Over the course of my travels in India, I’ve found myself in some strange predicaments. Once, I was in the home of a middle class family in the mountains, ready to pounce on delicious local food after a long, back-breaking journey. But when I arrived in the dining area, I found myself joined only by the men of the family, as the women served, and then waited on us from a distance.
I sat in awkward silence, not sure if I should join the women in the kitchen and further the house’s patriarchal traditions, or eat with the men as the women waited. I could imagine the same scene playing out in hundreds of households across the country.
At the end of the awkward (though delicious) meal, the elderly male head of the household said to me with a disconcerting confidence: I think I’ve figured out why you ate so little, it was probably because you were eating in my presence.
As much as I hate to admit it, India is a country with a deep-seated patriarchy, that reveals itself in everyday life almost everywhere you look.
Ordinarily, I would’ve left the following morning in anger and hopelessness, but I was here wearing the hat of a responsible travel consultant, assessing the place for its sustainable tourism potential (it fared well on the environmental friendliness scale) and advising on its marketing strategy. That made me stay and reflect on how a responsible approach to tourism could challenge patriarchy in India and elsewhere:
Questioning age-old traditions
Let’s take my current predicament as an example. It wasn’t just that the women of the household ate leftovers by themselves in the kitchen, after the men were done. It was the way the head of the household constantly ordered them around, decided whose turn it was to speak and when (mine included), and proudly shared how his sons’ futures were decided solely by him.
After a brief conversation with a friend, I decided to take a stand and bring up the issue with the family – but with tourism as the focus. I talked about meal times as the crux of a genuine homestay experience, when the whole family comes together as one and discusses the day’s affairs. I talked of inequality in certain Indian traditions and how that’s unacceptable to visitors from outside. I tried to sow a seed in the mind of the somewhat irked elder that in order to bring responsible tourism to his beautiful village, something must change.
Whether that seed will nurture itself over time remains to be seen, but the way I see it, the promise of economic prosperity through tourism can change even the most deep set beliefs.
Homestays ‘owned’ by women
In much of rural India, women go from their father’s house to their husband’s house, and if they outlive their partner, their son’s house. No matter their physical or economic contribution in the household, they seldom have land rights to their own homes.
That felt different in the village of Sarmoli, near Munsiari, where I spent 3 weeks exploring the challenges and impact of community-driven tourism. In 2004, Malika Virdi, an avid mountain climber and an inspiring soul, set up a homestay program managed by the village women. She deliberately positioned each homestay as the home of the female family member who would toil behind the scenes and pour in love and sleepless nights to welcome travellers from around the world.
Many husbands now assist the women in their homestay operations, but what warmed my heart is this: When you walk around the village and ask a local for the way to someone’s house, they know it better when you take the woman’s name. Changing ownership mindsets slowly but gradually? I think so.
Women in roles traditionally held by men
In all my travels, I went hiking with a female guide only the second time in Sarmoli village. The women’s self-help group encouraged her to undergo professional guide training in Mussoorie, and even though she manages her household like every woman in the village, she said she loves hiking more! We hitched a ride with some army guys, walked through old forests, made tea on a quiet hill, talked like long lost friends. It made me wonder, why haven’t I hiked with female guides more?
The women guides of Ladakh and Bolivia (South America) have created their own initiatives, and while in Bhimtal, I heard of a young local girl who takes visitors on guided kayaking trips on the Sattal lakes. All these women are sending out a powerful message – that when tourism broadens mindsets, women who grew up in small Indian villages can compete with their male counterparts in strength, confidence and capability, in roles beyond household work.
Financial independence for women
Buying and eating local is not just an important tenet of sustainable tourism, but a deeper attempt to connect with the places we travel to. In the Jaisalmer Fort of Rajasthan, this attempt led me to the home-resto of Chandra Nani, aged 70+; in Jordan, to the women-led soap and biscuit house in Ajiloun; and in Karnataka, to the gypsy community outside Hampi . These enterprises are reviving old traditions, and enabling women to either live financially independent lives, or become the main bread earners for their families.
Studies have shown that when women achieve financial freedom – which can be actively encouraged when we, as travellers, insist on buying local products – the effects trickle down to their childrens’ education and in opposition to patriarchal mindsets, create more economic opportunities for women of the next generation.
Empowerment through solo travel
For a long time, I travelled solo for myself – to understand the ways of the world and my own limitations. I started blogging to share my (mis)adventures with others who longed for solitude and depth in their travels, but weren’t sure if traveling alone was worth experimenting with.
Truth is, when I travelled in rural India, I tried to keep my rebellious notions (on marriage, kids and independence for instance) to myself, for fear of corroding a conservative culture. My focus was always the stories of those I met along the way.
Then during my discussions with Malika in Sarmoli, I had an epiphany. I realized that the people I had broadly labelled as “conservative”, are people like you and me; people who have liberal ideas but are boxed into a conservative way of thinking. I know from personal experience that ideas that go against societal notions are never readily accepted.
So the next time a lady from the village asked me about my marital status, I didn’t dodge the topic. I told her why I felt marriage was unnecessary in today’s society, where women (her included) can be financially independent, and even though I have a partner, I never intend to get married. She seemed to understand my choices after some hesitation, and agreed that if that’s a choice her children made, she would accept it. Atleast it’s food for thought…
And so is solo travel. The fact that a young, single woman can travel by herself, without relying on a man to keep her safe, carry her things, make decisions for her, or support her financially, is a message that I think every woman who travels can carry to our sisters in rural India.
Also read: Solo Travel: To Go or Not To Go
Supporting women through self-help groups
I never realized the power of a small group of women coming together to confront an issue, until I observed for 3 straight weeks, the challenges taken on by the Maati Sangathan in the villages around Munsiari. Among heart-wrenching stories of domestic abuse, alcoholism and caste violence in these parts, there were uplifting stories of women (from across economic backgrounds and religious faiths) fighting for each other’s rights.
Where does tourism factor in? While many self-help groups around the world rely on funding from donors, perhaps the most empowered ones are those that generate their own funds through community-driven tourism.
Bringing ideas to forward-thinking men in rural India
You’ve probably dismissed me as a feminist by now, but I think many men in rural India are as much the victims of patriarchal mindsets as women. When you grow up in a household where you are
worshipped given preference over your sisters by every adult around you, any ideas of gender equality probably feel alien.
Let me give you an example: While living at an organic farm in the buffer zone of Gir National Park, I became friends with a girl and a boy, cousins of about the same age, who grew up in a joint family under the same roof. Both had finished high school and enrolled in college (pretty progressive for rural India), but when we decided to stay in touch, it turned out that only the boy had access to a mobile phone, Facebook and Whatsapp – tools that, if used well, can bring opportunities to young adults in rural India. When asked why, the boy laughed and told me that the family feared that getting online or having a phone will lead the girl “astray”.
That led us to a serious discussion, where I shared how the internet had helped me carve out a job for myself that didn’t exist until a few years ago – and afforded me the financial and physical freedom to be in Gujarat, talking to them. By the time I left, he confessed to me that even though he couldn’t fight at home to get his cousin a phone, he would ensure his daughters have one when he became a father.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet several open-minded men on my travels across India – men who didn’t assume that a woman traveling alone is desperate for male company, men who think it’s normal for women to work outside the house, men who encourage their wives to follow their passion for art or hiking or even boxing (yes, I’m thinking of Mary Kom). If you ask me, honest interactions and discussions with men on our travels is an important step towards eliminating patriarchal mindsets.