My girlfriend Kate pointed out yesterday as we were walking along a crowded street in Jodhpur that women are conspicuously absent. “Where are the women?” she asked me.
I assume they’re at home. I don’t know where else they’d be. The portrait you get from the street is that India’s population is 95 percent men and 5 percent women. I suppose it’s unfair to generalize this to all of India, since Kate and I have only been to a few cities in Rajasthan, but here’s what we’ve seen.
Men drive rickshaws and taxis. Men tend shops. Men do construction. Men do demolition. Men work on roads. Men tailor clothes. Men run hotels. Men run restaurants. Men make chairs. Tour guides are men. Guards are men. Policemen are men. Travel agents are men. What do women do?
Here’s what I have seen women doing. I saw a couple women working at the railway reservation station, a government run agency. In the thousands of motor vehicles I’ve seen now, I have seen about 10 scooters operated by women. I’ve seen some women sweeping the street in the morning – again, paid by the government. I have seen women in transit: walking on the street, in a vehicle, and on the train. I have heard that girls go to school, although nearly all of the children I’ve seen in school uniforms so far are boys. And a couple of the people we have bought hand-made souvenirs from have said that their wives made the items.
The men we, as tourists, encounter are so immersed in their public world of men that they seem to look past Kate. It is a rare occasion that anyone addresses her (which she is actually pretty happy about, considering how often people approach us for something). I am the one they look to first. “Sir, where would you like to go?” “Sir, what would you like for dinner?” “Sir, biscuits or some water?” Sir, sir, sir. The few times that anyone has addressed Kate, they even call her “sir”. As far as I can see as an outsider, public life in India is men’s domain. I can only guess what most women do: housework and teaching?
The question comes to my mind, what does it matter that women are so underrepresented in so many types of work? Is it important at all? I’m sure a book could be written about this, but I came up with some short answers. Yes, it is important. It only seems fair that women should be able to do the same work as men if they want to. Women have aspirations outside of family life just like men. I imagine many would like to be able to pursue them, although I’m sure some are happy with what they are doing already. But the point is to have the option to pursue what you want to pursue. That’s what seems important to me about not seeing women anywhere.
So how can women have more opportunity? Simple: education. Education can give women the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in these jobs, and the confidence they need to find them. It can give men the understanding that women should have the freedom to do what they want. Having this freedom will help everyone. When half the working-age people in a country (women) aren’t free to pursue careers, there’s a lot of untapped potential in that country. Whether because of nurture or nature, there are a lot of areas in which women are more skilled and talented than men. Restraining what jobs they can have wastes those talents. And personally, something feels very unbalanced about a world in which every direction you look you see swarms of men.