“When are you going to get married?” I have lost count of how many times have I heard this question during my first three months of living in rural India. As a 24-year-old woman, it was one of the first questions asked by most women (after asking me if I am married).
Marriage. The last thing my parents are worried about is if or when I will get married – and I couldn’t agree more with them. It’s the last thing I worry about. I am worried about if I will get my dream job if I will be able to pay my bills, find a nice apartment, figure out the tax and insurance systems in my country and at the same time enjoy life.
But in rural Eastern Uttar Pradesh? It seems like there is no other topic, which made me wonder – what does it mean to be a woman in rural India? How is a woman defined and by whom?
In general, gender norms and social expectations give an indication of how a woman and man ‘should be’. They lay the ground for who we are supposed to be and ultimately shape a lot of who we are. How do I experience these clashing norms and expectations here?
1. I have to cover my body completely (in contrast to the men who can run around half-naked).
2. I am not allowed to dance in public.
3. I am not able to go somewhere alone without someone accompanying me.
4. I get – supposed to be ‘funny’ – comments from colleagues that my work is ‘cleaning, cooking, and babysitting’.
5. I am not expected to be able to do things by myself – especially when it comes to technology or carrying things.
6. When my bra-strap shows just a tiny bit, I get it corrected by another woman.
7. The streets in the small towns nearby are inundated with men who love to stare.
But I am not from here and I do not have to live the reality of being a woman in India every day of my life. I do not have the immense societal or family pressure on me. I only have to behave according to these norms while I work and live here.
So what if a girl from this place ‘misbehaves’ or acts out? Violence as an answer is deemed as completely normal in the village. If a woman or girl acts up – of course, you are entitled to beat her. The hardest thing to hear by a young boy who beat his sister was: “She doesn’t listen to anyone, how else should we make her understand? I did the right thing.”
This young girl was hit on her head with a bamboo stick. These are images that I will never get out of my head. Nobody apologised to her, nobody asked how she is. I later found out that their mother was the one who hit her with the bamboo stick (and she “didn’t have the intention to hit her head”). The girl was blamed by older women that “if she had listened to her family, this wouldn’t have happened” and she “should help her mother with the household”. This was the second time I experienced extreme victim blaming against a girl or woman who had been abused within just two months. And the most shocking part – who enforced the gender norms and societal expectations further – both times? Women themselves.
Enforcing patriarchal gender norms as well as violence against women as ‘corrective action’ is accepted and justified in many cases by men as well as women. Corrective action. To make women behave. To make them obey.
Obey the power chain. Obey the status quo. That is the status quo of being a woman in a rural village. Who is ‘inferior to the man’. Who should behave and not raise her voice? Until the day comes that she has power over someone else who she can channel her pain and anger to?
How can gender norms change? How can the meaning of being a woman in rural India change? It’s a painfully slow process in villages. Changing embedded and accepted norms is a long-term goal that everyone who believes in equality and human rights should have on their agenda. The tools are education, the inclusion of men in these efforts and community engagement. Many women around the world can speak for themselves and protest, but many others can’t. The recent developments made by the G7 to spend more money on girls’ education seems a promising way to generally tackle gender inequality. But who ensures that this money will be well spent and actually has an impact? Also, education of girls is one part, but it’s not the whole story.
Let us write the whole story, so that hopefully one day, a woman in rural India will not be defined by her marital status and her obedience anymore.