What do you dream of? This is the question I ask a few dozens of Indian women.
Their beautiful black eyes are staring at me; some of the girls hiding them timidly behind their saris. I don’t know who is more stressed and excited—me, or them. Or is this question out of line?
I am sitting at a county community center in the most tribal part of India, Orissa. Before me, there are girls from nearby villages, where the tradition is carefully cultivated—in the way they behave, dress, eat, obey the elder.
They cover their heads with scarves when their mothers, grandmothers, or mothers-in-law are near. They call their little sisters by their first names, but older ones they respectfully address “Opa” or “Didia.”
Until recently, each of them used to believe that domestic violence was also part of the tradition.
How could they know that it wasn’t if it has been practiced for generations, and many of these girls have never been away further than beyond the county?
Fortunately, one of them, Jyotshna, a strong, charismatic woman, one day said “Stop” and decided to tell women from nearby villages that domestic violence was not a tradition that had to be silently accepted, and that life without fear and bruises was possible.
We are looking at each other.
I am admiring their beautiful clothes and jewelry, and they are observing a white woman wearing Indian clothes. I am sitting among them, trying to blend in, but my skin color makes it difficult. Fortunately, even though I do not have Indian origins, my last name is popular in Orissa. It helps break the ice.
All of them look as if they were going to attend a wedding or like Hindu goddesses to which men fervently pray, asking for health, success, prosperity.
And then the same men come back home and strike their “goddesses” in the faces.
Dressed in colorful, traditional saris, with earrings, noserings, toerings, and bracelets. They sparkle with colors.
If I had come here 300 years ago, they would have looked similar. With time, the men change tunics for shirts, and cotton pants for jeans, but the women have worn saris for centuries.
This is the outfit they wear to the store or to the temple; the one in which they work in the field or cook dinner.
I wonder what these girls think about before they go to sleep, what they wish for, and what gifts they would give one another for Women’s Day.
They take turns speaking, more and more boldly. Their dreams overlap with one another, as if there was one common wishing well in this Indian village. We dream of… We would like to…
Dream: Understanding between husband and wife.
Arranged marriage is a carefully cultivated tradition, especially in Orissa. There is no time to get to know, select, test, or criticize your future spouse. The families take a decision and there is no turning back.
Some girls are lucky; others can’t communicate with their partners at all. This is what generates conflicts and domestic violence. The men don’t understand the women’s needs—how to embrace them, how to give them pleasure. Many of these women don’t enjoy sex because they associate it with an obligation toward their husbands. When this obligation is not fulfilled, the men will find themselves other women—in this small village, everyone will gossip.
I met some happy marriages, too. In such, the spouses help and support one another. I have the impression that they don’t talk much. Each of them has their own responsibilities. Still, I shouldn’t overgeneralize. I even saw a couple of old people holding hands, which is pretty unique in India, but apparently does happen.
Dream: Stop domestic violence.
Jyotshna, with the organization Janamangal, brings to the attention of men and women from nearby villages the fact that domestic violence is not normal, that you can come back home sober and refrain from throwing your woman against the walls, and that you can also say “No” when your man hits you.
At present, Jyotshna’s organization associates 267 women. They meet at the center to talk. Men attend the meetings, too. When something bad happens in one household, they all intervene.
How come Jyotshna could gather all these women here, and their men didn’t mind?
First, she knocked from door to door, talked to them patiently. This is a difficult task—you need to work from scratch to change certain habits, behaviors, traditions. It is especially difficult in Orissa, where tradition is strongly rooted in the consciousness of the community. The women are slowly beginning to realize that they can lead peaceful and safe lives.
Jyotshna has graduated from kanthari, the institute for social changemakers that I visited over a year ago. This is where she learned how to introduce changes in communities and make people happier. Jyotshna is a strong, determined woman.
Dream: Equality between men and women.
The women want to build roads and houses the same way that the men do; carry bricks and feel no weaker than they are. They want to have their own money and be able to take decisions the way the men can.
Dream: Sell their own products to minimize poverty and domestic violence.
At Janamangal, Jyotshna has created a few groups, within which she teaches Orissa women how to produce medication and cosmetics with the use of Indian herbs and traditional ayurvedic methods, how to sew saris and make incense.
It all will be sold under one brand, and the money earned in this way will be given to the women and to the organization, so that it can continue to operate.
In this way, a chance of development is given to the women, and an entrepreneurial spirit is instilled in them; they are allowed a trace of independence, and offered help minimizing poverty.
I participated in a meeting of the “herbalism” group, at which the monk Guru-ji talked about how particular plants could be used. I purchased a few mixtures to test out, but this is a topic for a separate article.
Jyotshna is currently creating the logo with which the products will be labeled, and a section at janamangal.org where you will be able to order them. If you would like to support Jyotshna, you can find information about how to do so on this website janamangal.org
Dream: Clean up the mess around.
India is in unconquerable chaos. Dirt on the streets, garbage in the cities. However, changes begin with your own backyard. People say that they mind the filth, and yet they throw empty plastic bottles into the street. This is the dream to the implementation of which not a grain is added.
And where are the dreams of travel, new saris, a phone, cosmetics, or fairytale love?
In India, collectivity is slowly giving way to individuality.
Of course, in this country I did encounter liberated, modern women who travel and go on dates. I met very polite Indian men who care, respect and protect women. Here, I am describing the situation in the tribal Orissa.
At the end, the girls dared ask the questions:
Do you have flowers in your country?
How come your parents let you travel?
How do you take care of your parents if you don’t live with them?
Is having two daughters a reason for happiness or shame to the parents?
And my favourite:
What does the word “BOYFRIEND” mean?