Thursday, October 17, 2013

India: Gurgaon’s Women Caught Between Two Worlds

 In Gurgaon, feudal mindsets and aggressively patriarchal attitudes coexist uneasily with a westernized ambience. This city, in India’s National Capital Region surrounding New Delhi, is host to over 500 multinationals, including Fortune 500 companies

It is a startling study in contrasts. Swanky business and shopping enclaves, recreation outlets and upmarket colonies mushroom around villages whose land has been colonized to accommodate the explosion in business outsourcing operations in the wake of India’s post-1991 economic liberalization. The latest cars crowd poorly-maintained roads on which cattle find their way even as metro trains glide silently overhead.

But none of this can quite conceal the essentially rustic character of the place. Beneath the modern veneer lurk feudal mores and misogynist attitudes.

Sinsi Sebastian, 23, moved to Gurgaon from Kerala in 2011, to work as a software designer in a private firm. She shared a flat with two other women in an upscale colony adjoining Nathupur village. Nearby were Udyog Vihar and Cyber Greens, hubs of numerous corporate offices and IT companies. Young, educated professionals flocked there for work. Their evenings were spent pub-hopping, catching a film or simply spending time with friends.

An only child, Sebastian was found murdered in her flat while her apartment mates were away in January 2012. The police eventually arrested the company driver, who used to pick and drop her. He admitted to killing her in a fit of rage when she spurned his advances.

Women socializing and working with male colleagues, sharing apartments with them, smoking, all these trigger a culture shock and predatory instincts, with unfortunate consequences at times.

A year earlier, Mamta, a feisty girl from the most backward Kumhar caste who worked as a domestic help, was found hanged from her bedroom fan in Nathupur. Married in her early teens, she was so frustrated with her life in her in-laws’ home that she tried to persuade her husband to relocate to Delhi. Then she mustered up courage to file a police case against the in-laws after they reportedly assaulted her.

Her spouse refused to move. After her death, he remarried within nine months. Her kin were suspicious. But since the local police here are also come from the same feudal backgrounds, investigations into such cases are shoddy.

Gurgaon’s rural pockets are deeply entrenched, rich and powerful, carrying the social baggage of centuries. Nathupur, Sikandarpur, Kanhai, Chakkarpur and other villages have presided over a meteoric urban expansion, even while attitudes remain unchanged. This is most evident in gender relations and caste prejudices. The rustic gentry are now wealthy, having sold their farmland to developers and taking to the booming real estate business.

The landless, who were earlier forced to work as daily wage laborers, breaking stones at quarries on the remnants of the Aravalli hills and doing other unskilled jobs, are somewhat better off now than other migrants as they can ply vehicles, work in offices, malls, markets, recreation outlets, or run a business, become vendors and rent out rooms and shops in their village homes.

Rural women, however, are conspicuous by their absence here. Instead migrant women – mainly from Bengal – act as domestic helpers, while a floating population from Jharkhand and other tribal belts, the Northeast, and a mix of different ethnic groups seek work in factories and offices, right up to Bhiwadi, across the Rajasthan border.

Among the local populace, rustic elite females lead sheltered lives, whether in residences in the new colonies into which their families have shifted, or in their ancestral village homes, renovated lavishly after the sudden influx of money. Traditional vocations of cattle rearing, running dairies and farming among landowners have given way to the property business and, to a limited degree, to government and white collar jobs, with the hardy men here having a natural affinity for jobs in the police, security and defense.

Well-off rural women, veiled in the presence of their elders, men and outside the home, travel only accompanied by male kin. They have access to the accoutrements of modern life – telephones and mobiles, giant plasma television sets, deep freezers, split air conditioners, microwave ovens, music systems, and cars – but they lack freedom, the most valuable of all assets.

The computers, laptops and I-pads at home are not meant for their use as most have limited schooling and have not been taught how to operate these sophisticated IT gadgets. Early marriage is the norm for girls here, with their predominant role remaining unchanged over the centuries – as child-bearers who help to perpetuate the family line and as domestic care-givers. A few college graduates may work as teachers to supplement family income, but that is as far as it will go.

Any deviation from the norm invites punishment that could be fatal. Dowries, if found to be inadequate, could also provoke retribution from in-laws in a milieu fiercely yoked to material gains.

Thus the mobility of women – trapped as they are by convention and hemmed in by clan feuds – is severely curbed. They are left with little option but to meekly follow what custom has ordained for them. Errant conduct – a love affair, an inter-caste or inter-faith involvement or marital dispute – often culminates in honor killings. The infamous khap panchayat – an arbitration council representing a cluster of villages – presides over matters related to social prestige, family/village honour and social disputes. They are reported to pass brutal verdicts on matters that defy convention. Errant couples, for instance, are often killed or forcibly separated.

A case in point is an incident from Nathupur village. The sister of a former sarpanch, or village head was found burnt to death in her in-laws’ home about a decade ago in a nearby village. It could not be ascertained whether it was a suicide or murder. There can be no divorce if a marriage falls apart, and the possibility of a wedded daughter forsaking her marital home to return to her natal home is virtually nil. The subservient status of women commonly ensures denial of inheritance rights in the marital and natal homes, with property accruing to sons or, in their absence, to the larger family pool.

In such a scenario, women really are left with no choices – not even the option to stay single and self sustaining; or adopting the life of a renunciate is also almost impossible. A few village families, poor and lower in the hierarchy, do allow their womenfolk to work in the colonies as domestic help or as gardeners in parks. And those like Sinsi, educated and ambitious, who move into this city for better prospects, may collide against the lethal, deep-rooted biases against single women that mark Gurgaon’s feudal milieu. Asia Sentinel

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