Seeing oppression in a different form in India calls attention to the ways in which women are oppressed in the U.S.
At this point, it’s almost a cliché. A Western woman travels to a foreign country with predisposed assumptions about the situation of the female “Other” she will inevitably encounter. She is eager to confront the inevitable situations of female oppression, almost excited to educate the women that she meets — to empower them, and somehow make an impression that will change their lives. Blonde and outspoken, she stands out in stark contrast to the other women that surround her. Overzealous to express her “Western” opinions on gender, she asks too many questions, trying to draw sweeping conclusions about gender from her isolated interactions in the foreign country that she finds herself in.
After her arrival, she becomes frustrated with the patriarchy that starts to surround her, taking issue with the comments and actions of the men and also finds herself becoming irritated with other women for their consistent justifications of male dominance. Eventually, her optimism starts to fade, and the frustration starts to grow. She begins to feel naïve for thinking that she could inflict such rapid change.
Perhaps my characterisation of the Western woman is a bit harsh, but a few months ago I was this woman. At age 22, I packed up my comfortable college lifestyle, said my farewells, and set off to change the world. With a fresh college diploma in hand, I was ready to do something that mattered, to find inspiration on the other side of the world. Three weeks after graduation, I boarded a plane to India, where I would be working in a rural tribal school along the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, just 30km outside of Coimbatore.
Five months have already passed and gendered oppression still provides a full source of frustration, as I continue to navigate norms and expectations in India. The recent presidential election in the U.S. has brought women’s rights in the country to the forefront for one of the first times in recent political history. Almost on a daily basis, male politicians added to the political rhetoric surrounding rape, women’s rights regarding their bodies, and access to reproductive health care. These men — the supposed leaders and policy-makers of the country that I call home — have caused me to question the foundation of the assumptions I made when I first arrived in India: is the gender oppression in India really any worse than it is in the U.S. or does it simply take a different form?
Unfortunately, gendered violence is still a norm — perhaps even an accepted norm in the United States. Politicians around the country have introduced more legislation in the past year restricting women’s rights than promoting them. Mitt Romney — a presidential candidate no less — promised to remove women’s rights to their own bodies, forcing them into unwanted pregnancies even in the face of horrors like rape and incest. Representatives like Todd Akin assumed that women’s bodies can abort in the face of legitimate rape (don’t worry; I wasn’t aware that illegitimate rape existed either). Court justices continue to blame the victims of rape for their “unfortunate situations”. The U.S. has become a society plagued by rape culture — the rhetoric that dominated the media before the elections. During our adolescent years, we are taught to not get raped rather than focusing on teaching men not to rape. We still make only 75 per cent of what our male counterparts make, often doing the same jobs. The U.S. has yet to see a female president, and the majority of Congress is still men.
The point, really, is that the U.S. is certainly not innocent of gender oppression. Sure, the gendered norms are less strict than in the rural parts of India. But is that, perhaps, more dangerous? In India, there is political rhetoric surrounding the issue of gender equality, and laws made to protect the rights of women. There are often problems with the enforceability of these laws, but the rhetoric is certainly there. In America, on the other hand, most politicians turn a blind eye to the issue, reminding women to be grateful of the rights that they have been given.
Most political rhetoric surrounding the issue is in regard to legislation that further restricts female access to equality. In reality, the U.S. has not deserved its role as the international model for gender equality. The oppression of women in the U.S. is ever pervasive, but has simply taken on a new role; one that is potentially subtler. The subtlety of gender oppression is dangerous: sneaking into the corners of healthcare, employment, and the courts. It wears a new mask; one where women have the right to vote, but not the right to control their own bodies. It teaches women that the violence committed against them is their fault and that they certainly don’t deserve to make the same amount of money as men. Perhaps the U.S. has made progress regarding gender issues but the subtle oppression that continues to plague the country will restrict any potential for further progress.
While India certainly has a significant amount of progress to make to guarantee equal treatment of its female citizens, the judgment coming from Western countries, the United States in particular, is quite undeserved. Gender oppression is a problem that continues to plague the global socio-political environment. While it may take on different forms — some more blatant than others — the equality of women around the globe is still under siege. In a lot of ways, my optimism to change the world has only opened my eyes to different problems a lot closer to home than I may have previously thought. It was almost as if seeing oppression in a different form called attention to the ways in which I was already oppressed. Change, while slow, is a beautiful process, one in which each of us should embrace the solidarity required to overcome the dominance of the global system of patriarchy.