View From The South
A 19-year-old girl, tall, long-legged, slim and pretty comes home wearing a crown - a shiny, tinselly, glittering thing. She's been crowned Miss World, the third Indian to make it in four years. Only one more needed, say the newspapers, for us to reach Venezuela's record. I'm proud of my country, says this young woman, I want to do something for it. How wonderful that she won the crown, say television shows, not only because of her good looks but also because she has a brain!
She answered the questions well. When they asked her if she would be willing to have a relationship with a married man, she said no. She wouldn't want to hurt another woman. Proof of high intelligence. To cap it all, the Indian Parliament meets and both the Upper and the Lower House send a message of congratulations to this young woman for having brought 'honour' to the country.
I have another story to add to this fairy tale of success. In a village in Andhra Pradesh in South India a 40-year-old woman, Fatima Bi, is elected head of the village council (the panchayat). Bi has never stepped outside of her village and has only rarely stepped outside of her house. She lives in purdah. She seldom contradicts her husband, whose authority is supreme. Her election is seen as merely fulfilling a new legislative requirement to have a certain minimum number of women in village councils. Everyone knows she will only be a proxy for her husband. The true power lies in his hands.
But Bi defeats all expectations. Once she has power she grasps it with both hands. She throws off her veil, begins to work to improve the conditions of life in her constituency, fights spiritedly against patriarchy, and becomes the kind of leader people dream about: energetic, honest, committed. The first time she leaves her village it is to go to Bangalore, several hours away, to attend a training session in leadership. The second time she makes a long journey out, it's to the United Nations in New York to receive an award for her work. When she comes home, she wears a different crown of her own - only no-one can see it. No fanfare accompanies her return. There are no front-page pictures in newspapers. She slips unnoticed past television and the silence from Parliament is deafening.
Can this be true, I ask myself? Even as I pose the question another thought comes: why am I surprised that Mookhey (the young Miss World) is a household name and Bi not? Every journalist wants to know if India's ideals of beauty are changing. Not a day goes by without the press asking why so many Indian girls are winning this beauty crown. But no-one asked if Indian ideals of leadership and political participation were changing when Fatima Bi stormed male bastions. What is it about us that turns our attention so askew?
In some ways it's easy to understand both things. It's not that Indian women have suddenly become more beautiful. Or that they've become more intelligent and they're now dazzling the world with their brilliance. The answers to this one are easy enough to find and they more or less lie in one word - television. TV-viewing audiences in India are huge. Statistics vary but at a minimum TV reaches half the billion-plus population. And for the Miss World show it's said that the Indian audience is among the highest in the world. So what better way to cater to this and maintain the advertising revenue from Indian (and multinational) companies than to crown an Indian woman Miss World now and again? Ten years from now, when television spreads similar wings over Africa, perhaps we will see many more black faces carrying home the diamond crown.
That's easy enough to grasp. What isn't easy is why we don't have the same sort of reaction to Fatima Bi. Or perhaps it is. Let me try a few guesses. For the media, Bi is not an easy proposition to sell - she doesn't have the face or the figure, or indeed the glamour. Who cares about a village woman discovering the world? But there's more.
Bi's rise to power is a very real threat to established male power. Her 'success' in winning the election can be dismissed - she won as a result of affirmative action, not competence, men say. But then she used her power strategically and honestly. And here's where she starts to be threatening.
What then? The logical answer follows: ignore her, pretend she doesn't exist and she'll simply disappear. Mookhey is OK - she wants only glamour and will remain a good Indian woman even if she occasionally bares her body. Bi's much bolder act of throwing off her veil - if you like, a different kind of baring - therefore can't be taken into account. The best remedy is simply to ignore her.
But while Mookhey will likely take up a career in modelling or films and will be out of circulation before she hits the age of 30, Bi will continue to work with neither age nor beauty constraining her. It's the Fatima Bis of this world that I'm keeping my fingers crossed for - if there's one hope I have for the new century, it's that India produces a Fatima Bi in every home. Perhaps then the glittering Miss World crown will be consigned to the dustheap - a place it richly deserves. l
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher who lives in Delhi.