A Woman's Life Represents India's Feminist Hopes

There's an amazing story in today's New York Times. Titled "From Untouchable to Business Woman," it's a chronicle of one woman's journey. But it's a much larger story, really.

The piece focuses on Kakuben Lalabhai Parmar, a 50-year-old woman from a rural village in the western Indian state of Gujarat. When the author meets her, she is selling her wares in Times Square.

At a practical level, Ms. Parmar's trip required a series of unusual conveyances, among them a bullock cart, a trishaw, the flatbed of a Jeep and the open-topped shuttle bus she rode to reach an airport before boarding a form of transport she had seldom seen up close before, let alone ridden...At a deeper cultural level, her journey is yet stranger and more wonderful, embodying as it does a half-century of global feminism and the evolutionary arc of modern India. In the cattle-herding community Ms. Parmar belongs to, one among a cluster of groups categorized by the Indian constitution as "scheduled castes," women were traditionally bound not just to their region or village but to the home.

The "scheduled castes" or tribes - also known as Adivas - are loosely defined today as those formerly described as "Untouchables." (Although in some cases the term may refer to those in remote rural areas who did not participate in the caste system.) Previously known by the British as "the depressed classes," scheduled castes are explicitly recognized by the constitution. The words are generally a byword for poverty.

Ms. Parmar's earlier life was typical of that of a woman from her village. Married at 14, she had virtually no contact with the world outside her home. Things changed when the not-for-profit Sewa Project came to her village in an effort to preserve traditional handicrafts. Ms. Parmar started selling the hand-embroidered patchwork fabric she made, and is now what the article calls "an informal ambassador for Sewa and the Crafts Council of India." She is her family's breadwinner and has been able to buy cattle and install plumbing and electricity. As she tells the Times, "When I was a girl, all the assets belonged to the father or the husband or the brother...in those days, the husband was in charge of everything...What could you do, with no skills and no education?" Now, she says, "that I have my own business and make my own money, my husband shows me respect."

It's an amazing story by any standard, but it's hard to conceive of the difference from Parmar's earlier life. Writing in a report for the Princeton Gender and Policy Network, one researcher reported that, "through many conversations we realized that the SC women we talked to had trouble even imagining their lives being led with the same dignity as a man of the same caste or as an upper caste woman. Their only reference for a better life was "backward" caste women who also worked as agricultural laborers, but without the stigma of untouchability." In recent years, the treatment of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has become an issue with some human rights organizations. Recent reports of the sexual and physical abuse of Hindu Scheduled Cast women have galvanized organizations like the International Solidarity Network. But on a personal level, that Ms. Parmar is nor merely leading by example but agitating actively for women's rights is probably as effective an advocate for change as exists. An ambassador indeed.


From Untouchable To Businesswoman
[NY Times]

Atrocities Against Scheduled Caste Women: Notes From The Field
[GPN]
Discrimination Against ‘Scheduled Caste' Hindus [Hindu Existence]

[Image via Kirsten Luce for The New York Times]