Don’t be deceived…mega malls and high heels have not driven out patriarchy in India…

I finished my meeting at Hengasara Hakkina Sangha (HHS) (a women’s rights group in Bangalore doing capacity building trainings for women’s collectives, reforming institutions and services, and working on other areas related to women’s rights) much earlier than expected and had 3 hours to kill before my next meeting. The staff member at HHS directed me to the nearest Café Coffee day and I opened my laptop and started reviewing my notes from my last few meetings and catching up on emails. I asked for a cappuccino and suddenly I couldn’t help but notice that the woman preparing my coffee kept looking up and staring at me….now, as a foreigner in India, despite my Indian origins, I’ve been stared at many times before. But this was Bangalore…I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on until a couple nearby got up and walked past me to exit…the woman’s hair was short and left loose, she was wearing heels and a crisp button down shirt and black slacks and looked like she could have stepped out of a Macy’s catalog. In fact, as I looked around, I very well could have been in a Starbucks in Manhattan if it wasn’t for the Bollywood music blasting from the speakers…

I caught a glimpse of my own  reflection….my hair was tied back, I was wearing a bindi and dressed very conservatively….dhupatta placed correctly, sleeves (I had long stopped wearing sleeveless tops in Madurai no matter how hot the weather got because I got tired of the strange looks)….and then it hit me. Clearly, my attire didn’t seem to go with the fancy laptop and my New York accent… hence the stares. Well, looks can be deceiving lady!

I am only beginning to understand how true this is of the situation of the women in Bangalore, and I expect in many other cosmopolitan cities “in transition” in India.  Everywhere I looked these last few days, I was amazed at how modern and cosmopolitan Bangalore is…mega malls, fancy French bakeries, bars, women walking around alone in heels and skinny jeans in the evening, KFC, McDonalds, the booming IT park…I had had a similar experience in Chennai last weekend. My parents had grown up in Chennai and I am sure the life they remember in India is nothing like what many of India’s big cities look like today. The increase in the free movement of young people and especially women around the city may make it seem as though people are somehow more “free” than they were before. It is certainly true that the diversity in the way people dress and increased mobility outside the home, especially for women, are signs of increased freedom. Still, as I said, unfortunately looks can be deceiving…

My meeting at Vimochana, another highly respected women’s rights groups in Bangalore that is doing incredible work, was particularly enlightening in this regard. I had come prepared with some broad questions I had for the women’s rights experts about the functioning of their state women’s commission and for guidance on the questions I am hoping to ask women who have experienced violations of their rights. After a fascinating but also somewhat disturbing conversation with a wonderful woman named Ms. Angel, who handles cases at the NGO, Angel’s coordinator came in and sat down to talk to me. I explained my proposed project and handed her my proposal and the questions I had been asking all the experts I met about their state women’s commission. She glanced at the paper and after making it clear that the Karnataka State Commission for Women is doing extremely poorly, she tossed my proposal on the table and asked me, “So you really think what you’re doing is going to do something to change the Commission?” I tried not to let her hear the hesitation in my voice when I said, “Well, yes. We believe that this study will start the process of holding the Women’s Commissions accountable and aware that they are being watched by civil society.” After a moment she started talking about what she feels the problems are, in quite a bit of detail, and the conversation went on for over an hour and a half. She explained that the Women’s Commissions need to understand social dynamics, religion, globalization, and patriarchy and must have feminist values if they are to be successful in promoting and protecting women’s rights. Speaking about the situation in Bangalore and of India broadly, all of the women’s rights NGO members I met explained that India is trapped in a transitional phase…that despite the advances made for women’s rights, they still cannot be individualistic in their social set up, that although women can articulate their rights, institutions are not receptive to them doing so, and that although India is a secular country, personal laws still play a major role in whether or not women receive justice for violations of their rights…There seems to be some indications that violence against women in Bangalore has actually increased in the last 10-15 years. Although it is unclear whether this may just be because more statistics are available now than before, I could get a sense of the kind of frustration the groups working tirelessly on this issue may be experiencing…

As an American I have made it a point to be extremely careful not to be overly critical of Indian society on the topic of women’s rights because there is much criticism that feminists in the West do not understand the plight of women in other regions of the world because the social and cultural contexts in which these issues play out vary so widely from one part of the world to another. Thus, I am extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to hear about women’s rights concerns directly from Indian feminists and women’s rights activists and from the women who have experienced violations of their rights…it is my hope that by collecting these insights and bringing them to a larger audience that we can start the process of holding institutions accountable and contribute to positive social change…

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