During my time in India, I have, on multiple occasions, had flashbacks to one Friday night last semester. While walking past the halls of an all-male West Campus section, I read a makeshift sign that said “USDA approved slut horses enter here.” In my mind, the vision of Duke women dancing on dormitory desks in male residence halls is strangely juxtaposed against images of Indian village women insisting on sitting on the floor in the presence of men sitting on chairs. There is a thin line between sexual liberation and objectification. Likewise, there is a similarly thin line between respect and oppression. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India once said “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.”
At the top layer of India’s socioeconomic structure, the prognosis of gender progress looks hopeful. The current Indian president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, is female. Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the major political party, the Indian National Congress. Even at the middle layer one can find Indian women who have more advanced degrees than their husbands. At a deeper level, however, a more complicated picture emerges. In Maharashtra, 285 women and girls who were named “Unwanted” by their parents, held a ceremony to change their given names. In India, the overall sex ratio is 914 females to 1000 males; in one state the ratio drops as low as 861 females per 1000 males. Though sex-selective abortions are prohibited, they are still performed under the radar. These types of practices, naming girls “Unwanted” and aborting female fetuses, speak to a devaluation of women deeply embedded in social norms.
Living in a rural Indian village, I spoke to a number of women who married under the age of 15, some as young as 11. One woman, Shanti Devi, was married at the age of 12, never attended school and by 25 had delivered four infants, two of which were underweight and one of which was stillborn. Expected to continue farming and cooking into her third trimester of pregnancy, she had recently given birth to a severely underweight baby who was immediately referred to the city hospital in critical condition. Her female infant died 15 days later. The state of Rajasthan, in which Shanti Devi resides, has an infant mortality rate on par with sub-Saharan Africa. Given the care-giving role societies often assign to women, feeding and cooking practices increase the risk of malnutrition and exposure to unsafe cooking fuels for both women and their children.
Despite the progress that women have made in the upper levels of Indian society, the ever-present burden of gendered negotiation is visible there as well. At the house of a much-respected Indian auntie, who has multiple advanced degrees, I watched as she hid her face behind her sari in the presence of her father-in-law and frequently moved about the rooms to avoid being in the same room as him. Her husband explained to me that she practices this custom out of respect. While we were eating in silence, separately from the men, she said to me, “Some traditions are better off dead.”
Long-standing traditions underlie much of the gender inequality that exists in India. And in an all too similar way, traditions at Duke are responsible for a great deal of the inequity here. The traditions of largely male leadership and male-dominated spaces are better off dead. Over the last few years, Chronicle headlines are still celebrating Duke’s only female president, the first female young Trustee since 2004 and the first female Duke Student Government president in a decade; a fact that is abysmal rather than encouraging. Behind closed doors, in dorm room parties and offhand conversations, on signs referring to women as “USDA approved slut horses,” Duke also has a tradition of devaluing its women. A case can be made that Duke women would benefit from (and should engage in) programming that targets networking, negotiation and public speaking. But to an extent, no amount of skills-based programming can change the momentum of hegemonic spaces and networks that still persist at Duke. Programs and policies are only as effective as the community, both male and female, that supports them. For there to be change we need to stop buying into the short-sighted benefits of a misogynistic system. A stronger counter-culture is needed to counteract the current Duke social scene. Could a large scale Common Ground, a program that opens us all up to our multiple identities and ways in which we oppress, are oppressed and liberate, be the magic bullet? Is there hope that the new housing model will allow independent students to contribute to a stronger, more equitable, counter-culture? What is needed is the creation of new spaces, both mental and physical. What we need is to make new traditions.
Kristen Lee is a Trinity junior who is spending the Spring in Udaipur, India and Beijing, China through the Duke Global Semester Abroad Program. Her column runs every other Monday.