The recent gang rape of a female student in New Delhi brought to light the violence women there can face. But at the same time, a growing number of Indian women are enjoying unprecedented opportunities.
They’re getting educated, getting jobs, and playing a more prominent role in society than ever before. I grew up in India and I wanted to explore how Indian girls today see their futures — how they choose a path through a shifting cultural landscape.
To understand what’s happening with those half a billion women and girls, I decided to focus on just one: 12-year-old Sarita Meena.
Sarita lives in Deoli, a remote village in northwestern India.
I met Sarita last year when I visited her village on a reporting project. I was with health workers who were interviewing school kids, and I noticed a skinny girl in a yellow dress standing to my left. She kept answering questions meant for other kids. Later, she offered to give me a tour of the school and village.
Deoli is a tiny place, with small mud-and-stone huts on dirt roads. The village is surrounded by vast swaths of farmland.
“We have a few plots of land here in the village,” Sarita told me. “And we also have farmland in another village.”
Sarita’s short hair and confidence struck me as unusual in this setting.
Her home state, Rajasthan, is culturally conservative. There are strict norms about how girls and women should look and behave. They are supposed to be quiet and shy. Girls and women here rarely talk to strangers.
Months later, I decided to explore the changing role of women in India. I wanted to find out how women are navigating these changes, even in remote corners of the country. So I decided to go back to Sarita’s village to meet her again.
When I visit Sarita’s school, it is lunchtime. Some boys are playing on the playground, and there among them is Sarita.
If it weren’t for her skirt, Sarita might easily pass for another boy on the team. Her hair is even shorter than when I first met her.
The kids are playing a game of Kabaddi, which involves two warring teams. Sarita’s female classmates watch from the sidelines, but Sarita is with the boys, playing aggressively.
A generation ago, this would have been impossible here: a girl sharing a school playground with boys. Until recently, girls in this village didn’t go to school at all. That has changed thanks to efforts by the government and non-profits to promote girls’ education.
Still, it’s clear that Sarita stands out among the girls. And I can’t help wondering how she turned out this way.
Sarita’s mother, Gayathri Devi, tells me her daughter has always been fearless.
“If my husband and I are fighting over something small, and he blames me,” she says, “Sarita scolds him. She says, ‘Papa, it’s your fault too!’ She isn’t afraid. She scolds him in a loud voice.”
But I soon realize that Sarita’s confidence comes at least partly from her mother.
After all, her mother is educated. She grew up elsewhere and studied until junior high school. The vast majority of women in Deoli receive no schooling and are illiterate.
Sarita is the first to acknowledge that her mother plays a big role in her life.
“My mother always tells me, ‘Don’t let anything disturb you in your studies. When you get older, you can goof off as much as you like. This is your time to study. You won’t have this opportunity later.’ That’s what my mother tells me.”
But Sarita’s father perhaps has an even stronger influence on her.
As I walk with her to school one day, Sarita tells me how much her father supports her.
“Did you see how much Papa helps me? If I’m studying, no matter what else is going on, Papa never asks me to help with housework,” Sarita says. “When I was studying this morning, did Papa ask me for help? He cooked me breakfast, didn’t he?”
He did cook breakfast, which surprised me. A husband helping his wife in the kitchen is still an uncommon sight in Indian households.
Sarita’s father, Tulsi Ram Meena, is a tall, reserved man who works as a teacher in a public school. He says he always wanted Sarita and her two older sisters to get a good education.
“As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to educate my daughters,” he says.
Five years ago, he moved his two older daughters to a nearby city that had better schools. They’re among a handful of girls who left the village for higher education.
Sarita’s father tells me with pride that his oldest daughter is now in college. She is the first girl in the family to go this far.
“If they can stand on their own two feet, they will live a good life, marry into good homes,” he says. “And they won’t have to depend on anyone.”
Financial independence is something Sarita aspires to as well.
“If I have a job, it’ll benefit my family,” she says. “If I can stand on my own feet, that’s the best thing.”
And so, Sarita takes her school work seriously and hopes to follow in her sisters’ footsteps and leave the village for higher education.
