Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Post-American World

In the view of so much of the non-American world, America is slowly falling behind, becoming a country with military to hire, warm bodies for the front lines, and no longer even a service economy, since so many places do service so much better. As science and math education fall by the wayside in the face of the "it's hard work" mentality, Asia seems to retain more and more of their capable and hardworking students, who grow into their hard workers. And then there's the whole issue of education and belief in science over religious mythology. My husband, who is European and who was raised in a veritable Catholic police state under Franco, talks blithely about how people like their faith but for the most part, they don't let it dictate the real world around them in Europe. They wouldn't, for instance, let it determine whether or not their children had a real world advantage over same age peers because they were taught accepted truths and theories about evolution and genetics. But, I've had to ask myself over the past few days, is it only on the education and work front that Asia, and these days, India in particular, seems to be making strides? What about in the arena of women's rights? What about women standing up bravely for other women?

Sampat Pal Devi

Yesterday was International Women's Day. My über-cool friend Sally sent me information about the Gulabi Gang through Facebook, introducing me to their founder, Sampat Pal Devi, of the Banda District in Uttar Pradesh. I've been there. Actually, my BFA show was entirely composed of photos taken in India and Nepal in the early 1980's. I was so impressed with the vibrancy of India. Both the people and all the riot of color and music, and the entire zeitgeist. But, in the many weeks I was in northern India, I was often reminded of the woeful status of women in poorer, or really any, areas of Indian culture. They had few rights and often no recourse. If your dowry was deemed too small, or you were deemed not quite virginal enough, or if your husband and his family just plain changed their minds, the solutions from the husband's end could be horrifying for many a young woman. That was in 1981. In the past thirty years, some things have changed, but perhaps not fast enough. But where they are changing takes the classic Grameen model- if you want to change a culture, get women to do it.

The Banda District, south of Lucknow, is one of the poorest areas in India. Out of this impoverished area, Pal Devi and her Gulabi Gang or "Pink Gang" have been on a mission over the past few years. Their goal?    "Their goal is to strike fear in the hearts of wrongdoers and earn the respect of officials who have the power to initial positive change. They brandish bamboo sticks and axes when the need presents itself. Their goals include the end of child marriage, dowry deaths, crime, and corruption in the region."

There's been quite a bit of press on the Gulabi Gang (the so-called Pink Sari Gang) in the past few years and there's even been a book, published in France in 2008, Moi, Sampat Pal, Chef de Gang en Sari Rose (I, Sampat Pal, Gang Leader in a Pink Sari). Their primary focus in the Gulabi Gang is on making the world a safer place for Banda District women.  

'Commander' Pal Devi wields her stick

Over the past year and a half I've had something of a penchant for urban fantasy literature, which is frequently populated with kick-ass heroines. Even if I might have some qualms about the idea of vigilante justice, there's something about the overarching goals of the the Gulabi Gang (women being treated appropriately by men and by society in general and not being victimized or blamed for their mistreatment) that just makes my heart soar. Pal Devi is a heroine I can really embrace.

That's why it's so sad when, on the homefront, I receive articles like this one, which comes from the Tricities area of Tennessee and Virginia: Blame the Victim, from the beloved Cynical Nymph. Definitely, a different brand of vigilantism, isn't it? Sometimes it seems to me that from a broad historical view you can look at the waning of one culture and the upsurge of another (like Greece and Rome, respecitvely) in the present situation with the US and Asia. is this just one more area in which America can fall behind? Because this ethos is quietly seeping deeper into our culture. How am I supposed to feel, as a woman in this country, if, rather than making strides toward social justice (I hope I'm making Glenn Beck cringe) and genuine gender equality (hear that Ann Coulter?) freedom is expressed by women passing out pamphlets telling our daughters that if they dress the wrong way that they are could be provoking rape? Well, I guess that I feel like that first Amendment right that l believe in so strongly is really pounding my brain. I turn the Grameen model on it's end and think, if we want to change our culture, how fortunate we are that the author and distributor of "Women & Girls" can be our agents of change:

“Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts a men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin,” the leaflet states. “By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?”

Keshia Cantor, left, talks to her mom, Pam Yates, about a religious pamphlet that was given to her by a Hi-Lo Burger customer that takes issue with women’s clothing.

Most of the cultures in Asia are millennia older than that in the US. I hope it doesn't take us millennia to see all American women stand up and demand to be treated appropriately and not tolerate anyone treating us badly, no matter what our genetic makeup or the color of our skin is, or what faith we practice or... what we wear.

So in the spirit of International Women's Day, I'm sending a shout-out to the author of "Women & Girls" and to the charming woman handing out the pamphlets to young women at places like Hi-Lo Burger. I'm hoping that the quarks and gluons of the quantum field coalesce around you in the form of a ray of insight. There but for the grace of the quantum field go you, dears. What are you going to say if you wore everything right and some day, some guy still hauls off and rapes you, same as a 2 year old or a 90 year old who just must have been dressed wrong? 

Whose fault will it be then?

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