Life for Women in India is changing – but not where it is needed the most! – 14 Jan 16

I yesterday explained how a lot of old traditions are the cause of current bad situations in the society, for example the pressure women experience after marriage with so many people expecting them to become mothers really soon. Some of my readers agreed but added: it is changing. I agree but only until a certain degree!

First of all, let’s look at those places where it is already changing: metropolitan cities are of course seeing change first of all. These are the places where there are women working, where girls go to study just like boys and where there are even day-care offers for the children of working mothers and similar things.

I can tell you however that for one, this is a tiny part of India’s population and that for two, the mentality has not changed as much as one would wish to believe!

Yes, Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities have already brought change for women. Parents give them much more freedom and they can explore life in a completely different way than girls and women on the countryside.

Apart from the fact however that this is a clear minority, even there, life remains unjust for those of the ‘weaker’ gender with traditions maintaining a high priority in the minds of parents, relatives and members of society in general! While boys can roam around freely, girls are kept in a protective bubble which keeps them not only safe but also isolated. They are discouraged from dating and if they do, parents keep a close eye on whom they meet. No late nights, sleepovers can happen only with the best girlfriend whose parents are known to be respectable people and she has the duty to report exactly where she is going.

It is a pretense of freedom. A demo version, not the full one. In most cases, it still expires at the point of marriage when a girl, educated and already in her career, is expected to yield to the wishes and needs of her new husband and his family. Because this is a tradition that is still hardly broken anywhere! ‘Respect your husband’ means do as he says.

And from that point, expectations are the same, the process that follows is the same and the pressure, pain and tears are the same. So no, the big cities have not got rid of such problems yet – in fact, this has brought up other issues which I may discuss next week.

Leave old Times behind – ‘No Sex before Wedding’ is a Moral of the Past – 13 Jan 16

For the past two days I have been writing about the pressure especially women face here in India after their wedding: while they were supposed to be virgins until the day they enter marriage, they are now supposed to become pregnant as soon as possible! India lives in a society with lots of restrictions when it comes to morality. I believe this has to change to make space for more happiness and satisfaction in a modern life!

It is true that a lot of these moral values and ideas of how one should behave have its origin somewhere in the past and in that time they may have been right, too. In earlier times, people didn't have such a high life expectancy as they have today. In order to make sure that their children got old enough to survive before lot of these moral values and ideas of how one should behave have its origin somewhere in the past and in that time they may have been right, too. In earlier times, people didn't have such a high life expectancy they themselves died, they had to start producing offspring early. That's how it made sense for a married couple to put their efforts into this right after marriage. And that's how still today it is Indian standard to make babies as soon as possible. Nine months after the wedding, it could already be time!

Not before the wedding though! Oh no, unmarried women should never get pregnant, that would be disastrous! In earlier times, it could really have meant her ruin because women were the ones taking care of the home while men were providers. They had no possibility to earn money and support themselves and their baby!

Today however, things are different. The outer environment has changed and thoughts should change accordingly, too! Nowadays we can expect to live long enough for seeing our kids grow up and sometimes even our grandchildren, too! So we can wait a few years longer before we actually marry and a few years more before we get children! There is no need to get married in a hurry to a person we don't know. Arranged marriage doesn't make sense – you have enough time to find someone you actually like and want to spend the rest of your life with! And you don't have to rush with getting children either!

Finally, today women should have the possibility to earn their own money and support themselves. So if they have sex before marriage, if they get pregnant and if they decide to keep the child, it should not be the end of the world!

Unfortunately we are not yet at this stage here in India, as you know if you have been following my blog or are familiar with the situation here. But we should reach there – and I think with time, we will!

When your Mother-in-Law maintains your Period Calendar after your Wedding – 11 Jan 16

For Apra's birthday, many friends had come by and it was really nice to have some talks with open and like-minded people again! When we sat together, a friend who had got married about a year ago told me how much pressure she was facing not only from her family and her in-laws but from society in general. For what? For finally getting pregnant!

Yes, in India it is quite normal that some months after the wedding – which was of course arranged – everybody gets the good news: a baby is on the way! This is how it works, this is how it should be and this is the whole purpose of your marriage. You are supposed to bear children, preferably boys, secure the continuation of the family name and create heirs for the family business! This is your main purpose of life right after marriage: get children as fast as possible!

This friend told that she as well as her husband were quite content with not making a child right away but instead spending some time on just getting to know each other and intensifying their relationship. That is a very unusual idea in India where people generally say that the child would be like a glue or magnet for the parents to get closer together! While they were happy in this way however, their families were not! She was unhappy about the pressure everyone was creating!

