BY MARIE CHOKOTE
Welcome to The Women’s Corner
Does it sound like a cliché to have an area focused just on women in a magazine? Probably so, you might think. But is it really? Or is it that the presence of such a column reflects the fact that across cultures, nations and continents, across civilizations women have a lot more in common than we can possibly imagine?
Why is it that a “chick movie” made in the United States, reflecting the culture here, equally makes women in a Chinese movie theater cry like a choir? Why is it that in cultures where women are more “emancipated”, they are still expected to assume the nurturing role in the family amongst other things?
Those are just a few questions that have led me to embark on a journey that I would like to take with you. I am not just inviting women here, men are also welcome!! Now gentlemen that’s refreshing, right? I hope so.
One of the reasons why we are drawn to a magazine like the one you are holding is because deep down we all belong to just one race – “the Human Race”, and as human beings we have an innate need to belong and be connected with others. In this journey with Dunia magazine as we continue to discover through its pages that despite our differences in skin color, gender, culture and religion we have a lot more in common, I would like to focus on the woman’s world and bring you her point of view.
During the last few years, I have had the privilege of meeting some fantastic women from different parts of the world; I am going to introduce you to them one at a time in the ensuing issues of Dunia Magazine. They have so much to offer. My hope is that some stereotypes will be broken in this journey as we begin to separate reality from myths through the eyes and experiences of these remarkable women from different cultures. As they open up to share their experiences as girls, spouses, mothers, professionals, etc; as they give us a glimpse of what it really means to be a woman in their respective parts of the world, I would like us to have open minds and come ready to educate ourselves.
And so, jump in, buckle up and take the drive with me!
Our first stop: India, the seventh largest country in the world, located in South Asia. Have you ever wondered what life is like for a woman growing up in India? What the culture is really like? What we can learn from them? What makes them different? If these questions have ever crossed your mind (and even if they haven’t) you are just like me.
With these questions in mind, I want you to meet a wonderful lady whom we are going to call Alisha. She is married and a mother of two, born and raised in a southern province of India called Kerala. The first thing that Alisha wants you to know is that the information she is about to share with us is based on her experiences, and might be somewhat different from the experiences of other people in different regions and religions of India. Note that, there are many religions in India, but Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are the most dominant. Alisha comes from a Christian background.
The Indian woman
Her culture is primarily male dominated. Females are trained from a very early age to be submissive to their husbands. Husbands are supposed to be the breadwinners. It is not uncommon for men to marry several wives. Arranged marriages are the norm and practiced very often. Child marriages (marriages of women before the legal age of 18) although outlawed, are still commonly practiced. A family’s level of education and economic status greatly shapes the way the women are raised and treated. For example, child marriages are less common in well-educated families and those of a high economic standing.
Speaking of education, the female literacy level in India is generally lower than that of males, although this trend is gradually changing. According to Alisha, these days, it isn’t uncommon to find marriages where both partners are professionals (Alisha is a registered nurse, currently working on enrolling for a masters program to become a nurse practitioner). Even in these families where both partners work, the women are still expected to assume the role of typical or traditional housewives with little or no support from their husbands (and we know there are exceptions out there).
The Dowry she pays
Education also is a huge factor in a common practice called the dowry or Dahej. For those who are not familiar with it, the dowry is the payment in the form of cash, goods, estates, etc that a bride’s family presents to the husband-to-be as she is officially ‘given away’ or presented to him. (This surprised me because in my part of the world, the bride price is paid the other way around, i.e. by the man to the woman’s family).
Understand that this dowry or ‘gift’ to the husband is for the purpose of helping him take care of their daughter. In arranging these marriages, parents typically tend to pick a family of similar economic status as theirs, with a male who is just as educated … if not more. A more educated woman is considered “more valuable”, thus requires “more” to be taken care of. In other words, she is high maintenance; hence the bridegroom’s family demands a higher price or dowry.
Over the years, this system was abused and women suffered fates as serious as “bride burning“, where women whose dowries were thought to be insufficient were burnt to death, then disguised as accidents or suicides. This led to the prohibition of the dowry in 1961. I guess you’d be interested to know that this practice however still takes place.
I must mention that at this point in our discussion, I could feel Alisha’s passion. She (like many women from this part of the world) strongly feels that these practices in her culture tend to subordinate Indian women in the society and make them feel discriminated against.
Standards of Beauty
I was also fascinated to learn from Alisha that seemingly trivial factors like skin tone play a role in the way their women are perceived. Fair skinned women are thought to be of greater value and more prized than the darker skinned ones.
Alisha began to smile again as described the richness of an Indian wedding ceremony, where a bride is lavished with gifts and beautiful ornaments; she receives lots of fine jewelry made of pure gold and is showered with love and appreciation. These ceremonies generally last for a few days.
In Alisha’s culture, upon marriage the woman’s last name changes as she takes on her husbands first name (baptismal name), which then becomes their family name.
Like all other women, Indian women wear make up. The thing that stands out is that theirs is not cosmetic make up. Referred to as Khol, it is made of natural herbs. Another common beauty practice of theirs is Henna, tattoo-like designs on her body she wears typically during wedding celebrations. Unlike tattoos, Hennas are not permanent.
In closing, I asked Alisha if she experienced a cultural shock when she relocated to the United States about 7 years ago and how she feels about her culture now that she has experienced something different. She was quick to tell me that she values and appreciates her culture even more, although there are a few things (like child marriage and the tradition of dowry) that she obviously does not approve of. She says she is surprised by what she describes as “defiance” of first world women towards their husbands. “It is one thing to not be completely submissive to the husband, but quite the other extreme to be plain defiant and lack respect,” she says. “In my culture we do arrange marriages, and the divorce rate is very low. Here they choose their partners, yet most of them end up in divorce or unhappy”. Alisha did not share an opinion on ‘arranged marriages’, but somehow without obviously pointing out whether it’s good or bad, she made me understand that it is what it is … and it is part of her culture.
Next stop ….
(First published in DUNIA print Magazine (Issue 2) – column ‘Women’s Corner’ )