Reflecting on Perceptions of Women in South India

“Saapteengala?” I look down, with a respectful nod to the group of men walking on the dirt path. They are asking me if I have eaten, in the language of Tamil spoken here in beautiful Sittilingi Valley in the south Indian countryside. I am here to do research in public health and am studying Tamil from a book, but I hesitate when speaking with men, because I do not know how they think of me and of women in general.

Stories abound of discrimination against women in India: they are on Western media and even in the local Asian newspapers my mother and I sometimes read. One morning I notice a woman lying face down, surrounded by many relatives, and the doctor explains that she is the victim of domestic abuse. Having also seen violence and its consequences in poor farming families in Taiwan, as a daughter raised in tradition, I expect more of the same here.

I make friends with the women, and soon we are as close as sisters. I tell my housemate Ankita* about California and Taipei as she tells me about her village in Hyderabad. She shares her thought that women are respected in villages more than in towns or cities. Her mother has always encouraged her in her learning. Just then, Ankita grabs the Tamil classic Ponniyin Selvan book I am reading, and exclaims happily, “Reading – women’s empowerment!” Hearing her laugh, I feel at once humbled and delighted.

I am conducting interviews at the Tribal Health Initiative – Sittilingi Hospital as it is known by local people – to learn how people perceive cardiovascular health in rural India, where chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes are on the rise. The hospital is run by men and women doctors and a cadre of female nurses, with international guests visiting each year. It seems like a safe place for a woman to work. One especially hot afternoon, I am invited by the medical team to enjoy mangoes with them. Chewing on the juicy pulp, senior doctor Ramesh suddenly blurts out, “All Indian men are male chauvinists.” Even the women are complicit in patriarchal thinking, he grumbles. I gently remark on the irony of saying this as a man, but he insists that truth is truth – no matter who says it.

I become curious and want to test this chronic perception of gender bias. Luckily, one evening Ankita brings her friend, Sathish, who has been studying political science in graduate school. As we fend off mosquitoes, I take a chance to ask him about the writings of Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen. I ask if India was historically a proto-democracy that championed pluralism. Sathish is less optimistic when he describes the plight of Dalits who are considered of lowest caste, as the talk turns to religion and gender. Sathish is upset that his sister, of marriageable age, is discouraged from studying past the undergraduate level. He defends his personal belief in Islam against Western misconceptions, and yet resents that many Muslim families treat women so. I nod politely, not mentioning that I am working on a second master’s degree. But I am relieved to discover that Ramesh and Sathish feel just as frustrated as many women do.

Halfway through my stay in Sittilingi Valley, I am invited by Ramesh, Ankita, Sathish, and the nurses to my first movie in town. We arrive at the noisy bus station, and I notice a few boys staring at me. “Hi! You are beautiful!” they shout in English. Sternly, Ramesh admonishes them as a brother: “Thambi, please leave her alone.” Maybe Ankita is right about villages and towns. We get off quickly and hurry into the cool, darkened movie theater, excited to watch Bahubali II, the epic adventure fantasy film that has become a national sensation. As the warrior hero Bahubali strikes down a nobleman who molested a female servant, the audience erupts in a deafening cheer so loud that I have to cover my ears. And when the leading lady shows her battle prowess while fighting a group of male attackers, the men in the audience roar loudest of all. I join in the raucous applause, but stay quiet, too full of surprise for words.

*Names and identities of people have been changed for anonymity.