What is the defining characteristic of a woman? Is it her ability to nurture, or her graceful curves, or maybe her gentleness? I would argue that for most women, her defining characteristic, and her greatest asset, is her strength. It seems Indian philosophy and religion would agree; Shakti, a central concept in Hinduism, refers to the originating force of the universe, a force that is unambiguously female, both in philosophical discourse and in its physical representation as a goddess. Even colloquially, shakti is used to mean strength and power. But for all the reverence given to the strength of a woman in India, her strength is continually tested and continually broken down.
In many cases, girls are marginalised before they've even left the womb, long before they've become women. India's male to female ratio for children under 15 is 1.10, one of the worst in the world. This means that for every 110 boys, there are only 100 girls. The ratio at birth is even more dismal. The thousands of girls who, in the words of economist Amartya Sen, go 'missing' every year skew these ratios. I met a young girl who nearly became one of those missing girls. Sangeeta, now 11, had been adopted as an infant. Before that, her birth-mother had attempted to smother her to death.
Manisha, Sangeeta's adoptive mother, relayed the story of Sangeeta's narrow rescue to me over a cup of chai. "I found out about what was going on. I couldn't let it happen, and I demanded that the child be given to me. 'I will raise her', I had said." I nearly breathed a sigh of relief but her story continued. "There were more incidents. I found out about them later," Manisha said somberly. The young woman's husband and family had placed inordinate pressure on her to bear male children. When her first two children were girls, she became desperate. Sangeeta had been the third girl; her mother had wrapped her in blankets and thrown her into an alley to suffocate. Fortunately, Sangeeta was saved, but the same cannot be said for the children who came after. Two more children were born after Sangeeta; both were girls, and paid dearly for being so. Yet another child was aborted after an illegal sex determination procedure.
The acts were committed by the hands of the parents but the burden of responsibility also lies with the society that promotes gender inequality at large, a society which condones sex selectiveness among children to such an extent that parents are driven to commit heinous transgressions against their own daughters. In such an atmosphere, a girl is not even given the chance to discover her shakti. As a girl grows into a woman, the abuses and the burdens continue.
In households across rural and urban India, women bear the brunt of household duties. First to rise in the morning to begin chores and, in many cases, last to eat the meal she has prepared. A woman's life seems consumed by a quiet suffering. I met a woman in an Ahmedabad slum who earns her living scavenging through dumpsters and heaps of refuse to collect plastic bags and glass bottles. The work can be filthy and unsafe. There is no protection offered to the women, even when sifting through piles containing medical waste and used needles. On top of that, it is backbreaking --from 3 am until late in the afternoon when the sun is blazing overhead, she works, carrying loads twice as wide and nearly as tall as herself through the streets of the city.
"Why do you do this?" I queried.
"I have no choice. My children need to eat and their school fees need to be paid," she responded stoically, without a hint of dejection.
The woman remains the crux of the family. The well being of each member is secured by her strength. And yet, women are often the most abused and underappreciated person in the family. Another woman, whom I met in a settlement near the outskirts of a town, lamented the ills of her husband's alcoholism. "I work all day, cleaning other people's homes, washing other people's clothes," she grieved, as she wrung her hands, battered by years of hard labour and swelling from the onset of arthritis.
"But whatever I earn, my husband drinks it into nothing. There's nothing left."
There's a sense of fatalism about it; as a woman, this is her fate, her dharma, her duty to bear all, unflinchingly. But the strength of an Indian woman is not to be underestimated. Her capacity to bear and suffer has not drained her; she remains strong beyond belief, the depth of which is revealed in her resilience, her power to overcome. Given the smallest opportunity to emancipate herself from the legacy she's inherited, she will grasp it and mold it to her needs.
I came to India to work with an organisation that facilitates the formation of microcredit units called self-help groups, or SHGs, as part of a larger movement for women's liberation from oppression throughout the nation. These groups operate as a means for rural women to gain financial independence, but the benefits have gone far beyond that. During the monthly meetings of SHGs, the women are provided a platform to address social problems, an audience to share their stories, an opportunity to flex their independence, and a sisterhood to forge a support network.
The shakti that always seems to be hidden away is fully tangible here. It rings in the laughter of the women sharing jokes, in the passionate debates between those with differing views, in the silent concentration of women enthralled in meticulous accounting. It's in the tilt of a woman's head, as she proudly imprints her ink-stained thumb on to the ledger next to her name, pronouncing her accomplishment, her contribution to her fellow women. It is here.
And I am reminded that shakti never leaves a women. It's always there; it is a part of who she is. And yet, for all the commendable progress made by these village groups, it still hasn't been enough to eradicate the social stigma against girls and women. The legacy of gender favouritism has followed us to the Indian-American community. It follows me today, being from a family with 'just' two female children. A constant question mark remains in the minds of many, fuelled by the desire for male offspring.
People question how one can be satisfied with only daughters, but my parents have refused to entertain such questions. Instead, they focused on raising us to be intelligent, hard working, independent, and above all, strong. Someone once said to me, "You were raised to be like a man." I beg to differ. I was raised to be like a woman.
Born in Andhra Pradesh, India, and raised in Cary, North Carolina, Himabindu is partnering with Chaitanya to promote the use of preventative health care among women in rural Maharashtra.