Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rousing the complacent feminist

by Dhwani Shah

I've been trying to write an article for Equal Writes since the blog began last semester. I've had lots of ideas for pieces--ad campaigns that were atrociously discriminatory, news events, happenings on campus. But I never actually got motivated enough to write anything. Why? Mostly because, like all Princeton students, I was extremely busy. But also because I was largely complacent. I've been lucky enough to live in an environment where my opportunities were not limited by gender inequalities. Over break, I lost my complacency.

I was speaking to a distant uncle from India about Princeton and the American educational system. My immediate family emigrated to the United States many years ago, but nearly all of our extended family still lives in India. We spoke about the many differences between America and the motherland, and eventually the conversation turned to gender. I told him that I felt girls in India aren't encouraged to pursue education in the same way as boys, and advised him to take special care to support his own daughter's education.

And then, as families do, we started arguing. He said he felt like gender discrimination and inequality were largely "a thing of the past," antiquated customs of previous generations that were no longer relevant. My cousin, who recently immigrated from India for graduate school, largely agreed. He felt like discrimination was not a widespread problem, but rather something that happened on "a case by case basis." I countered with almost every statistic about gender inequality that I know, including info on the gender wage gap, the literacy gap (literacy rates for men are 1.5 times those for women in India), and the preference for male children over female ones.
When that proved ineffective, I cited disparities within our own family in the way men and women were treated. When my mother was married, she was forced to give up her job because women in her new family were not allowed to work. Women were also not allowed to touch other people during their menstrual cycles, or eat before serving their husbands food.

Neither statistics or anecdotes were particularly effective in convincing them of the reality of gender inequality. I was appalled. How could two men from India, a country which has ranked 114th out of 128 internationally on gender parity believe that inequality was a problem of the past? If they didn't believe in gender inequality, how could they act to eliminate it? I realized that I was upset with them for displaying a different version of my own complacency.

As a Princeton woman, with a world of opportunities ahead of me, it is easy to put feminism on the back burner. This complacency had left me sluggish--reluctant to stand for the rights of women like myself, or like my aunts and cousins who still face incredible gender discrimination in India. In a way that nothing else had, this argument with my relatives jolted me. And I hope that 2009 can be my year for vigilance and for action.


At January 8, 2009 at 6:42 AM , Blogger Josher said...

How could two men from India, a country which has ranked 114th out of 128 internationally on gender parity believe that inequality was a problem of the past?

I would suggest that phenomenon b is causally linked to phenomenon a. You can't tackle inequality if no-one believes that it exists.


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