During this trip I have been able to observe, interview, and learn from different women in India. From village midwives to urban businesswomen, I have documented a broad spectrum of feminine perspectives and issues. Today, however, I became the subject of a surprising interview.
During a group meeting a local community development worker spoke to 15 mothers, young and old, on the health benefits of toilets and purified water. Over the past four years the women present have gradually transitioned from silence to robust participation. “It took a long time before they said anything,” remarked our guide and translator, “and now they all speak their opinions without hesitation.” Listening to his rationale, the women agreed to consider the possibility of building toilets but refused the suggestion that they boil their water, unconvinced of the need for an added task. Next month they will meet again and the dialogue will continue.
Before they returned home, however, the women inquired if they could question Rachel and me. Anxious to hear what they wanted to know, I waited as our translator listened. He smiled, nodded his head in affirmation, and stated: “They want to know how you cut the fodder for the cattle?” Disappointed with our blank stare, they asked another: “How do you farm?” We shared that we use hand tools to work our community garden. This seemed satisfactory. They then turned to direct questions to our translator instead of Rachel and me. “How is it they are here without their men? Have their men given them permission to be here?” Looking at me, unadorned with the traditional symbols of marriage (sari, bindi, bangles), they asked, “Is she married?” Our translator assured them I was, pointing to my wedding ring. They were unimpressed; the interview was over.
The scope of reality is often limited for women. When Jesus visited the home of Martha, she welcomed him with customary hospitality. Martha did the ‘women’s work’ expected of her, “distracted by her many tasks.” Though being her cultural duty, her work did not allow her choose the better thing her sister Mary does—an education from Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). Many of the women in India’s villages are denied the time, opportunity, and right to choose to learn more than what is necessary to sustain life.
Today I learned as much from being questioned as I did from interviewing. Despite an opportunity to learn something outside their world, the women had questions related only to the things they know—work and family. The difficult lifestyle of the women we visited in the village is readily observable. Most are alone in the responsibility for multiple children and household maintenance while their husband works in the city for months at a time. Their work is burdensome and constant. They cannot let the animals go without food or neglect grueling farm work. They are abused if they fail to serve their in-laws, yet suffer physically from the demands made of them.
An education in God’s Word brings women into a world often withheld from them. Jesus acknowledges Mary’s desire to learn in the story, affirming that it “will not be taken away from her” (10:42). Any effort to empower women must transcend the limits of culture and tradition. Women cannot be dismissed as household servants or family farmhands. A biblical education emphasizes the need for women in policy making, communal decisions, and healthy household management. Jesus teaches that a woman’s place is not subject to what a husband demands, but rather a world where she has the opportunity to learn, think, and speak without fear.