Over the nearly three decades that I have lived in U.S., I have been inundated with curious questions from my American friends, colleagues and neighbors: Are you allowed to have your own bank account? Does your husband let you go out with your friends without him? Does he mind if you socialize with your male co-workers? Were you allowed to attend college in India? Did your parents give you the option of refusing the husband they chose for you?
These are only a few samples of the questions I have had to field from my American friends. I can honestly answer in the affirmative to all of the above. But when the questions center on whether I was allowed to date, have pre-marital sex, hold down jobs in dangerous occupations, and travel to unsafe locations alone, the answer is a resounding “No.” I was born and raised in a small town in India and in a conservative home with limited independence given to females.
Being a woman in India has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Middle-class women in India rarely have the independence to date different men, do heavy-duty construction work, or go to a bar and drink alone. But on the other hand, they have immense freedom to acquire any amount of college education, pursue a lucrative occupation or entrepreneurial activity, and run for political office. Their parents as well as their husbands are supportive of these endeavors. There has never been a dearth of female doctors, lawyers, professors, businesswomen, and members of parliament in India. Nearly four decades ago India had a female prime minister: Indira Gandhi.
Half a century ago we had figures like Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Sarojini Naidu, and thousands of other not-so-famous women who flexed their political, professional, artistic, and creative muscle. But I doubt that they would have demonstrated the courage to elope with a man, or live alone in a dangerous neighborhood, or light up a cigarette in public. And yet, an ultra-emancipated society like America that recognizes a woman’s right to have children out of wedlock and wear bikinis in public will not show much support if she chooses to run for president. They often expect her to go into office work, nursing, teaching or waiting on tables.
However, the American socio-political climate is changing, happily for the better. Despite the gender disparity, in recent years, it has been heartening to see many women CEOs and professionals like doctors, lawyers and engineers amongst American women. Maybe there is some hope of electing a female to the American presidency during my lifetime. It is about time America took a leaf out of the books of the third world countries that have given women a fair chance to prove themselves as astute and effective heads of state.
It is natural for immigrants to the U.S. from all corners of the world to be stereotyped to some extent, and we Indian-Americans are no different. It used to come as a surprise to my American acquaintances that I, a woman from a country like India, could communicate in English, that I had a college education, and that I was married to a professional. Of course, the surprise element no longer exists since the recent years have ushered in a large number of immigrant professional women and consequently a whole new level of understanding of Indian women’s educational levels and capabilities has emerged.
As I ponder the various questions about my social values and mores I realize that the two societies, Indian and American, are diametrically opposed in many ways and yet similar in some. The differences seem to be reversed, though. Indians in India accept considerably lower moral standards in their politicians while condemning the same shortcomings in the common man. Americans, however, are almost puritanical when it comes to their elected officials. They want these individuals to be happily married (preferably with a few wholesome children), morally sound and solid citizens with lofty standards of conduct. And yet, ordinary Americans who do not dabble in politics happily go about their lives with relative independence and lack of censure: couples live together without being married; men and women date multiple partners; criminals re-establish themselves in mainstream society after serving their sentences; children born out of wedlock do not carry the stigma of illegitimacy. American movie stars have made it fashionable to have children without ever getting married. On the other hand, Indian movie stars still do not dare to emulate their western counterpart in that particular area.
When I am asked why, despite the education and the freedom to do so many other things, Indian women are not allowed to date or become strip-club dancers, I can only chuckle and inform my American friends that the two societies are like apples and oranges: each uniquely sweet, each filled with its own distinctive flavor and character, and each equally satisfying.
Modern, middle-class Indian women, contrary to the misguided stereotype assigned by some Westerners, are not downtrodden and pathetic examples of lifelong servitude. They are strong and efficient and quite capable of holding down a job as well as a home without the aid of a man. They choose to marry, and very often by arranged marriage, so they can have a healthy balance between a professional life and a personal life. By the same token, American women choose not to marry by arrangement, decide to work in unusual occupations, and prefer to live a life of more independence and variety because those options meet their personal needs. Each group of women finds satisfaction and reaches its goals in its own distinctive manner. The quest for ultimate happiness and fulfillment is what life is all about.
One vital fact is indisputable: we Indian women who have made America our home manage to have the best of both worlds: we can have arranged marriages or find our own mates; we can choose any profession or career we desire; we can opt to pursue any kind and quantity of education and at any age; we can indulge in the most incredible and unusual hobbies; we can travel anywhere at anytime; we can enjoy an alcoholic drink if we so wish; we can run for elected office if we aspire to become politicians. We can even fancy ourselves as writers, poets, film producers, directors and movie stars. Being an Indian-American woman has never been more exhilarating.
Shobhan Bantwal lives in New Jersey with her husband. She writes, produces, and acts in Konkani plays.