Friday, March 7, 2008

Waltz: Interview

Underneath The Sari

My first introduction to the true meaning of feminism and feminist ideals has stemmed from this semester’s introductory to women’s studies. After learning about what feminism is and who feminists are I find myself becoming more interested and influenced by these topics. I first had the idea to interview Ketki Sheth after we learned about Black and Chicana feminist movements. I never considered the fact that when most people talk about feminist movements they often do not include many other race and ethnicities, but rather look at the issue from a white perspective. My main goal for this assignment was to learn the differences between mainstream feminism and Indian feminism. Through my interview, Ketki disclosed the true differences between American and Indian societies’ treatment of women and equality through her experiences, her encounters with males’ perspectives of women and their rights, and her evolving view of feminism and its’ future role in society.

Ketki Sheth was born in India. Growing up her mother was a stay-at-home mother and her father worked outside the home, the only acceptable way an Indian home of that generation was structured. Ketki was twenty years old when her marriage was arranged by her parents and their close friends. After going on just two dates, she married Sarvajna Sheth. I asked her if she wishes her marriage had not been arranged and if she wishes she had had the opportunity to choose who she married. Ketki said she feels that she can not regret the way her marriage was established because she has had a great life with her husband and has three wonderful daughters. She does, however feel for the women that are not as fortunate as she is in their arranged marriages. Ketki and her husband Sarvajna moved to the United States when they were twenty-two. Her entire immediate family moved with the couple because the rest of Ketki’s extended family already lived in the U.S. Ketki and Sarvajna now live in Savannah and have three daughters: Sherna, 22, Ushma, 19, and Pretha, 15.

One of the biggest questions I had for Ketki was what differences she recognized immediately in the way that women were treated in India versus the United States. Her initial reaction was that a women’s value in India is not equivalent to that of a man, but one step down. When considering the main differences that she saw, she says that there is more equality for women in the United States. Some of the examples Ketki mentioned were that there are greater opportunities for women to work and she thought it was strange to see women working in “men’s” jobs. In addition, she was surprised to see women driving, something that rarely occurred in India.

Another interesting topic we discussed is Indian male’s perception of women’s rights and equality. Ketki said that there was not much of a difference in the way Indian males perceive these rights; however, it is much more common to see a male helping out in the kitchen and with housework in the United States, than it is in India. In Ketki’s marriage and household each person, regardless of sex, has equal responsibilities. Ketki’s nephew, Rhut, came from India to live with them so he could attend school in the United States. After moving in with the Sheth’s he was required to do dishes and household chores just like the girls, even though he had never been required to help clean when he lived in India.

The United States is a very materialistic culture and puts a lot of emphasis on beauty and looks. I asked Ketki if this emphasis is something that is cross cultural or if it is only a high priority in American culture. She believes that Americans do put too much focus on beauty, looks, and sex, much more so than Indians. Having three daughters, Ketki has tried to make sure that her girls are not consumed with the way they look. As a mother she tries to influence some feminist ideas in her daughters. This includes the idea that they do not have to use their beauty and charm to get the things they desire in life. Ketki encourages her daughters to be who they are and to define themselves as individuals, not as society would.

Even though Ketki has never read some of the famous feminist pieces such as The Feminine Mystique, I let her read an excerpt from Marilyn Frye’s Oppression piece. She agrees with Frye that some women are “trapped in a bird cage.” Ketki considers herself to be a feminist in the way that “if men can do it so can women.” Her opinion about feminism has not changed since she came to the United States, but rather grown stronger and supported her ambition of being equal. Ketki mentioned that whenever she goes back to visit India she is immediately aware of the stark differences in the way women are treated. One form of oppression that Ketki sees to be a particular problem in India is the fact that women have little or no voice when it comes to decision making. When she sees this occurring, she says she feels for the women of her native country. She has observed that compared to many other countries in the world, oppression is not as big of a problem in the United States; however, one aspect of women’s rights and oppression in the United States that Ketki wishes were different is the way that women are treated in the workforce. For instance, she believes that women should be making the same salaries if they are in the same positions as men. Ketki is a chemist, a job that is primarily dominated by men. She feels that at certain times in her career she was not given the same opportunities to succeed as other men in her field.

Ketki thinks that her generations’ opinion on feminism in India is a lot different from that of her parents’ generation. Her feminist ideas were not inspired by her mother because her mother agreed with and accepted the idea of women “being one step lower” than men. Women of her parents’ generation just received the duties given to them by males. These women bought into the cultural and systematic ways of society believing that it is simply normal for women to be subservient. Growing up Ketki would look around at the women in Indian culture and always think to herself that something is just not right. She has had to go through several hardships as a woman and stand up for her rights through different phases of her life. Ketki told me a story about one night when her younger brother was allowed to go to a movie, but she could not go because it was going to be too late of a night. She said she feels that her parents did not allow her to go simply because she was a girl. Due to a history of sexual discrimination, Ketki has molded her feminist ideals which she has now tried to instill in her daughters.

“Feminism will definitely keep changing in the future. It already has.” This statement is one of the beliefs Ketki claims. Towards the end of the interview, a hopeful smile came across Ketki’s face as she thought of the possibility of change in the future. Perhaps one day women will be the dominant sex. Looking at today’s relationships, Ketki can see that some women are taking on the leader role and making decisions for themselves and their partner. Ketki believes this is the only fair way to operate a home. She continues to have hope for the future of rights for American women in addition to the rights for Indian women.

As the interview came to an end I was still intrigued by the stories and life experiences Ketki had shared with me. From her arranged marriage to her feminist opinions Ketki is an individual that I admire greatly. Learning about her experiences growing up in Indian society I have come to respect and realize that it takes a strong individual to not conform and submit to the typical Indian cultural expectations of a how a woman should act and what her role should be in society. Furthermore, Ketki’s ability to maintain and strengthen her activism towards women’s rights throughout her move to America and her transition into motherhood reveals her passion for feminism. After my interview with Ketki I feel as though I have a better understanding of the cross cultural differences and perspectives of feminism.

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