My view of purdah was formulated after working and traveling extensively not only in India during smallpox days but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia. By restricting women’s mobility, purdah resulted in the social and physical isolation of women. The lack of a strong social network placed a woman in a position of vulnerability with her husband and her husband’s family. I saw firsthand how restrictions on women’s mobility—and especially that of unmarried girls—mobility limited their ability to access education, health care, and family-planning services. What I found in many Muslim villages was that the women had no knowledge of the smallpox program, and yet they would be most likely to notice if a child had a rash and fever.
I couldn’t change purdah, but I could insist that the smallpox worker talk to the village leaders. He could request the village headman to give him a ten-year-old boy from the village to accompany him from house to house. The boy could take the recognition card into the house and show it to the women and ask about rash-and-fever cases. I spoke to the headmen of many of these traditional villages, and none ever refused to allow this practice.
I learned in India that there were really three sexes: male, female, and the Western female. Most often I found I was treated as a male in the rural areas and invited to participate in male social customs. In the big cities, I was treated as a high-caste Hindu woman because I was working for the UN, and I was a foreigner. With my smallpox driver and paramedic, basically I was a male, although they treated me like a sister. With caste taboos and the purdah followed in these traditional villages, the Western woman was viewed as free, independent, and even, in some sense, easy. She was a threat just for being there and introducing another way of living. My team was always around me and was very protective of me, treating me like a sister.
I was never personally confronted by any Eve-teasing, a euphemism used in India for public sexual harassment or molestation of women by men, with the word “Eve” used as a reference to the biblical first woman. It was a form of sexual aggression that ranged in severity from sexually suggestive remarks and catcalls to brushing up against women in public places and outright groping. Sometimes it was used with the coy suggestion of innocent fun, making it appear innocuous, with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator.
In the 1970s, most Indian women were raised to be submissive and passive. I didn’t fall in either category. When doing up-country fieldwork, I was never alone. One or more of my team was always with me. Nevertheless, I roamed the streets in the urban areas such as Delhi and Calcutta alone. I walked confidently and fearlessly in the street. I think if any male had dared to accost me, I would have turned on the fool and confronted him. I think the men could sense this, and they just left me alone.
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