8 March

Sign on the floor of the Delhi metro notifying passengers that the first two cars are reserved for women.

My itinerary in India left me scant time to blog, and since I returned to Almaty two nights ago, I’ve been struggling to find the best ways to share my trip. A simple chronological recitation would hardly be compelling, especially since my last few days in India were spent at a conference. On the other hand, I wouldn’t presume to “explain” anything about India to anyone. Like a student of Eastern philosophy, what I learned during my first visit to the Subcontinent is that I know nothing about it. But I hit upon a possible solution when I reflected upon the fact that yesterday was 8 March. Let me explain, and bear with me. This might get a bit convoluted. The interspersed photos are of variable relevance to the text.

Late 15th century Lodi Dynasty mausoleum, Delhi

In the CIS countries, including Kazakhstan, 8 March is International Women’s Day, a holiday devoted to celebrating women. On this day (and, it bears saying, this day alone), men assist women in their traditional “duties,” especially cooking. Men also buy the women in their lives flowers and congratulate them – for simply being women and, one suspects, for putting up with men.

“Men” (to generalize) are notoriously poorly behaved in Kazakhstan (and elsewhere, of course, but I am circumspect about addressing cultures in which I’ve not had direct experience). I know several divorced women who are openly relieved about having escaped their ex-husbands: alcoholic, philandering or abusive. If nothing else, demanding and unhelpful around the home. I don’t have any hard statistics, but early mortality rates among men suggest the prevalence of alcoholism. Anecdotes, jokes and “common knowledge” (for what it’s worth) testify to infidelity and domestic violence.

Moreover, gender roles are strict. Ask a room of students if there are any girls who play sports and their eyes grow wide. A few of the girls might blush or snicker. As a man, if I try to clear or wash the cups after one of the endless tea breaks in each workday, I’m tutted and tisk-tisked. “We’re Asian women,” I’m told, even by the ethnic Russians, “We can’t let you clean.” Today, when I asked a store-keeper at the bazaar for a specific laundry powder, she answered directly to my friend Ashleigh.

Early marriage, “bride-napping,” workplace discrimination, discriminatory social expectations… the list of more and less insidious gender inequalities goes on and on. Worst of all to my mind, education and culture have co-opted women into policing their own prisons. The frauenräte. On numerous occasions I’ve had young, educated, upwardly mobile local women recite a variation of the same syllogism:

A. Women are different than men. (Okay. Nod.)
B. Men are strong, assertive; they therefore play sports, work jobs, have lives oriented outside their homes and families. (Okay. Nod, but less vigorously. The subtext is, of course, that they also drink, gamble, whore, leave.)
C. Therefore, women cannot do, cannot be, cannot have those things reserved for the male sphere. (Hold on a second…)

I find this limitlessly frustrating, and it struck me yesterday, on International Women’s Day, that I have spent far more time thinking about gender equity since starting my Fulbright than I ever have before. Admittedly, I’ve never had much of an interest in the subject beyond a relatively uncritical belief in contemporary American “liberal” and “educated” norms. But even as a man, in Kazakhstan I feel a difference in gender relations and equity every day. I’m uneasy in my seat as my PhD-holding colleagues wash my mug; I’m insulted when male guests shake my hand but ignore my female boss’s.

Okay, and here’s where India comes back into the pictures: the strongest thread running through my India trip (and which binds my visit to my broader Fulbright experience in Central Asia) is a nearly constant awareness the variations in gender relations across time, space and culture. I can’t weave my observations into an argument, but I offer several inexpert snapshots suggesting complexity.

Red Fort, Mughal construction, Delhi

I started my visit in Delhi, where the first two cars of every metro train are reserved for women. Ostensibly, this provides a space for Muslim women to travel sans male relative without having to fear violating religious rules regarding eye-contact, etc., but many non-Muslim women also ride in the cars. They’re less crowded, probably smell better, and the risk of male impropriety is obviated.

The metro took me to the heart of bustling, crowded Old Delhi. Having been raised in Hong Kong, I was used to the crush, but the way people (and cars, motorbikes, peddie-cabs, bicycles, hand-drawn carts, cows, dogs) move through space was challenging. There was a distinct fluidity, a lack of order, like a river breaking over rocks, that I was not used to. People in Hong Kong have retained the innate urge to queue. Moreover, in Hong Kong you see many more women on the street.

