Last night I found out that I’m not a woman.
In India you are only classified as a woman if you are married and have children. So for the time being, I am a girl. In a country where freedom is restricted and your place in society is determined by your marital status, India finds itself still failing its women. Before I left, my Grandad reassuringly showed me an article from the Swedish newspaper ‘Dagen’s Nyheter’, which ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. But what is it actually like for the people where this is their reality? Is it as shocking, unjust and plain outrageous as we are constantly told by the media?
Meet Kalyani Buridi; she is kind, witty, well-spoken and absolutely wonderful in every way. She is 38 years old and is another teacher here at Andhra High School. Kalyani has become our closest friend. She told me about her life and her experiences growing up in India, the traditions and cultural norms here and the injustices women face everyday. This is what she said:
The life of Indian women
As a whole, what are your thoughts around the lives of women in India?
In the last 20 years I have seen a change- in the past women were not allowed to go outside. She is not allowed to get a job and she is not allowed to even speak to other men. Now we are free- almost. In the olden days only men had to bring, to earn and to work hard. We too work very hard, but it is not a recognised job. We get no acknowledgement for cooking, washing, raising children and doing all the work at home. If we got a salary for how hard we worked, we can earn more than a man.
I have a question from my dad, he asked: what are the benefits of being a woman in India, what are the good things?
We get more love from our family as a woman. We also have much more command in the family compared to the gents. We play a vital role and have a lot of command in other areas too. So it’s very good and I’m very happy that I am a woman. I’ve never felt sad anytime for being a woman, even during pregnancy or even in the period times when I get pain also. I thought it is good, it is good. Why? Because a man cannot bring a man from his womb, but a woman can. It means we are giving one more human being to the world. They may give sperm to us, but maybe sperm we can take from anywhere. So tell to your dad, in the next life that he should ask to be as a girl.
In the UK women have more freedom in how they want to dress, but this is not the case here?
That is not our culture. The clothes you wear, from childhood that is all you have seen. That is your culture. Wearing jewellery, flowers and saris is our culture from our ancestors- especially during the celebrations and festival times. We can wear the same western clothes that you wear, if our husband and parents allow us to. If I am slim like you, I would like to wear jeans. I have tried them before- my husbands. He won’t restrict what I wear, he never asks me about my dressing style. Neither does he restrict me when I am coming with you, to the shopping mall in the evenings. In other families ladies are not allowed to go outside without the permission from their husband. But not my hubby, he understands.
Marriage and Indian Traditions
Could you tell me more about your marriage?
I got married at 17 years old. Believe it or not, at that age we do not know about the sex. I would have wanted to wait a few years before I got married, but by the time I was 18 I had a baby. I didn’t enjoy my married life, because of my mother in law and other family problems. I feel I lost my marriage. But my husband is very good and I know that a girl should marry.
And how do you feel about marriages being arranged for you?
Even in love marriages there are disturbances. Even in arranged marriages there are disturbances. So in marriage both men and women should have the mutual understanding to lead a happy life. Whether an arranged marriage or love marriage, that does not make a difference. Up and downs will come in every parts life. With arranged marriages, the parents think about us and want the best for our future.
Ours was an arranged marriage, so from childhood I was told that he, my cousin, is your husband. Even as a child we may have some disturbances with our parents, but they are blood related so they stay with us, if we are happy or sad- that is family. But why in the married life are you living and divorcing? Because it is not blood relation, so we feel like we have the right to leave them. That is common and I don’t think that’s a good thing
Can you explain the stigma around periods and what mature functions are?
When a girl matures and gets her first period she is made to sit in the corner of a room, she is not allowed to do any work and nobody touches her for 9 days. This is an old tradition. It is the belief that if she rests she can learn about the pain and the bleeding and will understand how to tackle the next one. But after she gets her first period we have a big celebration, or ‘Mature Function’ with all friends and family and she gets given her first sari. But after the party nobody speaks about periods, people see it as something wrong. It’s kept very secret.
In the Hindu culture, during period times you’re not allowed to touch anyone. In some castes you are not allowed to enter into the house, so they sit outside on the veranda. They eat and sleep there only. Everything they use is different: the dishes, the brushes, the glass. This happens still in the Brahmin families. There are no restrictions for Christians, but women are not allowed to go to the temples and Muslim women are not allowed to go during their period times either.
Do the male teachers at our school get a higher salary?
Yes and they get more periods of leisure every day. Even in the break times the lady teacher won’t sit, instead they will guard and look after the kids. But the gent teachers when the bell rings will go outside, they will go to the shop, they will have tea. But we won’t go anywhere. That means we are working hard, even in the lunch break. If any teacher is absent we are the ones that have to stand in for them. That is injustice.
We also have a gender pay gap in the west.
