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Of Bride Burnings and Astronauts -
India's Conflicting Female Role Models

By Sarita Sarvate

Pacific News Service
08 June, 2003

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 prizewinning 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.

Sarvate (naladamayanti@yahoo.com) is a physicist and a
writer for India Currents and other publications.