As NASA trains another American woman of Indian origin for a space mission, many around me are astonished. They can’t fathom how the land of satis and dowries could produce so many female scientists and explorers. But as an Indian-born American and a physicist, I’m not surprised.
I look with pride on Sunita Lyn Williams, who, according to reports in the Indian press, will serve on the backup crew for International Space Expedition 10. She’ll follow in the footsteps of Kalpana Chawla, who died in the Columbia disaster.
I try to explain that women of my generation in India, who were born after the country’s independence from British rule, were, in some respects, more liberated than their counterparts in America. But such arguments always seemed to fall on deaf ears. Media stories about arranged marriages and bride burnings have convinced most Americans that Indian women do nothing but suffer at the hands of the patriarchy.
Even today, Americans choose to explain away successful Indian women like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the grounds that in India, only aristocratic women enjoy equality with men.
It isn’t true.
Astronaut Chawla was in many ways my alter ego. Like me, she arrived alone in America as a graduate student. Like me, she enjoyed nontraditional hobbies like hiking and backpacking. In other respects, she surpassed my dreams for myself, earning a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, joining NASA, and becoming the first Indian woman to fly in space.
She was no exception. She was, like biodiversity activist Vandana Shiva, dam protester Medha Patkar, and Booker prize-winning writer Arundhati Roy, one of a multitude of non-aristocratic Indian women who have found “a room of their own.” And the Indian populace seems hardly threatened by these women’s international renown; they are, in fact celebrated.
So how do you reconcile these women to their land, where problems like female infanticide still persist? The answer, I think, can be found in my own life.
My friends and I grew up in households where women were expected to sit in corners for four days during menstruation and keep a fast on Vatasavitri day in order to get the same husband for the next seven incarnations. Yet, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, our mothers had encouraged us to go to school and to excel in studies.
Ironically, since traditional Indian values dictated that a single young woman must be treated with respect, upon entering high school and college, we received the utmost of admiration and encouragement. Our professors addressed us as “Miss” and offered us opportunities for public speaking and travel. Freed from the pressures of dating and “catching” a man, which remained the obligation of our parents, we were at liberty to explore the world of science, astronomy and politics.
In a country where simple amenities like refrigerators and scooters were prize possessions, young men, too, were realizing that an educated wife who could earn a living was desirable. As a university student in India, my achievements as a national merit scholar and a college-debating champion made me not threatening, but more attractive in the eyes of my fellow male students.
As dowry became an aspect that many prospective husbands began to consider less and less in the marriage market, a girl’s academic qualifications began to weigh in more and more. In fact, today, most professional young men in India want an engineer or a doctor for a wife.
In contrast, professionally successful women in America do not enjoy the same social clout. On the dating scene here, men are still seeking replicas of images presented on shows like “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” In America, a woman’s bio seems incomplete without the standard epithet, “an ideal wife and mother.”
In India, on the other hand, articles about Chawla and Shiva talk about their achievements rather than dwelling on their private lives.
Cultural norms in India, which separate the personal from the public, have made it possible for Indian women to chart new territory without undue scrutiny of their intimate lives. And that, I believe, is the secret of the success of modern Indian women. For them, Sunita Lyn Williams and Kalpana Chawla are examples, not exceptions.