By Kashay Sanders
Sitting in the computer lab of the school where I work, power out, mid-day, it’s exams time—the school is quiet except for the rustle of teachers walking to and fro. I sit with a young, Muslim Indian woman, no older than twenty, equally as restless. She is the School Madam’s daughter and she has visited the school a few times, so we have a good relationship. Insanely smart, she is currently enrolled in Shadan Engineering College in Hyderabad and her English is effortless.
We got into a discussion about her future plans. Her parents have arranged for her to be married within the year, and she seems pretty happy with the groom-to-be, joking that he looks like Salman Khan (the biggest Bollywood actor in India). As he now works in Saudi Arabia, the two exchange texts and phone calls, but have yet to meet in person. However, a huge life shift awaits her along with this marriage—the groom has a brother running a business in Chicago. And he plans to join him. She, of course, will move as well, and intends to pursue a Masters in America.
I explained to her that she may be a bit shocked by American culture, particularly how women dress. I asked her what she thought about that.
“Well, about that kind of dress, think about if you see a woman wearing almost nothing on the street versus a woman in a burka, what do you think the man will want?”
I answered obviously—the woman wearing less clothing.
She responded, “Exactly. But I can walk on the street, in my burka, and not worry about someone looking at me inappropriately. I am anonymous and can move freely.”
She and I had good enough rapport for me to challenge her. “That’s interesting! But…many women have the idea that it is a GOOD thing to get that kind of attention. It makes them feel powerful, it makes them feel confident. Or, if not that, they see liberation as being able to dress any way they wish, regardless of any one’s opinion.”
She agreed that this was true. We both came to the conclusion that however a woman feels most powerful is what she should be allowed to do. No one should ever tell her, for example, that wearing a burka outside somehow diminishes her as a woman, we decided. She went on to adamantly defend her position as a Muslim woman, saying that she loves it and is tired of people casting it in a bad light. “So tell me, you studied gender, what do you think about women in India?”
I sat back. That was certainly not a small question. “Well…it’s obviously more complex than what’s often presented to the “Western” world. What I’m learning is that power doesn’t look like just one thing—it doesn’t have one style of dress or one way of talking or of being a daughter or mother or friend. We can’t just make assumptions about women’s empowerment based on what we see on the surface of a country. That said, India still has a long way to go. America too. None of us are there yet.”
She nodded, agreeing with my statement and we sat back in silence again, the fan started whirring as the power snapped back on, the sound of children getting up from their exams began outside.
In case you’re wondering, YES, I am actively recruiting this woman to be a VOICE counselor this year.