I took refuge in the Red Fort, much as the Mughal emperors who built and resided there did. Here, as in Jaipur (where I traveled next), I was struck by the incredible material wealth, time and craftsmanship devoted to royal women, to their entertainment and protection. Every inch of some rooms and buildings were covered with the most intricate, detailed, almost obsessive inlay and carving. India was, and may still be, afraid of the flat surface, undecorated wall and empty space. But are the palace buildings in the Red Fort and elsewhere guilted cages or opulent paradises in which consorts and concubines were spared the difficulties and indignities of a woman’s life outside these compounds?

Nanni, Manu and I next to their home

My hosts in Delhi were the warm and wonderful Nanni and Manu, parents of my mentor at Cambridge. Over a delicious Indian dinner, Nanni told me that she does not work. She quickly added, “This is normal in India,” reflecting the belief that stay-at-home-mothers are antique in the West; my own mom, I told her, is also a homemaker and former stewardess – not “flight attendant” – by choice.

In Jaipur, I met with my friends Anna, Amy, and Karen, white Americans all. Without complaining, they made me aware of how few women we were seeing on the streets, the extra stockings or scarves they carted around despite the heat in order to cover up to enter certain buildings, and how they felt more comfortable along certain streets than others. I acted as “bodyguard” on trips to the ATM. Although I am relatively well sensitized to cultural differences and safety concerns, as a skinny, 6’2″ (185cm) white guy who prefers long trousers to shorts, I can move through most spaces without great deal of concern. This was definitely not the case for my female friends in northern India – which is not to say that women there are necessarily suffering, only that moving demands more time and energy.

Two of the highlights of my trip were in Jaipur: the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of Breezes”) and the Amber Fort. Both examples of Rajasthani royal architecture, the former from 1799 and the latter built over centuries, but begun in the 11th century. Both are examples of structures designed specifically to institutionalize gender. The former is famous for its five-storey façade punctured by rows of windows filled in with intricate stone screens. The stone is so delicately carved it looks light, like lace, but their purpose was to mask the princesses looking onto the street.

The façade of the Hawa Mahal

In the third (of four) courtyard of the Amber Fort, nine rooms on the bottom of two floors surround a central open space. In the middle stands an open pavilion. Each of the rooms was for one of the king’s wives; the king himself lived on the second floor and could move through a system of secret passages to any one of the nine rooms below without being seen. This allowed him to pick a partner for the night without the others seeing and becoming jealous. Our guide then enthusiastically told us that the central courtyard could hold 300 dancing girls. The current raj of Rajasthan (who no longer lives in the Amber Fort, but this gives an idea of who might have used these passages and rooms in the past) is 15 years old. His predecessor, his grandfather, recently passed away. He was in his late 80s.

From Jaipur, I flew down to Kochi, Kerala, for the annual Fulbright conference. Kerala is India’s only majority Christian province and, by coincidence, Indian Communists have been strong there for many years. I also saw many more women on the streets (although I am not suggesting that either Christianity or Communism is necessarily responsible for this). Sadly, I didn’t get to do too much sightseeing in Kerala, and as a result I do not have anything much more insightful to say about gender relations in southern India relative to the north.

A street in downtown old Kochi (formerly Cochin)

However, a large portion of the Fulbrighters are conducting fascinating research on topics and issues relating to women and gender studies, so it was the subject of many conversations, both academic and informal. One married American woman based in Tajikistan, who I’ll call Sue, exploded the myth (and my belief) that Central Asian women are modest when talking about sex. That, Sue said, is only true when women are speaking to men and to unmarried women. When unmarried women get together all bets are off. She related one conversation in which Tajik women asked her, whose husband is (if I remember correctly) a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, whether Sue had “made any arrangements” for her husband while Sue was away.

“To have sex?” Sue clarified? Nod. Sue, blonde, tough and bright, said she turned her head to the side and said, pointedly, “No, I didn’t. He’ll be fine.”

I’m not sure what point this long post reaches or what argument I’ve made. I am certain, however, that I don’t want anyone to come away thinking that I condemn gender relations in Central Asia and India (nor that I believe women’s equity has been achieved in the USA). This is a subject I’ve neither studied with any depth or rigor nor one in which I believe there are simple solutions. Suffice to say, therefore, that I hope I’ve both succeeded in sharing a little about my trip to India and given you food for thought about the women in your life (even if you are yourself a woman).

Happy belated International Women’s Day.

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