But while she’s living with her parents, Sarita also makes herself useful at home. She constantly looks for ways to help her mother with housework.
When I show up one morning at Sarita’s house, she’s in the wide, sunny courtyard, stuffing books in her school bag.
She declares that she wants to make chai for us and dashes off to the corner of the courtyard that serves as the family’s kitchen.
The kitchen has two stoves: one fueled by gas, the other by wood. Sarita lights up the gas stove, puts on a saucepan, and starts to make chai with crushed ginger, cardamom, and fresh buffalo milk.
At one point, she calls out to her mother: “Mummy, hurry up and knead the dough.” She wants rotis for breakfast and lunch.
Then, realizing her mother is running behind on cleaning the house, Sarita turns to the pile of firewood right next to her. She takes some twigs, breaks them, and lights up the woodstove to save her mother time and work.
It strikes me that Sarita’s personality has two conflicting sides. Here she is being the traditional dutiful daughter, helping her mother in the kitchen at the tender age of 12. She also loves to sew. She proudly showed me the dozen skirts she has made for her doll.
Then, there is Sarita the tomboy, who wears her hair short, plays with boys, and is ambitious. Her parents tell me that people in the village call her their “son.”
But to Sarita it’s clear that she is a girl, and aspects of her life are still defined by traditional gender roles.
For example, tradition says a girl’s real home is not her parents’; they merely look after her until she gets married. When she marries, she will move into her husband’s home, where she will spend the rest of her life.
In traditional Indian society, a man brings his wife home with him and together, the couple looks after his parents.
Sarita desperately wants a brother – to look after her parents.
“Everyone has a brother,” she tells me.
“When we three sisters get married and go to our in-laws’, then who is going to be here with Mummy? Who is going to make sure she eats well?”
I, too, grew up in India, in an urban, middle-class family. Talking to Sarita, I can’t understand why she and her two smart, ambitious sisters are still pining for a brother.
After all, if Sarita and her sisters become financially independent, can’t they share the task of looking after their parents?
“Why can’t you come visit your parents after you get married, and stay with them periodically?” I ask Sarita.
She pushes back. “Can you spend all your life with your mother?” she asks me. “Tell me, when you get married, would you spend the rest of your life with your family?
No. I realize that for most women in India, once they are married they are expected to focus on their new family and not on their parents. That’s what my mother did.
But I also know families where sisters share the care of aging parents. So I ask Sarita, “Why couldn’t you bring your mother to your new home after you get married?”
“No!” she says. “That doesn’t look nice! My in-laws might not like it.”
I’m struck by how vehemently this fearless tomboy defends certain traditions. She simply cannot imagine a scenario in which her husband and his family might be comfortable with her looking after her parents.
But Sarita does occasionally throw out a radical idea – maybe she won’t get married. Maybe she’ll get a job and continue to live with her parents and look after them.
Her predicament is shared by millions of women in India’s cities and villages. As new opportunities open up, women need to decide for themselves how far they are willing to push against tradition. Doing things in a new way can bring stress and uncertainty.
Even for Sarita and her forward-thinking family, it would be lot easier if they just had a son.
Sarita’s mother says people in the village are always nagging her to keep trying for a son.
“People say you should have at least one boy,” she tells me. “We didn’t think much about this before. We thought girls are good. If we can educate them, we’ll find good homes for them to marry into.”
But these days, she does worry about the absence of a son.
“Who will look after us when we’re old? I do think about these things,” she says.
It’s only on my last day in Deoli that I realize how much the absence of a son haunts Sarita’s mother.
Sarita has just returned from spending two days with her sisters in the town where they now live. I had accompanied her on the trip, and had loaned her my camera.
Back home, Sarita shows the pictures to her mother, who beams at her daughter.
Suddenly, Sarita’s mother looks up at me and smiles.
“If only she was a boy, we’d have been so fortunate,” she says. “Our lives would have been complete.”
Sarita tugs at her mother’s hand, shows her yet another picture, and says, simply: “Look at my dress.”