Sanjeev  Nayyar travels across India from Barmer to Arunachal to  Mahabalipuram, and comes back both humbled and impressed with the  women he interacted with through his journey. These, are his  experiences:

To  read article with pictures Click here

During the last few  months, the concept of equality and women's rights have dominated the  media discourse. The feminists make it sound as if discrimination  against women is endemic to the Indian society. If India was such a  patriarchal country, could the Indian civilisation have survived  5,000 years? 

Veena Talwar, author  of Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime has some interesting insights on why the status of women fell, at  least in Punjab, the state of her research.  

"The British brought  in the notion of private property rights in land, and replaced  communal or joint rights. The British gave titles to the tillers, and  land became a commodity. Women did not get titles to the land, she  told Rediff.com in an interview.

In  her interview with the Times of India dated 31/1/03 Ms Talwar said,  "Putting landed property exclusively in male hands, and holding  the latter responsible for the payment of revenue had the effect of  making the Indian male the dominant legal subject. This was one of  the key factors that made male children more desirable. Also, the  increasing recruitment of Punjabi peasants into the army saw more and  more families practice selective female infanticide."

This article shares the  author's personal interactions and observations with women of Bharat  i.e. in Barmer, Mahabalipuram, Kashi, Barsana, Imphal and Along  (Arunachal Pradesh).

Caption for pic1: These  young women in their ghoonghats did not hesitate to compliment the  author on his Rajasthani-style mustache.

1. Village in Barmer  district, Rajasthan 2013

In Barmer is a  non-governmental organisation called Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna  Sansthan. They specialise in applique patchwork and hand-made  embroidery. The secretary takes me to a village, about 30 kilometre  from Barmer.

There are some 20-odd  ladies gathered in a hut. Nearly all of them have ghunghats (veils) to cover their faces, since I am an outsider. The accountant  from the NGO keeps a record of the pieces he gives to every woman;  and when the work is completed, makes an entry of it in their  passbook, and makes the payment at the end of the month.

I spent about two hours  chatting with these women. They are super confident and correct  errors made by the NGO accountant in their passbooks. I ask them if  they did this work full-time. They say embroidery was done in their  spare time to supplement incomes; looking after the household and  helping in fields takes most of their time.

Given my urban  sensibilities, I would say they are superwomen. They laugh and say  they could do a lot more if only they had competent husbands. Not a  trace of feeling inferior or being suppressed there. Their grouse:  the government considers them as Below Poverty Line families but does  not provide benefits. Point made with a smile. No negative energy!

Whilst leaving, the  younger ladies do not hesitate to appreciate my Rajasthani style  moustache. These women did not hold back their thoughts.

Caption for  pic 2: This  trinket seller at the Shore Temple Beach in Mahabalipuram,  confidently calls herself a businesswoman, and knows that the  knowledge of Hindi means more business.

2. Shore Temple Beach,  Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, 2016

As I walk to the beach,  the lady (on the right, pictured) shouts out to me in Hindi, “Sir  wife ki liye necklace le lo (Sir, take a necklace for your  wife),'” With memories of the anti-Hindi movement in Tamil  Nadu, I wonder how come she speaks Hindi so well. Pat comes the  reply, “Main businesswoman hoon (I am a businesswoman),  I get lots of customers from the North so learnt Hindi.

I observe her for about  five minutes and realise that she instantly knows which region of  India a tourist is from. Impressed, I ask permission to click her  picture.

“First buy something  then say something good about me,” she says. I love your smile and  features,” I reply.

The woman is confident  enough to (a stranger like me) to let me admire her, but also smart  enough to understand how the knowledge of Hindi means more business.

Caption for pic 3: The author visited five schools  and found the girls to be exceptionally bright and well-informed.

3. Vivekananda Kendra  Jirdin school, Along, Arunachal Pradesh, 2013

This is an all-girls  school in West Siang district whose inhabitants mainly belong to  the ‘Adi Galo’ Tribe. Just to give you a sense where Along  is: We cross the Brahmaputra River slightly ahead of Dibrugarh, and  it is about a 12-hour drive from there.

During an interactive  session with students some of the questions students ask me are:

a. Why is India’s  political system in such a disarray and the country in a bad state?

b. If we come to Mumbai,  could we get them to meet Amitabh Bachchan?

c. They know about Arnab  Goswami's daily show, and are quite amused with it.

d. How to become a  doctor, a Indian Police Service officer, a chartered accountant or a  graphic designer, and which of these is a better career.

