Ah fresh air has never felt so…fresh!
Last Sunday I boarded a train with 5 classmates and two teachers, bound for the Himalayas of Himanchal Pradesh, a state in far northern India. We weren’t just headed for the mountains – oh no. Our final destination was the mystical grounds of a grassroots feminist organization, tucked within one of the ‘holiest’ cities on Earth, Dharmshala. Dharmshala is the home of the Dalai Llama and Tibetan refugees. The town is a top destination for the spiritual tourists who flood to India from the West. There are many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Dharmshala. I had the opportunity to visit a few. As a religious studies student, I was in nirvana. I find Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to be fascinating, and the Tibetan monastic life lead by the refugees in Dharmshala posed great contrast with the Zen monastic life I experienced this summer at a monastery in Oregon.
I could spend months delving further into the Buddhist community in Dharmshala, but the point of this journey was attain an understanding of Jagori, the highly esteemed rural feminist NGO. Ultimately, my week at Jagori blew my hesitancy towards feminism out of the water. I have never known how to interact with the feminism I’ve been exposed to at school and in the U.S. at large. I have what, many may consider, a radical relationship to my humanhood and the various colors that paint it “woman”. I’ve struggled with find the common ground my experience as a woman has with feminism. Jagorian feminist philosophy supports and encourages equanimity above all else. This equanimity is not restricted to gender or sexual orientation, but extends to all forms of life. Feminism is not a concept concerning only females, but encompasses the livelihood and well being of all. Today, women in rural India lack an autonomous voice to call attention and demand justice regarding the plethora of issues many face, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and verbal, physical, and mental abuse.
All over India, but especially in rural towns, marriage is the crux of life. Women are considered a burden to families, as they are useless to the family once they turn 21 and are married off. A family will select a their child’s future husband or wife, which is known as arranged marriage. In the marriage process, the female leaves her home and moves into her husbands’ family house. Living in her in-laws’ house is not an easy adjustment. Now, the newly wedded woman must take on the burden of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the entire family. In addition to these household demands, she must emotionally process her first sexual relationship with her husband. The transition may be extremely rough depending on nature of the in-law family. Jagori runs a woman’s court, which I had the opportunity to observe, and the case at hand blatantly illustrated just how difficult and messy marriage can be.
The court was initiated 12 years ago for the benefit of all surrounding communities, bringing any issues that may lead to legal action into conversation with 8 women, the court members. The aim of the court is to help people avoid bringing problems to the corrupt legal system, which may take years to deliberate and settle a solution to any problem. The majority of cases brought to the woman’s court are successfully solved in the court. The court hearing I was at looked like this: 8 women, sitting on the floor in a half moon formation in a small room, the family whose case was being considered gathered in front of the assembly (the entire family came, sisters, brothers, grandmas, aunties, grandfathers, even the local government panchyat representative). In this case, the trouble concerned the new addition to the family. The families’ eldest son had recently married a young woman and she had been living with his family for a few months. When she moved in, it became clear to the family that she had some mental disorders. The family informed the court that this girl is mentally inept, while the young woman sat right there. The trouble was that the girls’ family never mentioned any of these mental conditions (apparently she was extremely reserved in the new house and seemed to be slow to respond or react to things) in the marriage agreement. Her in-laws had taken her to see a doctor, who prescribed her heavy psychotics (one generic drug used to treat schizophrenia) without articulating a diagnosis. This was challenging for me to digest – here this young woman sits in front of her new family who has brought her to meet these strangers, ultimately to complain about how inept she is. The trouble was, the family she was raised in would not allow her to come back home. An unmarried woman is an embarrassment and burden to a family. She was unwanted by anyone.
Nothing was resolved, the family was asked to return in 2 weeks to further discuss what action they want to take. I’m haunted by the encroaching awareness that this woman has no control over her body or mind – shipped off to a new family, drugged, and now discarded.
This story of woman as an object for marriage and familial labor has been pervasive in my experiences in India – I’m constantly challenged by my own “woman-ness” in these circumstances and brought to question my potential as a fellow woman to empower the victims of gender based oppression in a cultural context I am more or less alien to.