Another friend, whose three-year-old daughter was playing with Apra in that moment, remembered the same situation after her own wedding. Her mother-in-law started calling her every month, asking whether she had had her period already. She even started marking the days of her daughter-in-law’s menstruation in her calendar and started calling exactly on those days, becoming very disappointed whenever she heard that she was actually bleeding, so not pregnant!

Can you imagine the kind of feeling this gives to a woman? You are practically only there as a breeding station, nothing else! It doesn't matter what you want or don't want – your complete surrounding thinks you must want a baby. They all are eagerly waiting for news.

If news don't come for some months or even a year, rumors start: they must be having problems conceiving! Who of the two is infertile? Have they taken treatment? Or is he maybe not interested in sex, maybe gay?

Oh, gossip-loving neighborhoods are eager to have such topics to talk about and they sense scandals when there is nothing else but Mother Nature at work!

It is ridiculous that we tell women and also men how their life should look like and at what point of life they should be thinking or desiring what! It is not healthy for society in total and for the individual women either. Because what happens if they really cannot become pregnant? More about this scenario tomorrow.

Traditional arranged Marriage in India – a Way to find a cheap Maid? – 3 Feb 15

You know that in India, arranged marriages are normal. You can hear all kinds of stories about those weddings and westerners often wonder about how you can marry a complete stranger. Sometimes however, you need a much more practical approach. You need to for example think of the help that the new wife will be in the boy’s family home! Isn’t marriage a great idea if you need a pair of helping hands?

This probably doesn’t sound very nice to you and it doesn’t to me, either, but if you see it soberly, that’s what sometimes happens. Let me tell you about a young Indian man I recently met:

This man is about 30 years old and the only son of his family. He has three sisters, of whom two are already married. He himself is not married yet and neither is his younger sister. His mother died five years ago and at his home, there is now only his father with his younger sister. His elder sisters live with the families of their husbands and he lives about 600 kilometers away, closer to his workplace.

Recently, his father’s health has started to deteriorate. In the light of all this, the work at home got too much for the younger sister and anyway, it was this man’s turn now to get married. So they sped up the process a bit, talked with some more families and finally the father found a girl that he deemed right for his son.

The last wedding preparations are going on, both families are happy, preparing and looking forward. The girl knows about her future husband’s work. She knows about the family situation.

She knows she won’t stay with her husband at his workplace but with his father, her future father-in-law. That the younger sister will also get married in a few years. That she will be the one who will be in charge of taking care of an elderly person. He told me this, just plainly, in our conversation: there will be someone to take care of the household chores and his father. He knows he won’t give much time to his new wife. That’s not what he is marrying for.

So what is this – a way to get a cheap maid? Or a good deal for her, as she won’t have any mother-in-law or elder sister-in-laws in the house? No fights for power and independence in the home exchanged for free labour and nursing?

Or am I seeing this a bit too soberly now?

Time is not a Guarantee for Love – 19 Aug 14

Freshly back in India, I am of course once more sensitive to all the cultural differences that exist between life in Germany and life here. At the same time however, there are so many similarities, even if they are not always very obvious. It makes sense however: we are all human and our feelings are not that much different from each other. Today, it is love once more that I would like to talk about.

As you probably know, a lot of marriages in India, a majority of them actually, have been arranged. Normally by their parents. Often, the bride and the groom even see each other for the first time on their wedding day, although it is getting more and more modern for them to meet at least once before.

The idea behind this concept is that love would develop with time, if you just spend this time together.

But is that really true? Will that happen in between just anybody? I don’t think so.

Everyone starts a marriage and wants to experience love. Wants to give and get love. But love is unfortunately not a part of every marriage, even after a long time. I have seen love come with time and I have seen great love in arranged marriages. My parents have always been and will always be the biggest example of love for me, as they were deeply in love with each other even after 50 years of marriage. I have however seen many examples of marriages where it didn’t work. Where love never appeared, no matter how many people told them it would come with time.

To show you the similarity, I actually have seen this happen in the west as well, even if I may not have seen it quite as often. Let’s take an example: two people had sex with each other. It was a one-night-stand or maybe friends had had too much to drink one night and it just happened. The result was a pregnancy. They decided to stay together and have the child. For the child’s sake, for moral reasons, out of insecurity whether they would ever find someone better than that. Whatever the reason was, it was not love because they actually didn’t plan on ever repeating the intimacy of that night!

They hoped that love would grow with time. It would happen, they would just have to spend time together. Thirty years pass and even more – but they have the feeling that they have never really experienced love. Sad to hear such stories but they are true. The same happens in India: their marriage was arranged, they thought their spouse would be the love of their life but even after twenty years, there is no love in between them. They fight, they are upset with each other and there is not even harmony in between them, not to mention love.

