Image: Delhi Metro station Dwarka Sector 12 / Ben Mack
“In India, girls and boys can’t be friends.”
I heard those words the second night I was in India recently. A group of about eight of us was hanging out in a flat in New Delhi, and I was confused. If men and women couldn’t have platonic relationships, then how come all of us – the majority of whom were not married or engaged – were hanging out together past midnight?
That was one of many mysteries I was confronted with during my week-long visit to the South Asian nation to attend a friend’s wedding. As much as I loved the food, the vibrancy, the sense of being a very small droplet in a much larger sea of humanity, and even the (very warm) weather, I was also confronted with a vast array of cultural differences that reminded me that, as much as I was enjoying what I was experiencing, it was very, very different than Aotearoa.
One of the most obvious differences: the situation of women in India is very, very different from that of women in New Zealand.
There were some easily observable differences: women dressed extremely conservatively compared to what I was used to back home in Auckland, and at the front of every train on the New Delhi Metro was a “women only” carriage (as well as accompanying signage on the platform). I also noticed how, almost everywhere, there was an overwhelmingly large number of men out and about – especially at night; if women were seen, they were almost never alone, and usually there was at least one man with them. Needless to say, none of those observations, of course, are really things in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
From reading the above, one could easily make the assumption that India is, simply put, not a great place to be a woman. While it certainly has its challenges (such as rape and sexual violence, the pay gap, a lack of reproductive rights, rigid gender roles, and a patriarchal, male-dominated culture that still views women as “subordinate” to men), I was also impressed by some of the things I saw and experienced. Let me explain.
The wedding itself lasted four days, and involved numerous Hindu religious ceremonies known as pujas. Many aspects of the various pujas – particularly the first I went to, when an actor and actress in full period costume reenacted one of the most famous stories from Hindu mythology – invoked the goddess Durga, the wife of Siva. She’s incredibly badass. For example: in one of the most famous legends about her, Durga rode into battle and challenged an army of demons led by the evil deity Mahishasura completely on her own. She slew them all. Translation: she’s a far cry from Greek goddesses like Aphrodite and Hera, who rarely, if ever, took matters into their own hands and fought for what they believed to be right.
There were also some pretty feminist moments during the ceremonies themselves. In the last puja (held at the groom’s house at about 8am, after an all-nighter involving a series of other ceremonies that first began about 5pm the day before), the groom had to remove several strings that were tied around his wrist. The catch: he was only allowed to use one hand to remove them. With very short fingernails, this was an all-but-impossible task, requiring the bride to help him out. A woman and man working together as equals for a common cause? Sounds pretty feminist to me.
I was also encouraged by what seemed to be more liberal attitudes among young people. Although I was told “girls and boys can’t be friends,” groups of us – women and men – still hung out together very late every night, just like people do in New Zealand and in other Western countries.
The takeaway from this story may be a bit cliché, but it’s a true one: we shouldn’t judge a country – and certainly not the people in it – based on stereotypes. Yes, the situation of women and the state of women’s rights in India is far from perfect, but it's not awesome in New Zealand either. And just like New Zealand, steps are being taken there to improve things, so that women one day will finally be truly equal to men.
In sum: feminism is not just limited to one country, one culture, or one ethnic or socio-economic group – it’s applicable worldwide.
As it should be.