There’s been a lot of talk lately about India and it’s worrying sex ratio with men significantly outnumbering women and reportedly the chance that there could be 20% more men to women in the next two decades. That is a pretty scary figure and yet more proof that India, while racing ahead in many other aspects, remains sadly lagging behind when it comes to the way men and women are viewed. That was apparent to me not only as a woman travelling alone in India but from meeting other women there and it isn’t limited to disturbing sex-selective abortions but is there, spread in everyday life like an invisible yet smelly film over everything.
Of course I’ll be the first to acknowledge that men and women are viewed differently in all countries and we are not living in a rosy utopia of equality in the UK. But what struck me when I told Indian women that I was travelling alone was their sheer incredulity that I had embarked upon this journey. More than one girl said, “Here in India we don’t do that kind of thing.” Well I’m Indian too. “No, you’re not”, they’d say back to me. The girls I spoke to were slightly admiring yet mainly determined that they would not undertake such a journey alone. And these were not wide-eyed village girls but cafe latte-sipping, working urbanites.
This isn’t an uncommon fear – travelling alone is daunting for anyone and certainly wasn’t always a cup of tea for me – but it was the resigned acknowledgement that that was the way things were that I remembered. It was the accepted ‘Things will not change when it comes to deciding what women can and can’t do’.
Yes Western women are just as shackled to these ideas, being dragged along by their high heeled shoes in an imbalanced, hysterical, beauty-clutching, marriage-obsessed world. But the more ingrained nature of family values on the young people of India leaves a certain mark which is less in British society. The closeness of families in India leaves less room for traditional ideals to slip through and get forgotten or neglected – the ideas stick and breathe in the everyday air and become a part of their fibres.
This can be a good or bad thing but it is just part of our being more (when I say ‘our’, I speak as an Indian living in Britain, also living in these tight-knit ideas) because family has always been a more inherent part of Indian culture. And it is a good AND a bad thing because it keeps us close but also keeps those old ideas stagnant, stale and ever-present, withstanding the passing mini whirlwinds of modern technology, career and education. There is nowhere for these old-fashioned, gender-skewed ideas to go so they remain and get passed on through generations.
So unless there is a throwing down of the old concepts and a dusting off of these moth-eaten rugs we will remain entrenched in what we can and can’t do. Being entrenched in that, along with all else that comes with being a woman these days, can keep those invisible barriers creeping up towards you until they are pressed up against your nose and you are gladly sitting on the other side.