Love does not necessarily grow with time.

Attachment, yes. You get used to each other, you get along well, you think it would be uncomfortable to live with the other one. But it would not break your heart. Maybe love never comes, not even in the course of thirty long years.

Or love happens in just 30 seconds.

Love is a very mysterious matter – and you cannot predict it!

Child Marriage, Child Labour and Alcohol Problems – Our School Children – 24 Jan 14

Today I would like to write about a boy, Rajendra, whom I have already once introduced to you before. Unfortunately, while we were very positive about his family’s future in that time, we cannot say the same now and we just hope that we will have the chance to educate Rajendra as many of the coming years as possible.

When I wrote about his family in 2010, the family had come to Vrindavan some months before and Rajendra’s father was looking for work. Not only for him but also for his father-in-law, his sister-in-law, his daughter and two sons. They told a heartbreaking story of how the children’s mother died of kidney failure because they could not afford the treatment, how the father’s brother committed suicide and how they were now just desperately looking for work.

We employed the three adults and sent the children to our school, wishing to thus make a difference in their lives. While the children’s grandfather and aunt soon left the Ashram to move back to the village, their father, a rickshaw-driver, picked up the school-children with his rickshaw and dropped them back home every day. The regular income that we provided him however soon didn’t seem to be enough. He asked for a higher, came by often to request some extra money and soon asked for that much money that it became too expensive for us to afford him. On top of it we had the suspicion that he spent a big part of his salary on alcohol. Nevertheless, we carried on teaching his children for free.

Until his daughter Rajbai didn’t come to school anymore one day. We went to ask why she didn’t come and got to know she had gone to visit her aunt in their village. No, she wouldn’t be back for a while. We explained how bad it would be for her schooling if she was absent for a month or even longer. Yes, he would send her back to school as soon as possible. He didn’t. We got to know later that she had come back to Vrindavan and was working as a maid in people’s homes. Then a bit more than a year ago, we heard that she got married. She was thirteen in 2010, when we wrote about her. She was thus fifteen when she married.

When you talk about this with her father, he insists she was eighteen and he married her only a few months ago. He even tries to convince us that he had no other chance, not having enough money to feed her and raise her further. The moment you ask her younger brother Rajendra, he will repeat a sentence he has learned well: ‘She was eighteen years old!’ There is no birth certificate to prove anything else.

When the new school session started last year, the elder brother Narendra didn’t come back to school. Now fourteen years old, he had started working in a shop in town, selling chai, Indian tea. He didn’t have interest in learning more, we were told, and the boy himself didn’t reply anything. All efforts to convince them to send him back to school failed.

When we arrived at their home this time during the winter holidays, it was a sad scene to see. Rajendra ran to wake up his father – at eleven o’clock in the morning. He came out, disheveled and definitely hung over, stinking of alcohol. He was lying in bed while his elder son was out working, earning money, and his younger son playing outside. Rajendra told him to put on a jacket, to try and make his hair look better, urging him to make a good impression.

It broke our hearts to see this boy’s effort to make his father presentable. We had our talk, getting to know that he earned very little with the rickshaw these days, blaming the weather and what not. The rent of about 20 US-Dollar is paid by his son’s salary, approximately 40 US-Dollar in a month. He obviously doesn’t see a need to do much effort in his own work – if it is enough for his alcohol, he doesn’t have to worry anymore, as his son is now earning enough for all other expenses.

We left after pleading once more with him to consider his children’s future. We urged him not to even think of taking his last son out of school, explaining him once more the benefits of solid education.

It is sad but this is what we are constantly working against: Parents who want to take their children out of school, child marriage, child labour, a small salary now valued higher than a good job in future. We will continue our efforts and instead of getting discouraged by situations like Rajbai’s and Narendra’s, we want to focus on our success, the progress of Rajendra.

He is a smart boy and he learns well. He is jolly and always respectful. It is never a child’s fault and that’s how we will do everything we can for Rajendra’s future.

If you want to support our efforts, you can sponsor a child or the food for a day. Thank you!

What do Bride and Groom feel at their arranged Wedding? – 2 Dec 13

The whole last week long I wrote about Indian weddings, the questions that westerners ask when they are invited to one and the role of the bride and the groom in their fairytale wedding. There is however still one question left that many westerners ask after getting to know that the marriage was arranged:

9. What does the couple feel about it? Are they happy? Are they unhappy?

Of course, the question is justified especially when you cannot really tell from their faces, knowing that they, too, are mostly just playing a role on this evening. They are supposed to look like the prince and the princess. The groom serious and proud, the bride shy and of course sad to leave her home. What however are their real feelings?

