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Indian Women Hold Pink Panty Protest  by Kaj Hasselriis
Indian Women Hold Pink Panty Protest

When I boarded the train from Ajmer to Delhi, I sat down on the padded bench in my compartment and immediately noticed a young girl sitting across from me. She was 12 or 13 years old and wore an unusual outfit—jeans and a T-shirt. In Canada, there would be nothing strange about that. But this was India, and the girl’s mother wore a traditional sari.

Considering the girl’s age, I would have expected her to be dressed the same. But that wasn’t my only surprise. Soon after the train left the station, the girl asked me in English if she could read my morning newspaper. I handed her my copy of the Times of India.

After four months in India, I had grown accustomed to having little social contact with women and girls. The women who are out in public don’t often talk to men, I observed, especially white foreigners like me. And even if they wanted to, they couldn’t since most don’t speak English, the language of the middle and upper classes. That’s why it never occurred to me to offer my English newspaper to the girl in my compartment. But she quickly devoured it.

After she was done, I handed her my copy of Newsweek International with Michelle and Barack Obama on the cover, and the only other magazine I had—the Indian edition of People. Like the American version, it is filled with photos and profiles of rich, young starlets. Except in this case, they’re Indian celebrities daring to do things that the girl’s mother’s generation would rarely have done: express their own opinions, work outside the home, date and choose their marital partners.

In India, signs of this generational culture clash are everywhere—on billboards, for example. One, for a department store, shows a woman wearing a sari timidly averting her gaze from the camera, along with this contradictory message to women: “Make a statement without speaking!” Another billboard depicts Bollywood movie star Priyanka Chopra proudly piloting a shiny new motor scooter. The message on her billboard: “Why should boys have all the fun?”

The times are changing. During my trip to India earlier this year, I met many young women who are breaking gender traditions—people like Hyderabad’s Deepthi Tanikella, a screenwriter and TV talk-show host. She picked me up in her car and drove me to Firefly, a nightclub on the top floor of a high-rise shopping mall. There, Deepthi introduced me to the manager, Jas Charanjiva, a charismatic, fast-talking native of Scarborough, Ontario. Jas, now a citizen of both the U.K. and the U.S., came to Hyderabad with her Indian husband when he was hired to introduce Mars bars to the local market.

While Jas greeted customers and Deepthi ordered drinks, I admired the city’s skyline and chatted with a young woman named Neela, who introduced herself as the DJ’s girlfriend. “Girlfriend” isn’t a term I was used to hearing in India. But Neela explained that dating in India is finally becoming more common. Until about 10 years ago, she said, women and men who pursued each other did so in private. Now, more couples are dating in the open. I noticed this trend at fancy new coffee shops all over India—young couples sipping lattes together, often holding hands under the tables.

But there is also a backlash against the liberalization of sex and gender traditions in India. In January, about 40 protesters affiliated with the far-right political group Sri Ram Sena stormed a pub in Mangalore, accused customers of violating traditional Indian values and assaulted several women. Soon after, in Rajasthan, the state’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot was criticized for saying he was “against boys and girls walking hand-in-hand in pubs and malls.”

Protests against the pub attack organized by students and women’s groups followed. Then, in February, the same group that claimed responsibility for the Mangalore pub attacks tried to prohibit unmarried couples from celebrating Valentine’s Day—an event that has only recently been celebrated in India.

The fight over open dating and women’s rights is passionate. After the Valentine’s Day threat, a group of feminists calling themselves The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward

Women launched a Pink Chaddi Campaign. The campaign asked women to mail in their pink chaddis (underwear) so that they could be sent to groups like Sri Ram Sena. Over 48,000 people joined the group’s Facebook page and several hundred tossed their underwear in the mail.

Of course, not all Indian women can part with pairs of underwear, nor do they all have access to Facebook. Unlike Deepthi, Jas, Neela and the pink chaddi wearers, most women in the country are marginalized and uneducated. For the most part, the survival of women in India depends on trickle-down economics. And yet, during my four months of commercial transactions in the country, I rarely put my money directly into the hands of a woman.

In some ways, Western-style capitalism is putting more money into the hands of women. European and North American companies are swooping into India, setting up vast call centres and hiring men and women in relatively equal numbers, and for better pay than many other jobs available to women. In information technology hubs like Hyderabad and Bangalore, it’s increasingly common to see young men and women taking work breaks together.

On my last night in India, I was at a restaurant in Kolkata when two 20-something couples arrived for a late dinner. For a while, one of the men broke off from the group and sat at a separate table, where he cradled a baby until the boy fell asleep. It was the first time I had seen a father in India holding his child in public.

It was a welcome sign that, as women make greater strides in India, men’s roles may be slowly shifting, too.

 

 

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