Recently I had the privilege of touring the post-secondary education landscape of India.
I have long waited for the opportunity to visit the Asian subcontinent and so when the opportunity presented itself I jumped at it. I was one of about a dozen Canadian provosts and vice presidents (four of whom were women) who visited public and private institutions in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.
I’m not over the experience. It was profound on a number of levels, which I am still processing.
Fighting the stigma
Shortly after I returned, the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short went to a cleverly titled film called Period. End of Sentence. As you likely know by now, the winning short is about Indian women fighting the stigma of menstruation.
In Bangalore, someone had told me that girls were kept from school in many rural parts of India for several days a month, or sometimes kept from school altogether, because sanitary pads and tampons were unavailable. I was stunned and saddened to hear it.
If you watched the awards on TV you will recall that Rayka Zehtabchi, the young director of the film, came to the microphone to say she couldn’t “believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”
The audience laughed, ignorant of the film’s subject. I didn’t.
“I saw this colourful wall . . . a welcome reminder of the spirit and power of young women who just don’t give a damn about convention or the patriarchy.”
Things are changing, if slowly, in India. One of our guides advised us that we would not see women in miniskirts in conservative Delhi but we would see more relaxed fashion in more liberal Mumbai.
Yet, I saw this colourful wall at the University of Delhi, a welcome reminder of the spirit and power of young women who just don’t give a damn about convention or the patriarchy.
At every turn I was alert to the ways Indian women dressed — to sari or not to sari — comported themselves around university tables, acknowledged each other and us, observed deference to male deans and other senior administrators.
I was fascinated by the subtle ways in which they indicated their power, or lack of, in these contexts. One need only watch the gorgeous films of Canadian director Deepa Mehta to understand the long history of discrimination and the ways in which gender disparities have affected both genders.
Since my visit, I have been devouring the novels of Anuradha Roy to better understand that history and to appreciate the struggle for equality, for a better balance.
Not opposite, but mirrored
The more I reflect on my trip to India the more I understand that what I saw was a mirror of the lives of women in the West, not the opposite of our world.
No, we do not keep girls away from school when they start to menstruate, but we do not make it much easier for homeless or poor women to secure the appropriate — and costly — products.
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti wrote about this very topic in the March 1 edition of the paper, it’s well worth checking out.
“They are blazing it and setting inspired examples for their students and colleagues.”
I have also been reflecting on the ways the female deans and administrators I met in India were, well, just like me: they occupy a minority of institutional leadership.
According to a 2015 report (Women in Higher Education Leadership in South Asia: Rejection, Refusal, Reluctance, Revisioning) women “constitute just 1.4 per cent of the professoriate and three per cent of vice-chancellors in the universities.”
Yikes, that’s worse than here, sure, and especially when you consider that women comprise 44 per cent of the 28 million students in Indian higher education institutions.
But glance around our country and tell me how many female university presidents and vice presidents you can count, and compare those numbers with, say, the same group of ten or twenty years ago.
The number hasn’t changed much.
Slow to change
Things are changing here and there, but not fast or widely enough.
When we get together at conferences or sit on panels to talk about women in leadership we revive familiar themes: the mansplaining that causes migraines; the patronizing reflexes; the amount of space and time male colleagues take up at meetings — that is, the manspreading; and the self-censorship we ourselves practice just to keep things moving along.
But you’ve heard all this before. It’s just that when I saw the mirror of such behaviour in India, I felt even closer to the women I met there than they would ever realize.
And I greatly admired their achievements and the grace with which they seemed to be finding their power and influence in the academy, surely not an easy path. But they are blazing it and setting inspired examples for their students and colleagues.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day I salute those women and all those, East and West, who are seeking a better balance.