It is obviously very difficult to generalize when it is about someone’s feelings, as there can be millions of different stories behind them. There is a tendency of people unaccustomed to the concept of arranged marriages to think that the couple would be unhappy about the arrangement. This is not necessarily and I dare say most often not the case.

In a traditional family, a young person knows that he or she will have an arranged marriage. This is not only what they accept as their fate, this is also what most of them are looking forward to throughout their adolescence! They may watch movies in which the heroes and heroines go on dates or marry the person they love but their own life often looks very different: parents keep their daughters away from boys of their age, dates are not socially accepted, it is shameful for parents if their daughter is seen with a boy and it looks as though they enjoy each other’s company.

Relationships are not normal in this society yet, at least not for the big majority of Indians. That’s how love marriages are still rare and even though the number of ‘love cum arranged’ marriages is increasing, there are plenty of young men and women who don’t have any courage or maybe also interest to cross the lines of what is socially acceptable. They don’t want to anger their parents or risk problems with their family by showing interest in the other gender. Maybe they are not in a surrounding that would allow this. Maybe they are just not the outgoing type and it would be hard for them to find someone.

In short, while there may be some who are unhappy about their parents’ choice, some who are not fully sure whether this wedding is really good for them and some who would have actually liked to marry someone else, there are a whole lot of young people who are just happy on this day!

Excitement, anticipation, happiness, pride and of course some nervousness about what is about to come – these are, I believe, the most common feelings and emotions of the bridal couple on such a day!

The big Question at an Indian Wedding: are they marrying a Stranger? – 28 Nov 13

I yesterday already mentioned that the bride and the groom on a traditional Indian wedding mostly sit formally next to each other on a sofa or on two armchairs. Yes, formally, not laughing, giggling or shining with joy but rather seriously and as if they don’t know each other. That’s why there is finally always this question on the list of westerners who come as guests to Indian weddings:

7. Is their marriage arranged?

right along with

8. So do they not know each other at all?

I fully understand that this is one of the most interesting aspects about an Indian wedding in the eyes of a westerner, because it is simply not in their culture at all to have anything else than a marriage out of love. They are strangers to this concept of arranged marriage and cannot imagine how someone of a financially well settled home, educated with even a university degree would agree on marrying someone his or her parents chose.

The reality however is that a majority of marriages in India are still arranged and normally the best guess in a majority of weddings is yes, it is arranged.

This can mean that they have never seen each other but it doesn’t have to. In very traditional families, it may still be the case that the bride and groom know only each other’s parents. More modern families let their children come along to the meetings with potential spouses and the young people get a chance to talk to each other. After that initial meeting, they have a kind of veto right and can refuse before any agreement was made. This means they can say ‘no’ to a boy or girl without anybody getting insulted.

Some of them even exchange phone numbers and are then in touch throughout the time of preparations, so that they can get to know each other before living together for the rest of their lives.

There are also love marriages but they are rather rarely celebrated in this big style, because mostly the families are not completely happy about the choice of their children. Some young people get outcast from their families because of making a free choice and not following the wishes of their families. If the fiancé or fiancée doesn’t fit into the parent’s idea of the ideal spouse, they may refuse organizing a wedding or just do it very low-profile to avoid attention. They are embarrassed in front of a society that thinks this is not how it should be.

That’s how there are a lot of marriages nowadays that are called ‘love cum arranged’. These are couples that fell in love and managed to explain it to their parents who then pretended to ‘arrange’ their wedding in the socially accepted way. And obviously the couple will pretend, too, to not really know each other yet.

Now some Indians may protest and say this is not completely true – but you have to see that while there may be many more happy love marriages in India’s few metropolitan cities, in the smaller towns and villages, life still follows old traditions a lot. And tradition says that your marriage should be arranged.

So even if you are on that exceptional love marriage wedding, you may not notice because they manage to play a perfect drama, pretending not to know each other.

What about their feelings, you ask? That’s another story and I will answer this question next week.

What marrying a Daughter means to a poor Indian Family – Our School Children – 15 Nov 13

I would like to introduce you to Deepak and Kailash today. Deepak is ten years old and in the first class of our school. Kailash is fourteen and already in fourth class. Like all of our children, they come from a poor family. These days, the family’s biggest worry once more is money. It will decide over the future of the boys’ elder sister.

