Prentiss Riddle on ''Indian sex roles''

From:    Prentiss Riddle
To:      Vaishnava Dasa
Subject: Indian sex roles

You ask what it is that my wife and her sister don't like about the
traditional Indian relationship between the sexes.  I'm not sure you
really want me to get into this here.  It's certainly not my intention to
offend anyone.  Also, this puts me in the position of speaking for my
wife.  But, here goes...

At its extreme, the Indian system can resemble slavery or worse for a
woman.  The requirement that a bride's family pay a huge dowry to the
groom's family means that a daughter is a tremendous financial liability
from the moment of birth, while a son is considered a financial asset.
Upon marriage, a young woman leaves her home and joins her husband's
family, where she is the low person on the totem pole of a very
hierarchical family system.  She is possibly held as a literal hostage
until the dowry is paid in full, and disputes over dowry commonly lead to
abuse and even death (often by fire and disguised as a "cooking
accident").  Even aside from the dowry system, though, a woman is expected
to be seen and not heard.  Women serve men, even to the point of doing the
simplest tasks: a man should never have to reach for a bowl of food, let
alone get up to get it or (this is unthinkable) cook it himself, because
the women of the house stand at their elbows during mealtimes to serve
them.  While more and more women in India are being educated, often women
are discouraged from using their educations.  Education for women is often
window dressing, something that makes a young girl more marriageable.

I am of course stating generalities here.  There are many exceptions,
especially in the westernized urban elite.  But my wife and I have seen
with our own eyes how women in her extended family in India have been
suffocated by the Indian system.  By our western standards it is as if
Indian men remain babies all their lives, requiring the constant attention
of women, while Indian women are never allowed to think or act for
themselves, required always to subject themselves to men.

Once again, I am not trying to inflame argument here.
I am aware that our western system has its own flaws.

- Prentiss Riddle ("aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada")

From:    Prentiss Riddle
To:      Vaishnava Dasa
Subject: Re: Indian Sex Roles

You ask how much of what I wrote was first-hand knowledge.  Well, my wife
and I have seen with our own eyes families in which women are severely
stifled and become bitter and depressed.  We haven't seen cases of
physical abuse (at least not that we knew of).  We have also seen, in my
opinion, equally sad consequences for the men in such families, who never
learn how to take care of themselves or enjoy a relationship with a woman
who is treated as an equal.  And maybe saddest of all is what this means
for childrearing: spoiled boys and neglected (at least emotionally) girls.

As for the prevalence of these problems among various social classes in
India, the situation is very complicated.  It is true that the elite is
exposed to a lot of Western influence and some people in the educated
classes turn out to have ideas of sex roles which pretty closely resemble
ours.  But at the same time the dowry system is said to be strongest among
the very wealthiest groups in India, and multimillion dollar skyscrapers
in downtown Bombay have been known to change hands in the form of dowries.

Some of the most publicized bride-burning inciden{s in India have
occurred among the professional classes.  Another twist is that among
peasants and the urban poor, where women and men work together farming or
doing manual labor, a sort of rugged egalitarianism develops because both
sexes do much the same work.

Notice that I haven't said anything about arranged marriage.  This is a
custom which Westerners find hardest to swallow, and certainly my wife and
her sister balked at the idea, but after much consideration my wife has
decided that arranged marriage seems to work at least as well for Indians
as "love marriage" works for us.  Young people in India are often raised
to expect nothing else, and with no tradition of dating or courtship, they
would feel at a loss to select their own mates.  They often really believe
that their families know better than they do how to pick the best possible
match for them, and they then fall in love with the chosen person.
Nowadays it is more and more the norm for the members of the proposed
match to have veto power and to participate actively in the matchmaking
process.  When you look at our divorce rates, it's hard to justify our
knee-jerk negative attitude toward arranged marriage.

From:    Prentiss Riddle
To:      Helen Abadzi
Subject: Dowry (Re: Indian Sex Roles)

Just to keep life interesting and play devil's advocate here, I should
mention that some Indian feminists are taking another look at the dowry
system and recognizing that it did orginally have a useful side as well.
Since Indians traditionally lived under a joint family system and women
left to join their husbands' families upon marriage, dowry was a way for a
duaghter to inherit: sons would inherit upon their parents' death, while
daughters got their share of the family wealth at marriage.  To eliminate
dowry while excluding daughters from later inheritance is to cut women off
from their piece of the pie.  Not that anyone is proposing a return to
dowry, but it is not all evil.