Really? It is very bad. But men will help you at home, maybe with the washing, cooking, cleaning they will help you- but here no. We don’t get any help with that from the men. So we are working all day. If you look at our school, see the lower classes are very hard to handle and higher class are very easy to handle. In the lower classes have you seen any gent teacher? No. But in higher class it is only gent staff. They cannot handle the children. We are doing hard work but we are getting less salary because we are women.
This is a very horrible thing. If I become a minister I will change all the situations, I will give more salaries to the women and I will give more rights to the women. All the administration I will change. We are working together, so we should have the same- no ups and no downs regarding that. There should not be a gender difference. We are all equal. If you are working less you get paid less, if you are working more then you should get paid more. But that’s not how it is, it’s a horrible situation. But I will change that, even if I can only achieve a little bit to make it better.
My aunt Lucy asks: how do you feel about the domestic expectations of women?
It is very horrible. If she wants to stay at home it is up to her, but it should not be done forcefully. Nobody should restrict them. “You should not go out, you should do this, don’t do that”. There are still families where this happens, even in educated families there are restrictions. But we can’t do anything about that. But in my family there are no restrictions.
So there are more restrictions for women than for men?
Yes, they are allowed to go and do what they want. They can drink, they can dance, they can wear whatever they want- they can do anything! For women hopefully after 10 years maybe we can see a drastic change.
Are you happy being a mother?
Yes, I teach what my mum taught to me, but I am not as strict. My mum was very strict; she taught me a lot of things. My father didn’t. He is good but he didn’t give much time to us. He tortured my mum and she struggled a lot, but she never showed that hardness to us. She never said “I’m facing this much trouble” and she was always hiding the pain. She used to smile in front of us. She felt that she should never show her sadness to her kids. By seeing her they should not feel sad. So in the same way I have been married for 20 years and never in that time have we fought in front of my kids. Silent words will be going on, but only silent words and not battle. If he is angry I will be quiet, and if I’m angry he will be quiet. We have a mutual understanding. I think my kids respect me a lot.
My godmother wonders: how do women who don’t want to have children respond to the pressure of being expected to have children?
I haven’t seen any women who don’t want children. I think women without children feel very sad. Maybe because of health problems they can’t have children, but it some cases they can adopt and then they can enjoy their life. But I think they still have a very sad feeling. I do not know any women who don’t want children. After marriage, maybe for some years they want to wait because want to enjoy their lives. But after a few years they will want kids.
Growing up in India
So what was it like when you were little?
I miss the childhood days when there weren’t any restrictions. We can play, we can eat, we can kick, we can pinch, we can cry. But now we don’t have rights to laugh louder, we don’t have right to cry louder. If I cry my kids will come: “what happened mum? What happened?” They will ask. If we laugh freely someone will ask “why are you laughing like that, are you mad?” So in childhood we can enjoy our life. Now I feel that as a child I was a free bird. Even now I’m a free bird, but we have some restrictions. So as per the restrictions we have to follow.
Did you have a good upbringing?
Sure, my mother was a very good mother; she taught much to me and gave me a good culture. As a woman I am working the way I am in society because of my mum. She strengthened me to face the grave situation and the hard situations, not only the happiness. We need to face the hard situations also. After God, my second place I give to my mum.
So the next question is: have you travelled much in your life? If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
No, I haven’t travelled much. Only to Secunderabad (city in neighbouring state) and a few times I’ve been to Vijayawada (two hours away), but I have never gone out of Andhra. When I was a kid my mum took me to Uttar Pradesh, but I don’t remember. If I had the chance to go, I would choose the UK. This is so I can meet all the volunteers who have been here and I can make them happy. Especially, I want to cook for them! I want to make happy with my cooking.
What makes you happy?
When I am with my God I feel very happy. When I’m with my friends and with my family I feel very happy. When I teach my lessons and the kids feel happy. They don’t see me as a teacher but as a friend, they come close to me and share with me, I feel very happy at that time. When I speak with you, I feel very happy.
What do you hope will happen in the future, in terms of India’s development?
I feel that we will change to be more like foreigners. It is not our culture to drink alcohol and only after marriage we are to have sex. But it is changing; we are following foreign culture and forgetting our culture. By seeing you they are attracted to how you live, so we are changing- to the drinking and smoking and having sex before marriage. The freedom that foreign countries get is very good. I like that. And the helping! Men and women both work, even in the home the work is shared- I think that is the way.
Do you think the lives of women will change too?
Yes! We will change one day with the help of Jesus. We will ask Jesus to change the situation. But even in the bible it is written that the men should be given more power.
We will ask Jesus why.
Yes we will ask Jesus, why you did so? When Adam and Eve were in the garden, because of the snake’s words she was tempted by the fruit. So God didn’t give much power to women, because we were tempted by small things. In those days maybe, but we are strong now. I will not accept that we are weak. In every aspect we are very high, in thinking, in doing and in every aspect nowadays. We can compete!
-A special thank you to Kalyani. Thank you for inspiring me, welcoming me into your family and making me laugh every day. Continue being your wonderful self, we all love you very much.