Sravya Chirumamilla: For the sake of feminism, take it off

BY SRAVYA CHIRUMAMILLA: WEAVING THE HANDBASKET

Published April 20, 2004

When ultrasounds were introduced in India
a surprising demographic began utilizing the new technology —
the poor. For a while, people assumed it was to make sure the fetus
was healthy, a valid concern for a developing country with high
infant mortality rates. But soon, the real reasons became apparent
when women scheduled more and more abortions immediately after
doctors performed ultrasounds. No one wanted to admit it was
happening, but that women were being forced to abort female fetuses
became glaringly obvious. Laws now ban doctors from notifying
parents of the sex of the fetus because of this phenomenon.

Sravya Chirumamilla

Welcome to the most populous democracy in the world. Things work
a little differently there than in the West. “Why,” the
naïve Westerners ask, “would women abort their fetuses
simply because they are female?” In a country that embraces
feminism (to a degree), it is difficult to understand the plight of
women who are mostly oppressed.

Women are still largely dependent on their fathers and husbands.
While middleclass and rich women can afford education to escape
parts of the archaic system, poor women cannot afford education and
are sold as servants into the homes of the rich, who very rarely
choose to educate the help.

Once married, women’s troubles tend to increase as
domestic violence is the norm and is expected if the woman does
something wrong. Sometimes, older women are the instigators of the
violence, as mothers-in-law burn and pour hot oil on their
daughters-in-law for failing to produce a grandson. It is in this
caste-based, religiously segregated and male-dominated society that
ultrasounds and abortions became women’s tools to appease the
demands of their families.

There are, however a few women who were able to rise to power.
While the following two women are not representative of all
leaders, their rise to power is worth noting. Indira Gandhi,
India’s first prime minister and Jawaharlal Nehru’s
daughter, obtained her position as prime minister not because of
her own political prowess but because of her relation to Nehru.
Phoolan Devi, a controversial low-caste bandit, was captured and
raped continuously every night for 23 days in a rural, upper-caste
village. A few months later she returned with her gang and killed
22 men. That a woman was able to survive such brutality is
praiseworthy in any society, but especially so in one where
divorced women are forced to suicide. Devi served 11 years in jail
without a trial and then ran for a position in her state
parliament, on which she served off and on until she was gunned
down in 2001.

Most young girls do not look up to these women because they were
either handed their positions based on their father or former male
lover. Instead, the country is fixated upon its Bollywood beauties
— actresses who get their roles based on winning the Miss
India, Universe and World pageants.

These pageants have continued to gain popularity in India as
more Indian girls continuously sweep the Miss Universe, Miss World
and Miss Asia Pacific pageants. Conspiracy theorists claim that the
beauty industry rigs the pageants in order to open up the Indian
markets, which the pageants have done effectively: Very remote
towns now sell L’Oreal products in their convenience
stores.

As in any country afraid of change, there is plenty of
controversy about the chaste Indian girls participating in the
scandalous swimsuit competition. Some women’s groups
protested during the 1996 Miss World pageant in the southern city
of Bangalore by threatening to commit suicide if the pageant
continued.

The main problem is that women are forced to participate in
these pageants or commit suicide to protest them to gain any
recognition: Without her 1994 Miss World title and subsequent
Bollywood roles, Aishwarya Rai would never have appeared in a large
color photo in The New York Times last Friday.

Showing a little skin is the only way to actually earn the
respect and love of the populace. It is in effect the bra burning
of the American feminist revolution; similarly, girls defy their
families by wearing pants, breaking numerous barriers by utilizing
their education to pursue a career instead of giving it up to raise
children and even by competing in beauty pageants.

The debate about these pageants is not about the
beauty-versus-brains discussion that dominates discourses in
America, but instead about women’s right to even participate.
While I understand that not everyone is open to the idea of women
choosing what they wear or do not wear, I recognize these
women’s choices to break away from traditional roles and I
applaud them for taking chances and for baring it all.

Chirumamilla can be reached at "mailto:schiruma@umich.edu">schiruma@umich.edu.