Women in Society: The World Before Her

Netflix recommended this documentary to me about beauty contests in India: The World Before Her.

It juxtaposes girls in India getting ready for a beauty pageant against girls going to a camp for conservative Hindus and how these different groups view women and beauty differently.

It’s powerful. It brought up a lot of emotions and thoughts for me.

To start with, the people at the conservative camp suggested that the idea that men and women are equals is a western one.

I think that is a huge mistake. Hindu history is full of strong women and trying to be against the west is not a good reason to tell girls that they are naturally weaker, as one speaker at the camp said. The girls are being told that wanting a voice means they are rejecting their Indian-ness and becoming western. That is just not true.

At this camp, do they teach the girls about all the fierce, strong women of Vedic history?

Gandhari who didn’t listen to anyone when she decided to become blind, Draupadi who saved all her husbands with the strength of her devotion to God, Gargi who held her own debating the greatest sage of history Yajnavalkya, Sita who kept her purity throughout her ordeal, Kunti who raised five sons on her own, Mirabai who rejected her husband and family in favor of God, Lopamudra who showed her husband that he was wrong to pursue asceticism and ignore her. The list goes on. These women SPOKE UP for themselves and their beliefs.

Women are strong. Women deserve to shape their own destiny. Married by 18 so she won’t become too strong willed? What is that? Do you have no trust for the character of a woman and her ability to make choices for herself? Strong willed is not a bad thing. It is a quality that made the great women of history stand out.

And you know what? I’m a woman in the west and I got told the same thing when I was a teenager. I was told that I should marry young before I develop too many habits that would make getting married difficult. Habits like having an opinion on anything. So it’s not this black and white divide where western culture always encourages women to be independent and Indian doesn’t.

If you don’t want to be westernized, I can definitely respect that. But don’t equate western with strong and independent. Indian women are and have always been strong, smart, thoughtful, loyal, fierce, devoted, and the pillars of society.

On the other side of the story, I can see why many people are upset by the beauty pageants. I believe that beauty comes from cultivating inner qualities. It also breaks my heart to see gorgeous young women being given cosmetic surgery to “harmonize” an already perfect face. Even more so to see them being given treatments with skin whiteners.

All skin tones are beautiful. I wish there was some way to destroy this desire for paleness.

Is India becoming westernized? One young woman from the beauty pageant side says no. She says that she is still Indian and wearing jeans does not turn her into an American. “With all these Americans practicing yoga, are we saying that there is an India-fication happening in America? No.” (Actually, I would say yes. Not as strong as it was 40 years ago, but there is some Indian-ification of America and that’s a good thing!)

I think there is good and there is bad in both cultures. None of us are perfect and none of our countries are perfect. There is an opportunity to look at and internalize the best qualities of each. There are valuable things that can be taken from Western culture into India and there are valuable things that Indian culture can give to us.

Yet it seems that America’s worst qualities are the ones spreading in the world.

Materialism and an obsession with looks are not the things anyone should be taking from America. The idea of equality for all people and a fair chance at improving one’s life and freedom to organize one’s life in the way that one believes in. Those are all good things in western culture.

Some of us human beings are spiritually minded as people and others are not. There will always be girls who are devoted to culture, history, and the Gods. They won’t always be Indian. All around the world there are people who are naturally inclined to spend this life in dedication, discipline, and devotion. Others care about other things. And that’s okay! There is a balance. There will always be spiritual and non-spiritual people in every culture and every country.

Indian women, I want you to know that you are already gorgeous and many western women wish they could look like you!

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  • Nakinyah

    For someone starting out to study Hinduism, where would I look to first? I feel very drawn. I once heard you do not convert to Hinduism, because you were always meant to find it. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. Thank you!

    • Ambaa

      “Always meant to find it.” I like that!

      For a start, you can look at my collection of posts for people who are new to Hinduism: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whitehindu/new-to-hinduism/

      I also have a short book coming out soon that is meant to help guide people to finding a Hindu community and practice.

    • Akhlesh

      Hinduism does not have conversion because: if you exist, you are Hindu. That’s what I was taught by vedantis.

      • Ambaa

        That’s a nice one too!

        I’ve heard so many different reasons given and some of them are great, like these, and some are used to try to keep people out 🙁

  • Y. A. Warren

    I believe the misogynistic western religions have actually perverted the Hindu religion.

  • aam

    Psychological stability isn’t different, but one and the same for both men and women. Stability merely means to be able to remain in senses fully, even for a moment. It is the instability or restlessness of intelligence that often wrongly finds a reason in knowledge in memory and also goes on justifying it.

    In their normal or stable state comparison and competition won’t arise, despite humans may be sexually different, and/or strong or weak physically or in knowledge or experience. It may be absurd to generalize the levels of freedom in women, on the basis of history and according to their religions.