Whenever we visit India, we prefer to travel on trains in order to see the countryside and listen to fellow passengers talk about their changing nation. On one such trip, we chatted with a young couple and their daughter. I was reminded of childhood journeys as I fondly watched the daughter playing with her parents' co-passengers who gladly indulged her. A young man played a soundtrack on his phone and the little girl started dancing. Her parents clapped and cheered. Suddenly, my eyes fell on the guy holding the phone. His face lost all colour. The little girl, not older than 10, was trying to twist her tiny body to a song of which I remember the word "Fevicol". On reaching my destination, I checked the song on YouTube. I understood why that young man was horrified. I still shiver at the thought of the parents enjoying their prepubescent daughter gyrating to Bollywood's "item" numbers that rampantly over-sexualize and objectify women.
Why is Sindhu lauded publicly while a mother bemoans her newborn's darker complexion?
On visiting an Indian couple in California who had become parents a few weeks prior, the new mother, after accepting our gifts, bemoaned the possibility of her daughter inheriting her husband's darker complexion. "Ladki hain, gori hona zaroori hain (She's a girl; fair skin is a necessity)." I sat speechless for the rest of the visit. The obsession with lighter skin colour is at best absurd, but too many people subscribe to it.
In a social gathering in Kolkata, a senior citizen boasted to anybody who would listen that she gave birth to a son while all her siblings have daughters. Her son is an academic in England and all her nieces are practicing doctors in different parts of the United States. I have had the (mis)fortune of knowing the lady personally and I know how hard each of the siblings worked to raise children who scored As all their lives. It is well-known that the girl-child in India is not as prized as we would hope. But that afternoon I excused myself and sat as far from her as possible.
During my first semester in graduate school, I attended a wedding in Ohio. In a room full of NRI Bengali women who were getting the bride's trousseau ready, I was asked if I was married, if I was looking, if I could unclasp my hair for them to assess the thickness of my hair -- and all this after they heard that I had just started my PhD program. All of them had come to the United States in the 1960s as wives of medical or PhD students. Most of them had been through graduate school. All of them had raised children in the United States. Yet, they quickly assumed that an Indian girl in her early 20s must be thinking about marriage. Needless to say, I returned to my program in Florida, highly amused.
Why does everyone pray for Dipa's perfect landing at Rio while successful women doctors' parents are belittled for bearing daughters?
The other side of the story is equally true: parents across cities and rural areas are raising confident daughters who navigate sexism on the streets and within families, who go to school and excel in all disciplines, and who enter the most competitive colleges and professions. According to Catalyst.org, 45.9% of all enrolled undergraduate students in India are women -- a great step toward closing the higher education gap.
I know people who spend more than they can afford to get the best education for their daughters. A stay-at-home mother once told me, "Marriage will happen when it has to. But education has to be now. It will build her future." Her husband works weekends to earn over-time pay in order to afford the tuition required for IIT-prep.
There is no dearth of ritualistic fervour in the ceremonial worship of goddesses in India, be it Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati, or any other.
There is no hesitation among many Indians in the USA to proudly claim that India had her first lady Prime Minister in the 1970s while USA seems torn over the prospect of having a Madam President in 2016.
Similarly, there was adequate rage on the streets when the brutal Delhi rape case made headlines.
Why is there outrage against the objectification of women when parents encourage their little daughters to dance like Bollywood heroines?
There was great enthusiasm (if social media is a barometer) when three women athletes, Dipa Karmakar, P.V. Sindhu, and Sakshi Malik made their marks in the Rio Olympics. Facebook was flooded with pictures of Indian women scientists after the successful launch of the Mangalyaan mission.
But, why is Sindhu lauded publicly while a mother bemoans her newborn's darker complexion? Why does everyone pray for Dipa's perfect landing at Rio while successful women doctors' parents are belittled for bearing daughters? Why is there outrage against the objectification of women when parents encourage their little daughters to dance like Bollywood heroines?
Aren't they all India's daughters?