Their request -- why  doesn’t the government set up institutes of higher education in  Arunachal so they don’t have to leave the state?

These confident girls do  not feel offended because of the fact that the government has  classified them as a Scheduled Tribe.

I visit five Vivekananda  Kendra schools and find the girl students to be exceptionally bright  and well-informed in all of them.

Caption for pic 4: A Manipuri woman showcases an  embroidered shawl. Ima  Keithel, which  literally translated, means mother’s market is perhaps the oldest  and only one of its kind in Asia. It is a market wholly operated by  women. 

4. Ima Market Imphal  Manipur 2014

Imphal is probably the  only place in India to have an all-women market -- it is called 'Ima  Keithel' or Mother’s Market. 

It consists of three  buildings, is huge and may have at least 300 stalls run by women,  although I never did a count. You can buy vegetables, fish, shawls,  stolls, wedding clothes, artificial jewellery, pots, sweets,  embroidered stuff, puja material, and women wear etc. Shops  open from about 7.30 am and close by 8 pm. It is a great place to get  a first-hand experience of the Manipuri people and culture.

A friend’s sister from  Mumbai goes bonkers shopping and buys stuff as if there is no  tomorrow.

I wonder then; how men  may feel because they are denied the right to have a shop in this  well-designed, clean and centrally located market…

Caption for pic 5: To most visitors to Varanasi,  Assi Ghat is known for being a place where long-term foreign  students, researchers, and tourists live.

5. Assi Ghat, Kashi,  Uttar Pradesh, 2013 on the ocassion of Dev Deepavali

Dev Deepavali is  celebrated on Kartik Purnima. It is considered auspicious to bathe in  the Ganga that day. Women start bathing from 3 am, men invariably  start arriving after sun-rise.

After clicking this  picture, I ask a 15-year-old tea-seller, whether women were  comfortable bathing as they did at the ghat? With a very sarcastic  look, he says, “The minds of you shehar wale (you  from the big cities) are corrupt.

I am chastened by this  sermon by a young chaiwala and embarrassed with my Victorian  attitude towards sex.

Caption for pic 6: The women of Barsana start  preparing for this a month in advance. It is said that their  mother-in-laws feed their daughters-in-law rich food so that they can  show off their prowess on the 'battle zone' on the day!

6.  Lathmar Holi, Barsana, Uttar Pradesh 2016

The Holi celebrations  in Braj begin at Barsana, Radha’s (Krishna’s consort) village,  six days before Holi. Krishna arrives, with the men from Nandgaon.  The people of Nandgaon and Barsana play Holi together. The men wear  huge turbans decorated with leaves to protect themselves from the  colour and beatings of the women of Barsana.

Lathmar Holi  (literally beating with a stick Holi) is played at sunset, when women  dressed in beautiful saris hit the men with sticks. They unleash a  shower of blows on the ‘naughty’ boys of Nandgaon to teach them a  lesson for all the broken pots and for teasing the girls of Barsana.

To a western eye, the  festival may seem strange. Since Lathmar Holi doesn't fit  into a typical liberal narrative, it attracts large number of  foreigners and also Indians from other cities.

From a Bhartiya perspective, I sensed the joy-respect on both sides and the purity in  interaction. In fact, after the hitting gets over, many a man touch  the feet of the woman and give shagun (money).

There are many more  similar stories about the women of Bharat. This is not to imply their  conditions are perfect. Nowhere in the world are relations perfect!

Instead of imposing  western concepts of equality we need a different approach.

India's progress has to  be preceded by the progress of her women. So if we want Bharat  Mata to prosper, then we need promote education for the girl  child, give women fiscal concessions, so property stands in their  name and make them financially independent.

Author and Kriyaacharya  Jyoti Subramaniam adds, "Empowerment of women is not to be given  with an attitude of benevolence but has to become a mindset. How we  treat our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters is what empowers  them. This applies not only to men but to women as well."

The words equality and  rights must be understood as atma-samman (self-respect)  and dharma (duty).

For Christ's sake let us  not try to make men out of women

First published in  www.rediff.com

Also read
1. Pics  of Ladies of Barmer village
2. Pics of  Children of Arunachal Pradesh
3. Pics of IMA Market
4. Pics of Dev Deepavali Festival
5. Pics of Lathmar Holi
6. Dowry Murder:  Imperial origin of a cultural crime
7. Let us not make men  out of women