The family’s father is a simple labourer, earning about four US-Dollars a day. Whenever he gets work for the whole month, the family has enough to get by on but laboring is a very instable work. One day you work, the next day you have to search another place, find something else to do, have to earn money from somewhere else. This is why Kailash’s mother works as well. She is a helper and cleaner at a school. Before and after lessons she cleans the classrooms and while school is going on, she fetches water for the teachers, brings the smaller children to toilet and back and delivers messages. Should her husband not find work for a bigger part of the month, it is her income, about 30 US-Dollars, which helps them make ends meet.

For a while already however they have tried hard to save some of their monthly income and put it aside for a bigger event: their oldest daughter is now eighteen and thus in an age when, in their opinion, girls should get married. Of course it will be an arranged marriage and the parents will choose who should be their future son-in-law, whose house their daughter will move to. They have been looking for a husband for several weeks and have had some offers but the biggest problem is, as usual, money. The market of arranged marriages is like every other market: if you want to have quality, it costs. For a good husband, they have to give a good dowry! It may be a practice forbidden by law but when even high society still clings to this principle of buying spouses like at the cattle market, why would the lower and lowest class do without?

The mother tells us that they have already had to turn down a good possible groom because of the money. It was a nice boy and they thought their daughter would live well in his family’s home – but they asked for a motorbike and two lakh Rupees on top. Altogether that means about 4000 US-Dollar. Too much for this poor family. Their limit lies at about 3000 US-Dollar all in all, with the expenses for the celebration, the venue, the food and of course the dowry.

This is what they are saving for. They know that they might have to take loans from a few neighbours but as much as they can, they want to pay on their own. That’s how their home, currently consisting of one finished room and half a brick wall of the second room won’t be constructed any further in the coming months. They won’t close the second room, they won’t put a roof on it and they won’t put a door on their entrance but keep the blanket which is hanging there now.

They would even have more difficulties if they had to pay school fees at a primary school for the boys! Now they can come to our school for free. In these two brothers you can see how people’s nature can be completely different! While Deepak is a calm and peaceful boy who studies hard and brings back good marks as a result, Kailash is the complete opposite. He struggles with learning and nearly failed last year, he had fights with other boys of his as well as higher classes and the teachers often have to remind him that he is not supposed to talk during class. Maybe it is those famous teenage hormones taking over or he has a very different nature than his brother – but we will manage to get him through school so that in the end he will have a solid base of education.

That’s what we are doing it for: so that every child has a chance! You can support us by sponsoring a child or sponsoring the food for a day!

Opposites attract – so why arrange a Marriage within a Subcaste? – 22 Oct 13

I yesterday told you about the advantages of being in a relationship with someone who has a completely different background, who comes from a different culture and who even speaks a different language. All our arguments indicated that such differences could make a relationship longer-lasting. Funnily enough, when arranging marriages, people here in India obviously think the opposite: they arrange a marriage of two young people not only from the same caste but even the same subcaste. Of course, they assume that their child’s future spouse would thus have enjoyed a similar upbringing and that this would be the base for the success of their marriage.

The basic thought or wish may be understandable. When you marry your daughter off to a complete stranger, you want to ensure that she comes into a home which is similar to yours, where the family thinks in the same ways, where they have the same customs and the same culture. In turn, when a new woman marries into your family and comes to live with you, you would want her to be as much used to the rituals of your home as possible. So if you are anyway going for an arranged marriage for your child, this is probably a reasonable thought.

The problem is that this idea is based on a sick system that divides people into higher and lower classes, the caste system. People don’t only believe that others of the same caste have the same kind of culture in their home – they believe that people of lower castes are dirty, that they are not worth as much as they are and that their son or daughter could never be happy with someone from that caste. So it is not actually only the honourable wish for your child to have a good life with an understanding partner, it is a proof of your contempt towards other human beings.

Additionally it is not even true that people of the same subcaste all get along well with each other, have the same culture in their homes and just match perfectly with each other! On the contrary, every single person is an individual and in every family, different attitudes can develop with individual experiences which influence the atmosphere in the home, which change the character of children while they grow up and which again makes individuals out of these children.

When you expect a person to be the same like you, you don’t even give the possibility and freedom to this fresh couple to develop that healthy relationship coming out of two different cultures. You are not open for change, not tolerant for something different, even if that could mean a happier and longer lasting relationship for your son or daughter!

So dear fellow Indians, even if you don’t accept the argument that the caste-system is inhuman and should be abolished, please at least listen to the fact that the same caste is no guarantee that your daughter or son will have a happy and lasting relationship. Think twice before you stop them from marrying the one they love because he or she is from another caste. They might have found someone closer to your heart than you know at first glance! Be open to the new and I am sure you will find beautiful new aspects in a completely different person!