Ultimately, I have cow’s urine on my face. There is no getting away from this true fact. Worse still, I am filming an interview and short of halting filming to announce this piece of information to a group of people I have just met who largely don’t speak English, there is little I can do about the aforementioned cow’s urine. A colleague and I have travelled to northern Karnataka to interview slum dwellers on the effects of water privatisation and we are conducting the first interview. Gone are my daydreams of a panorama-esque week filled with journalistic glamour. I will take this opportunity to reiterate that a cow has effectively urinated on my face! The presence of cows is to be expected as we are in an urban farmer’s home, in which animals are normally kept at the front for easy access to the road. Unfortunately, in this instance, this is also where the interview is taking place. Luckily, my tolerance levels are much higher than they used to be and, in fact, I can overcome the fact that a cow, at a 90 degree angle to me has decided to relieve itself whilst wagging its tail. However, panic starts to rises me like water in a sinking ship as a nearby bullock starts to defecate. (As many of you know, I have a severe phobia of poo and, in a bizarre twist of fate, it follows me around, or rather people with questionable interpretations of social norms and/or substance abuse problems do.)
Near misses with cow’s faeces aside, my trip north was actually one of the most eye opening experiences of my life. Though our trip’s main aim was to learn more about water privatisation, it opened my eyes to a reality for women that I naively thought belonged in history books. This is a reality that has shocked me not just by its nature, but also by its apparent normalcy. Our trip starts with an overnight train to Dharwad. As I leave the station and walk around, I am firstly struck by how few women there are; I can see a handful at best, most of whom are girls going to school. Conversely, there are hundreds of men; eating, drinking, chatting, working, urinating. (As an aside, I cannot and will not cope with the ever-present, widespread custom of men urinating on the street here. It is called a urinal for a reason, have some self-control and use it!) We have breakfast with Sharda, a gender activist who is fighting the traditions and practices that keep women as second class citizens. Sharda explains that life for women is hard here, as is the case to varying degrees throughout India. Their struggle starts from the womb and continues throughout their lives. Because of the prevalence of dowry giving, girls are seen as an expense as soon as the gender of the foetus is ascertained. In Sharda’s view, female foeticide exists solely because of the dowry, which can mean the bride’s parents giving anything from money or gold to land. In the last 30 years alone (since sex identification became more widely and cheaply available), female foeticide has already killed around 12 million girl children in India.
Though in urban areas traditions are changing and the situation for women is better today than it has been in the past, day-to-day life for most families is little affected by modernisation. If you are a girl born into the slums, particularly in more rural areas, you will be treated as a lesser person than any male sibling throughout your childhood. You may receive less food, medical attention and care. You will be allowed less education because it is an unnecessary expense and if you were to become too educated it would jeopardise potential marriages. Though love marriages are on the increase in India they remain a rarity and arranged marriage is still the norm. Your parents will try and marry you off young as the expense of the wedding and the dowry are a worry hanging over their heads, therefore your wedding will take place in childhood or early adulthood. Once married, you will leave your family and move in with your husband and his parents, possibly his brothers and their wives and children too. During your marriage, your mornings will probably be spent working hard for a low wage. Your afternoons will be spent washing household clothes and dishes by hand, cleaning the home, looking after your children and waiting on your mother and father-in-law and perhaps your husband, though he may be frequently absent. When your husband is present, as his wife, he has the legal right to have non-consensual sex with you as and when he wishes. In India, marital rape remains legal as it was felt that illegalising it would challenge the sanctity of marriage.
As we walk around the communities, filled with people of different religions, different ages and different professions, there are similarities that bind them. On every pavement there are women washing clothes and washing dishes. Every street has doors that lead to women cleaning their home and watching their children. Most of these women have worked since dawn and have now come back to their domestic duties. Something else that strikes me is that these women are not afraid to speak out about one of the injustices that befalls them, in this instance water access. Another thing that strikes me is that these women seem happy, and they seem like a unit, working together as a community; there is no wallowing here. These glimpses into their lives through speaking to activists such as Sharda and visiting their homes is like a bolt of lightning awakening me to the fact that equality for most Indian women is not yet even a theory to work towards. Whatever treatment they receive on the streets of India, men are brought up to believe they are Maharajahs in their homes.
The traditions of India are a double-edged sword. There are those that keep its culture alive and vibrant and beautifully impenetrable to western culture. There are also those damaging traditions that are like a disease, killing and harming people quietly and consistently behind ornate and colourful doors. The gender movement is growing here and change will happen but looking at this nation untouched by Hollywood or McDonald’s, Levi’s or Twitter I do not know how or when that change will arrive.