Kel and I are sitting on the granite steps of a design firm in an affluent neighborhood in Ahmedabad. Kel lights a cigarette and passes it to me. An old man approaches on a scooter. After parking, he walks up to Kel (who sits about 10 inches away from me) and smiles. “You know”, he says, looking at Kel and ignoring me, “people here would be very surprised to see a woman smoking.” Judging by the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, he might as well say “control your wife” or “I feel sorry for you that you married such a woman.”
Now, most of the time I smoke inside or behind bushes.
My interactions with the outside world are almost non-existent here in India. When I open my mouth in an attempt to negotiate an auto-rickshaw deal, I am ignored. When we meet random people and Kel is asked if he wants tea, I am ignored. When I ask a question in a store, Kel receives the answer, and I am ignored. It is rare that a stranger shakes my hand. Perhaps some of these interactions would be different if I was traveling alone, but in that case I would have a different problem: “Eve teasing”
I have traveled to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and, most recently, Indonesia. In each of these countries, I was acknowledged. This is not to say that gender inequality is not a massive problem in the Islamic world. But while politicians in the US and the Netherlands rail against the sexism and “retarded culture” of Islamic societies, most are free with their praise for majority-Hindu India. The country is held up as the anti-China, notable for its democratic ideals and entrepreneurial innovations. In the midst of this praise, a harsh reality is ignored.
A week ago, India released its 2011 census data. The results are unnaturally lopsided. For every 1000 male children in the country, there are only 914 girls. The problem is getting worse, and the male/female ratio is now the lowest it has been since India’s Independence. Girl fetuses are routinely aborted after in utero sex testing. Female babies are killed with alarming regularity. A female life is simply worth less here than a male life.
I admire the spirit of women in India for putting up with this inequality every day of their lives. That said, now would be an ideal time for them to collectively address the massive sexism that exists across all layers of society. Their country is developing at a rapid pace and the global media is eager to paint it as a rising economic super power. Confidence is soaring here, and I sincerely hope that some of this country’s newfound self-assurance will trigger a reevaluation of women’s place in the world.
But until that happens, you can find me in the bushes.
(text by Eline Jongsma)