Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Six degrees of segregation

Ladies First
All over India

Six months ago, I was unexpectedly re-immersed in American culture for the first time in seven years. After the initial shock wore off (for the first month everything sounded like I was underwater - I could tell people were speaking English, but it just didn't sound right - and my god, there's a lot of space here) I found myself trying to explain, to anyone who would listen (really. Anyone!) some of the distinct factors of life in India that aren't found in the west. One of the most prominent:  a degree of gender segregation.

Almost invariably, the American people I spoke to viewed this as a negative. Well, I loved it, and I suspect loads of other "foreign" women visiting India appreciated it too.

India is an extremely crowded place, and the way to accomodate local norms of personal modesty with the crowded reality is to separate men and women. If they were thrown together, in railway station queues, public buses, commuter trains and so on, there would be no avoiding shoving up against one another.  This would naturally lead to all sorts of problems.  "Naturally," I say, because India seems to take it for granted that men will not behave, which is refreshingly sensible. 

Without the Ladies' Compartment of the Mumbai commuter trains (photo above), how would women, who can't afford taxis and private autorickshaws, move back and forth to work, to relations' houses, and so on, unmolested and undisturbed? Ladies' Compartment gives them a great deal of dignity, and can even be, dare I say it, fun, as you can see in the photo. 

That is, it's as dignified as it can be, considering that you don't really get a seat. Overcrowding is the norm;  women, swathed in full six - and nine-yard saris, sitting in the floors or squatting on their heels. The younger ones (often wearing "Punjabi suits," which were once exclusive to Punjab and are now a national dress) climb to the upper berths, hunched against the ceilings.  The human density defies the laws of physics. Just when you think the doors must close, there is no more room, another person slides in somehow. It is an endearing trait of India that there's always room for one more.

"Ladies' Section" also applies to buses.  I understand this is changing somewhat in the more "modern" cities, but it's still the norm elsewhere.  Women get the front section of the bus; this is often not enforced until it gets very crowded, at which point the men must go to the back. I have seen men barked at, by passengers and conductors, and forced to move and make way for women. This is so that when a woman boards the crammed bus, she won't have to push her way through the men. Also, this accomodates women carrying babies or accompanied by children.

A sort of de facto women's and children's section seems to be the very front of the bus.  Here there is extra room for storing your bags, coming home from market.  On long distance bus trips you can even score a seat up front inside the driver's cabin (if you don't mind smelling the smoke of his bidis!). 
It did shock me that there seems to be no custom, among the women, of giving up one's seat to an elderly woman, or a woman with children. Some women looked surprised when I did this and their expression seemed to indicate that I was stupid for giving up the prized spot.

At least in South India, there is also a tradition of restaurants having a "Family Section." In practice, this mean's Ladies' Section. In these marked sections,  men do not sit unless accompanied by women (and usually children), the rare single woman can sit without inference or insult, and there is strictly no smoking.  The restaurant's other section often resembles a "gentlemen's club" (loud conversation, smoking).  

If you had told me ten years ago that I would willingly participate in, and even prefer, gender segregation, I would have called you crazy.  When I describe the system, Americans instantly assume the women are being separated because they are somehow inferior. I think the system honors the women; it actually protects them, and I personally benefited from this. 

"Separate but equal" may be impossible - the concept of "equality" being a strangely Western one.  While larger cities are adopting western standards, traditional India takes it as a given that men will be men, and women shouldn't have to put up with the ones they're not married to.