Sunday, November 18, 2007

Indian Women - Young and Old

This afternoon we went to visit a photo exhibit by Fazal Sheikh called Beloved Daughters: Photographs. The exhibit was composed of two parts – one highlighting widows, who lived in a community where they devoted their lives to Krishna. The other was about young girls kidnapped or tricked into prostitution or women who were burned or otherwise abused in marriage.

The stories were so sad. A few of the widows had supportive families and voluntarily chose a life of abnegation and devotion to God. But others were cast out by their families, devoid of any protections once they no longer had a husband. One was married at the age of 5 to a boy who was 12. While the marriage was never consummated, when she lost her “husband” she was never able to marry again and had to live in this commune of widows. Another was thrown out by her husband after a neighbor raped her while she was home alone. Others were cast out for producing only female heirs. Another had problems when she couldn’t conceive, so her husband took a second wife. Just then, she became pregnant. The second wife was jealous. When the husband died, the second wife set the bed on fire, killing the child and burning the woman over half her body.

The second part of the exhibit focused on the younger women – the children and teenagers abused and roped into prostitution, the young wives killed or burned because of abusive husbands or insatisfactory dowries. The saddest photos were those of the very young girls, well under ten, rescued from brothels. They had greasy hair, wide eyes, glittering shoes, and traces of makeup. The exhibit also reflected the valiant work done by some NGOs, such as one founded by two women, both of whom had daughters burned to death, to offer protection and safety to the victims of these crimes.

Sheikh, the recipient of a MacArthur genius award, focuses his work on displaced peoples around the world. He reminds us, as India moves ahead into the global economy, that ancient prejudices deny rights to many and that only through awareness and activism can such injustices be halted.

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