces are supposed to call me ‘aunty’ rather than Vio (but they do call me by my name because they did it for years before my marriage was revealed and I prefer to be called by my name). This is valid for everyone not just for my brothers-in-law, but when Kishan’s sisters want to call their husbands, they resort using their eldest son’s names! To me this is just ridiculous…
Like I already wrote in my post about Hindu rules, a married woman can eat in her husband’s plate and eat her husband’s leftovers, but he won’t eat in her plate or eat her leftovers… And in some places a woman addresses her husband formally (using ‘aap‘ in Hindi), while he addresses her informally (using ‘tum‘). (Note that I have not witnessed this rule with my sisters-in-law but in Varanasi.)
Even when husbands are abusive of their wives they have to be shown respect. One of Kishan’s sisters has been abused by her in-laws and even though our family obviously talk very badly of them in their back, it is amazing how pleasant and smiley they manage to be in front of them whenever they visit. I just don’t have that ‘skill’! Is this diplomacy or hypocrisy or cowardice?! But women will too often prefer to stay with a husband who beats them up because divorce would mean ruin and loss of their reputation, and often their own family won’t support them in this decision (our family does!!!) Like I said above they often don’t have the skills required to stand or their feet and live independently, which is why many wouldn’t even think about rebelling themselves and just hope that things will get better…
Married women and their mother-in-law
Married women have to be very obedient to their mother-in-law, who can be real pests and even cruel. This is where women themselves could change their conditions, but it seems that traditional Indian women prefer power (or revenge?) over compassion, so once their sons are married many inflict the ordeal they used to suffer onto their own daughters-in-law rather than try to understand them… Of course, not all of them are like that but many are, and they can even impose their rules in terms of child-raising and education! Kishan’s youngest sister ‘could not’ use nappies with her baby boy because her mother-in-law wouldn’t let her, and as a result she was sleep-deprived for months. And whenever her mother-in-law sits on a chair she has to sit on the floor to respect her ‘status’ by remaining below her. She enjoys giving orders and will sometimes create mundane tasks to keep her working. Another of Kishan’s sister is very close to her own sister-in-law (both wives of two brothers) but their mother-in-law keeps them busy so they can spend less time together, or she makes up stories to create conflicts between them. The in-laws of Kishan’s abused sister prevented her to see our family and confiscated her phone to stop her from getting in touch with us for over two years. It is not always that bad, but basically there is a lot of pathetic bitching going on, and traditional Indian women spend a lot of time involved in pointless conflicts.
All this affects their health a lot. Many women in rural India are anaemic because they don’t feed themselves properly since they are so engrossed in housework, and they are convinced of their own worthlessness so they accept their plight. One of my sisters-in-law has chronic chest pain, another one “sees ghosts”, and another has difficulty walking stairs at age 35. I just think they lack body and mind awareness, and the endless conflicts they are involved in (within themselves as well as with their in-laws) creates psycho-somatic illnesses. Whenever Kishan’s sisters come back to Khajuraho the first days are always spent ranting about their mothers-in-law, and there is a lot of brooding over the past as well… What is it all about? Most of it just goes over my head, but it all revolves about the family’s or one’s saving of reputation, following or non-following of rules and codes of respect. That uncle didn’t touch so and so’s feet, that aunty talked badly of so and so in front of an elder, blah blah blah…
Traditional Indian women: what they think of modern women
A few years ago, a young French woman visited Khajuraho because she was writing a dissertation about female emancipation through education as part of her studies. She wanted to interview the teenage girls of the family in which she was staying, and I helped with translation. Although I have forgotten the details, the jist of the interviews have remained with me. When asked what they wanted to do in their lives, all said they wanted to study but that if their parents wanted them to get married they would comply and give up their studies. When asked if they had a boyfriend at school, all said no but after the interview they ran after us to whisper in our ears that they did like a boy. During the official interview they had answered what they were ‘supposed’ to answer, i.e. what they had been told was ‘right’, but they told us the truth after we had stopped recording! It was also very difficult to take them away from their mother to get their individual answers. For example when we asked a girl what she wanted to do after her studies, her mother didn’t let her speak for herself and she replied for her! We also asked them what they thought of emancipated women in big cities, and although they all seemed pretty envious of their freedom, they all replied that the way they lived was ‘wrong’.
Traditional Indian women are basically taught from a young age to forget about their body and soul, to bury their emotions and swallow their tears to appear ‘well-behaved’ and obedient on the outside. In a way they are extremely strong because they endure an ordeal men would never accept for themselves (I think!) But physically it makes them ill and weak. They are convinced of their worthlessness and ‘inferiority’ compared to men.
Although I have been witnessing the conditions of women in rural India for over ten years, I will never get used to them – because it is neither possible for me nor desirable to get used to them. As an independent Western woman I would love to be able to do something to help, but 99% of the time there is nothing I can do to change things and I feel hopeless, because reputation and tradition is far too strong and engrained in their minds that they don’t want to or just cannot change. It is just impossible to challenge the way people have lived for thousands of years. So I just get on with my own life. Many of my female neighbours both admire and despise me at the same time because I live the way I live, and regularly I get angry and exasperated but I just let it pass and move on, because I am far better equipped psychologically to deal with it.
I shall end this article with an expression I would love to eradicate from the local Hindi language, because I cringe inside every time I hear it. This expression is ‘ghar-vali’, which means ‘the one who stays at home’ or ‘the one of the home’ – just another word for ‘wife’…
21 Hindu rules I’ve had to live with
Relationship with my mother-in-law (still to come…)
How arranged marriages get arranged (still to come…)
(Body & Soul – Directed by Olivier Grinnaert – Clair-Obscur Productions. Not released yet.)