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July 6, 2000

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When Indian women meet across continents...

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Rohini B Ramanathan

On my way to 'Exchange of Views and News on Women's Issues Between Indian Women on Both Sides of the Atlantic', organised by the 20-year-old Association of Asian Indian Women in America at Bombay Palace in midtown Manhattan, I ran into Gerald Levin, chairman of old media giant Time-Warner.

Levin is known to most in the media, and was in the news most recently after Time-Warner merged with new media star America Online.

Standing on the sidewalk surrounded by several pieces of luggage, mostly small, and a couple of small shopping bags like by a pack of loyal pets, he seemed to be waiting for his limo, cab, car, whatever. The instant I saw his face, I knew who he was.

The confirmation came immediately in the form of a partially covered baggage tag revealing just his last name. I looked up at him and, still surprised, said, my finger pointed at him like Uncle Sam, "I recognise you."

Levin just smiled and nodded gently. I kept walking and a couple of buildings away was Bombay Palace. Once I reached upstairs where the AAIWA gathering was, I wished I had lingered on and spent a few minutes chatting with Levin. Something along the lines of "hey, how's it going, pal? You shouldn't have shaved off your beard and moustache. So, how does it feel to be owned by a new media outlet?"

Ah, well, yet another opportunity to make small talk with a big shot missed. But here I was, in a good-sized crowd of about 50 Indian-American women from the Tristate area, including the organisers, and a few founding members.

The chief guest for the evening was Sumitra Mahajan, Indian minister of state for human resources, Vibha Parthasarathy, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, and Shashi Tripathi, the Indian consul general in New York. The first two were in New York to take part in the United Nations General Assembly's special session on the Beijing plus Five meeting, convened to assess the progress made in the five years since the last women's conference in Beijing.

The opening speaker was a founder member of AAIWA, Dr Sushila Gidwani Buschi. The economist dwelt on why AAIWA was formed back in 1980 (to address issues related to Indian women in America) and how it expanded, with a low where it was dormant for some time. It was even seen as being run by a bunch of 'emancipated' women who had a bad effect on family values and the like.

For all the positive contributions such as conducting useful career seminars, health workshops, and so on, many in the community, particularly some vocal men, had negative feelings about AAIWA. But now, after a period of inertia, hibernation and "inactivity", AAIWA is trying to shake the dust off and serve the women of the community again.

As part of this "new" beginning, the evening's event had been organised. After Dr Gidwani Buschi spoke, Anju Bhargava, another community activist and a banker by profession, welcomed the guests and the audience formally. Dr Asha Samant, who was one of the two co-ordinators (the other being Nami Kaur, a marketing professional at IBM) that evening introduced the three guests.

The first speaker was Tripathi who certainly gave one a good impression about the Indian Foreign Service. Tripathy's "theme song" was how Indian women have come a long way, yet have a long way to go.

She said, "Old issues are gone, old methods are no good. With so many more new issues on the plate, new methods to address them have to be identified." Having been in the US for 18 months and thus "being able to relate to both the Indian speakers and the Indian-American audience", she volunteered to act as a bridge between these two groups.

Addressing the women in the audience, some of whom have been in the US since 1955, she touched upon what a different experience it was for Indian women in America 15 years back and how different it is now. In Tripathi's opinion, it was a real struggle 15 years ago, but the community has come of age now, as have the women of the community.

Now that the women have made it big in every way, financially and professionally, women's groups such as AAIWA have their own niches. She pointed out that the glass ceiling was real for American women, whereas Indian women were visible at all levels of decision-making.

She admitted, however, that life is extremely hard for Indian rural women and this is where the role of non-governmental organisations is very valuable. She considered AAIWA one of them.

Tripathi informed the audience that government laws relating to dowry deaths exist, but implementing them is a problem. She cited cases of women's organisations bringing social pressure on families that took dowry, abused women, caused dowry deaths and so on by urging neighbours to ostracise these families. She said that more than any law, it is social pressure that brings about desired results in society. "When women themselves decide to make the change, changes happen."

Tripathy also touched upon what she called America's na´ve image about Indian women and India in general. She quoted an example of how the fact that India has women fighter pilots evoked surprise among Americans.

Of the three speakers that evening, Vibha Parthasarathy, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women definitely stole the show. Highly articulate and assertive without being obnoxious, she spoke eloquently about the burden of India's patriarchal system and paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi for bringing women out of their homes to join the non-violent, non-weapons-oriented fight for freedom. She also noted, pertinently, that there were no women involved in the American Civil War.

She said the different levels of freedom of Indian women depended upon what "layer" they belonged to, which Vibha compared to the different levels of freedom between black and white women in America.

Vibha mentioned several schemes organised by the Indian government to create "spaces" for Indian women. She said that what was needed was an expansion of the social reformation that is taking place in pockets of Indian society. "This way the critical mass accrues, which leads to progress and in turn shows visible changes in society."

She mentioned how in the 2001 census a new set of indices is being introduced to evaluate the "stay-at-home" woman's work. In her words, "once women's capabilities are 'monetised', their work will be recognised. [Then] value and visibility for women's work will happen."

According to her, women's so-called success in professions is a "masculine yardstick". She wants the yardstick to be humanised.

Towards the end of her presentation, Vibha went on to outline "Preparing Today's Women for Tomorrow", work for which is to be launched in August by the NCW. Students in six colleges in Delhi (Jesus and Mary, Miranda House, Lady Shri Ram, Gargi, Maitreyi, Kamla Nehru and Bharti) are to be given certain empowering "equipment" in the form of emotional and intellectual strength modules that will contain lessons on legal literacy, consumer literacy, health literacy, human rights literacy, and specific skills such as time management, management of emotions, prioritising, interpersonal relations, crises management and negotiation, as well as self-defence.

The last speaker of the evening was chief guest Sumitra Mahajan, the minister. Exuding a warm and quiet personality, she began her speech with the definition of the Sanskrit/Hindi word naari. She said naari stands for one without enemies. She stressed the need for personality development, changing social attitudes, and the importance of the joint family.

Here she spoke of how her mother-in-law had encouraged her to be all that she could be. Mahajan insisted that such support was available in at least 70 per cent of Indian families. She also said that about 70 per cent of the Indian population is in the villages, making it difficult for children, both boys and girls, to reach schools that could be up to 5 km away.

In closing, Mahajan argued that financial independence for women, increased opportunities for self-growth, and a change of the societal mindset are a must in India.

It was pointed out and agreed by everybody how literacy, education and health welfare are all interconnected. Communism was paid tribute for its positive contributions in Kerala. There was a mention of free condoms and birth-control pills and free education.

Some felt that population growth is not the problem, it is the channelling of available human resources. It was agreed that people's mindsets would change only with time and proper infrastructure.

The women speakers were asked if they had experienced discrimination themselves. "Of course not" was the general answer. But the speakers also said no special treatment ought to be expected, in which case there would be no discrimination either.

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