Oh, to be a woman

As I mingle among women, listen to their stories and watch their countenances, a big question arises in my mind. More than half of these women are carrying a large burden on their shoulders and are unable to speak about it. They become victims of violence of all forms.

Working in a challenging and highly illiterate state of India, namely Bihar, I often wonder if things will ever change for them. 

The older women have gone through the mill and have suffered in the name of religion and cultural practices; something that is so engrained in their hearts and minds that they cannot be free from these clutches. It is perpetuated by them as part and parcel of their lives. 

As the young woman is emerging, she is different. She has a mind of her own. She knows what she wants to be and is prepared to pay the price, but that is not easily accepted.

In these changing times, I've noticed a growing distance between women as they interact and relate with each other. Call it the generation gap or misunderstanding, but somewhere the underlying factors are two: One is our egos and the other is the growing intolerance among us human beings. 

Being women there are many factors that may have contributed to the present situation that exists in the family. We are very slow in making an allowance for the other. We fail to respect the elderly as someone who has gone through life and has experiences worth acknowledging. My observation is that young women too often think they are superior and that therefore there is no reason for them to learn from older women. Most of them seem to think that older women are outdated and do not know about the new modern world. Alas, they are not able to realize that age will catch up with them sooner or later.

On the other hand, the older women often view the young women as being very weak and unable to work hard or meet the challenges when they acquire the new status of daughter-in-law. Today the older women realize that once the son is married, he only thinks of his wife and doesn't care for the mother.

The solution is to join hands, to let go of our egos and to become tolerant, with the thought, "Today it is she; tomorrow it will be me."

I know that especially in most northern states of India, the woman is looked down upon. If there is a family feud, then avenging the woman by stripping her of her dignity is the most expedient, if horrible, way of getting her to come into line. This menace of dishonoring women by society is on the increase, and I stop to ask myself, "Have we lost our senses?"

Interestingly, in the East all the deities are feminine and we offer prayers and sacrifices to them, but when it comes to flesh and bones, it is a different story. All kinds of abuses are meted upon women and they often become silent sufferers in this drama of life.

One of the most difficult realities occurs when it comes to settling down. No sooner than the young girl reaches the age of puberty, there is mounting pressure on the family to settle the girl, to get her married off. This young woman is just coming to terms with the biological changes that are taking place in her body and at times does not understand what is happening. Most mothers don't even talk about this with them, as it is considered a taboo. So, how does the young woman handle this? Peer groups and friends are her teachers, often ill-informed themselves.

What is more frightening, and something I have not yet been able to digest, is the perpetuation of arranged marriages. The decision is often made by the men folk who enter into all the procedures and also the agreement of the marriage. Very often, the onus falls on the poor girl and boy, who unknowingly "agree" to enter into the sacred institution of marriage without even having once met with each other. Then, the girl leaves her parental home and has to go to her husband's home and get adjusted to the way of life there.

Things are slowly changing and some young people are asking questions. But at the end of the day when the young woman goes to her husband's house, she encounters other women and often there is tension among them. The possessiveness of mothers and sisters become the cause of friction. 

The challenge is to become sisters to each other, to accept these new relationships and to give space for the other. 

In our interconnected world, perhaps we need to realize that women are also positive contributors to life and therefore, they need their space. It is in honoring all of life that we can become humane. We need to consciously put mechanisms in place so that we can ensure that women have their space without prying eyes, or murmuring voices.

[Dorothy Fernandes a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]