Magazine article New Internationalist

Sitting Pretty [View from the South]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Sitting Pretty [View from the South]

Article excerpt

A 19-year-old girl, tall, long-legged, slim and pretty comes home wearing a crown -- a shiny, tinselly, glittering thing. She's been crowned Miss World, the third Indian to make it in four years. Only one more needed, say the newspapers, for us to reach Venezuela's record. I'm proud of my country, says this young woman, I want to do something for it. How wonderful that she won the crown, say television shows, not only because of her good looks but also because she has a brain!

She answered the questions well. When they asked her if she would be willing to have a relationship with a married man, she said no. She wouldn't want to hurt another woman. Proof of high intelligence. To cap it all, the Indian Parliament meets and both the Upper and the Lower House send a message of congratulations to this young woman for having brought 'honour' to the country.

I have another story to add to this fairy tale of success. In a village in Andhra Pradesh in South India a 40-year-old woman, Fatima Bi, is elected head of the village council (the panchayat). Bi has never stepped outside of her village and has only rarely stepped outside of her house. She lives in purdah. She seldom contradicts her husband, whose authority is supreme. Her election is seen as merely fulfilling a new legislative requirement to have a certain minimum number of women in village councils. Everyone knows she will only be a proxy for her husband. The true power lies in his hands.

But Bi defeats all expectations. Once she has power she grasps it with both hands. She throws off her veil, begins to work to improve the conditions of life in her constituency, fights spiritedly against patriarchy, and becomes the kind of leader people dream about: energetic, honest, committed. The first time she leaves her village it is to go to Bangalore, several hours away, to attend a training session in leadership. The second time she makes a long journey out, it's to the United Nations in New York to receive an award for her work. When she comes home, she wears a different crown of her own -- only no-one can see it. No fanfare accompanies her return. There are no front-page pictures in newspapers. She slips unnoticed past television and the silence from Parliament is deafening.

Can this be true, I ask myself? Even as I pose the question another thought comes: why am I surprised that Mookhey (the young Miss World) is a household name and Bi not? Every journalist wants to know if India's ideals of beauty are changing. Not a day goes by without the press asking why so many Indian girls are winning this beauty crown. …

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