Enormous Elephant Ears

Upon my graduation from college I received many gifts. Cards, money, a party and a diploma that means more to me now than it did then. I also received a letter from my mother which, at the time, frustrated me in its formality. She congratulated me on my accomplishment and my young-womanhood and pronounced me independent financially. Today I was contemplating womanhood while shooting hoops on the hostels surprisingly impressive but sadly unused basketball court. I recalled receiving that letter and how I felt miffed at the necessity to declare me independent and the formality in which it was relayed, but I realized today that I feel lucky to have been granted that liberty. My mother never stopped supporting me emotionally, with indubitable patience considering how I scooted out of the country after graduation and have not yet officially returned. I do not feel completely independent; she offers more financial help than I expected and I am chagrined to admit that I have yet to do my own taxes. But that letter is physical evidence of the independence I have that the Indian women I have met do not.

On Saturday, September 23 the hostel hosted a special “Career-Counseling” Seminar. I sat in the front, feeling moderately self-conscious knowing that the seminar was in Malayalam and the lecturer was aware of my ignorance of the language. I soon realized that “Career-Counseling,” meant something quite different from what I expected. I will not recapitulate his entire lecture. Rather, I will tell you the responses of students when I asked later that evening after dinner, “What did you like best about the seminar today?”

Well, he explained to us that men stare at women because they have tunnel vision whereas we have peripheral vision, therefore they need to look longer at everything they see. He used sketches of the brain and the theory of an American doctor to show us that men think most about sex whereas women think about many other things, but he reiterated that sex is important in a marriage and a women should give up her body to her husband. He explained that the vast difference between men and women lies in women being relationship focused while men are achievement focused. He reminded us that women cannot be best friends with other women because women gossip and are jealous. American doctors have proven that if men shop for more than twenty minutes, they are likely to suffer a brain hemorrhage whereas women can shop for hours, this being proof of our patience. Women also talk more than men (“Consider it a positive thing,” he reassured the students). In fact, studies show that when men say 2,000 words, women say 7,000 (no specific time frame provided that of which I am aware). The young women laughed at his jokes and antics, they nodded at his theories and gulped up each graph he showed.

After reading authors like Silvia Plath, Susan Faludi and Bell Hooks, I wonder how to fit this experience into my growing understanding of womanhood in the year 2006. I struggled during that seminar, at points almost in tears of rage as he showed graphs and knowledgably quoted American doctors. All the while wondering, how dare I attempt to place my feminist beliefs in this cultural context? Yet how do I digest what I am experiencing now without comparison? How will I approach these young women, who will inevitably ask for my opinion?

I deflected.

“It was powerful. What did you think?” In asking that question I learned things that would have never come up in casual conversation with these young women. They admitted to feelings of fear about the future, fears that made me understand better why the lecturer’s words resonated for them. My opinion does not matter here (I will write them in my journal and close it at the end of the day). I allowed myself to ask two very specific and, admittedly, personal and difficult questions. “Does the idea of ‘giving your body to your husband’ upon marriage frighten you?” The young women said that they must trust their parents to find a good husband. They said that many women are married to men who treat them well and care for them. They did not necessarily feel frightened about that in particular, it is their duty. My second question was, “I heard you say you cannot go out after 6PM for fear of what men may do to you or what people will say about you walking around at night. If your safety relies on the actions of men, do you ask men to change?” The answer to this was jumbled. It reiterated what I have heard resoundingly from young women so far, “People might talk.” They seemed to feel that men cannot change, that it is better for women to stay inside for fear of their safety.

Coincidentally, a few days before this seminar, I had finished Elizabeth Bumiller’s “May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons,” a book published in 1990 that reflects on her interviews with hundreds of women in India during a stay of three years. In the last chapter, Bumiller writes, “I have learned that to write about women in India is to write about their problems of work, marriage, children, poverty and aging—problems that are not unique to India but are rooted in any society’s definition of womanhood…This book was my mission—to inform, to enlighten, and to prove that the women of India are more like us than they are not.”

Something I learned from performing in the The Vagina Monologues, from reading novels and the newspaper and from the OnCall program at Loyola is the importance of each person’s story. Maybe my feminist-self is best positioned with a closed yapper and elephant ears (which are enormous, I know this now!). I have the opportunity to get to know a cross-section of India’s women here in my new hostel of a home. Young women from all castes, educational backgrounds and financial situations are my neighbors. From them I can better understand the situation of India’s women, and even more importantly I will learn about their passions, visions and fears for the future.

I let my opinions rest in one statement at the end of our conversation, “I hope for each of you a loving husband who respects you.” The young women in the hostel will probably not receive from their parents the gift that I did, of independence, and my frustration for their situation will probably not cease. In the end, I think I understand better the idea of “accompaniment” now.

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