Both are really important. Women need to be empowered and have equality; they need to feel valued. Women have a lot to give society and the world but are often held back. Held back due to tradition and abuse, their own understanding of what they are capable of is lacking. We need to break down barriers so women’s talent, power and dreams can be unleashed.
It is important to put women in the center of my book so their thoughts, dreams and challenges are show cased, and readers are drawn into their characters. I want readers to be forced to think of women. So often in art and life, women are pushed to the sidelines. What men and larger society think of them becomes the only acceptable representation. We are conditioned by society to think of women in a certain way. It is important for my characters to question their roles and restraints, and draw on their inner strength if they are in trouble.
In thinking of your work with women’s organizations in the United States, do you think gender discrimination and violence have increased since you first began work in this sector?
The rate of violence is the same, but now more women are willing to talk about their situation. Women are reaching out with stories and asking for help. When I started working in this sector 20 years ago, there were taboos that if you were a woman in an abusive relationship something was wrong with you. You wanted to keep it quiet so it would be better for your children and not bring shame to your family. Women are now willing to take a risk to get help and are questioning whether they have another option to their situation. Instead of wanting to save face they want to save their lives. This raises awareness. Many organizations are offering support through seminars, with topics such as immigration or making financial decisions. These seminars give women real skills, but also create a safe space for women to dialogue about being independent and breaking away from an unsafe situation. Organizations have been smart about the ways they increase consciousness and increase women’s independence so it is done discreetly. Since women are often in a situation where it’s okay for them to say they are going to seminar about finances, but not okay to go to seminar about domestic violence, a call for empowerment is woven through the seminars.
What is your perception of the Indian community in the US – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
There is a difference, but there are still traditional families who place greater value on sons and view sons as more integral to the family. It is not as extreme in the US where education is denied to girls, but there is still a perception that girls leave their family after marriage. I believe in the US daughters are treated differently, but just as well, as sons – especially in regard to education. This goes for about 70% of Indian families in the US. The longer people live here, the more change occurs in their views. There is a huge leap in the second generation and when they have kids they make different choices. The biggest factor is whether you’ve had an education here and what values you grew up with. This makes a big difference.
Beyond the plain deaths, what is the most damaging effect of the genocide of girls in India?
The greatest negative consequence is that the gender balance is skewed. There are more men and less women which leads to more problems, especially sexual crimes including rape. Many rape cases involve men who aren’t married; this will only increase.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in the US and India, to respect women?
We should do what we can to get women economically independent, get jobs and have micro businesses, so they contribute to society and are valued more. These skills would put women in a place of confidence to leave an abusive situation. We also need to empower women and girls more by educating them. We need to help women gain literacy so they are savvy and are not as easily taken advantage of. These are basic, but hard, things to do. We have seen that educated and financially independent women come out of abusive situations quickly. We need women to gain self-confidence. Education and economic empowerment and independence are the most important things. The media can and should start portraying women in a more positive light. Too many movies portray women as unequal and as sex objects. We see this in the clothes women wear; women dressing in a sexy manner are portrayed as integral to them being special. These portrayals subconsciously have made us think about women in these devalued terms. We need more movies and books that break these mainstream portrayals. We need to show women as powerful and not portray that as exceptional. Women can be attractive and elegant without being a sex object or wear skimpy clothes.
What can people do to help the cause? How can we make a difference?
We can use social media to raise consciousness. People need to start writing about this issue and discuss it in a social media forum. We need to ask for, and demand, books and art that are socially conscious and attentive to ending the devalued perception of women. People can help by volunteering for organizations that are working for the cause; people can help raise money or give time. Also, people can help by speaking up if they see something wrong. If you see a women who is being treated badly, befriend her and let her know there are options so she feels valued. So we can help at the volunteer, work, personal and social media level. You can do this on your school campus or at work. There are organizations in India that are fighting against the problem women and girls face. We can get the word out about these organizations. Post on your Facebook page about important issues like women’s empowerment. Support filmmakers who are making films about this issue like Petals in the Dust.
For more information about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, go to her website at www.chitradivakaruni.com