100,000 Indian Women

January 23, 2013

Over the last four years, there's been a great deal of debate about how it will affect American society to have a black president. I think the impact will be profound, mostly on a personal psychological level, for people of all races. The changes to our views, actions, and aspirations may take years to play out, but there's no question in my mind that it will be powerful. Then once in a while I'm reminded that there are limits to how much change at the top translates to the rest of a society.

Recently, the New York Times ran a story on the status of women in India. Almost fifty years ago, India elected a woman to be Prime Minister.  Indira Gandhi served for eleven years and, despite controversies, was a revered and respected leader.  Yet, reading the New York Times article one is sickened by the way many typical Indian women are treated.  Perhaps the most shocking report in the piece is that an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 women are killed each year in dowry disputes, often by male relatives, many burned alive.  If those estimates are even remotely close to the truth, something is terribly wrong, to say the least.

Clearly, the fact that an individual woman could run the country did not change the opinion of many Indians about the value and qualities of women in general.  I don't know much about the relative status of women in other countries that have had female leaders, like Great Britain or Israel.  I suspect things are better than in India, but there's little doubt that sexism is at least as prevalent in those two places as in other developed nations that haven't had women in charge of the government.  Perhaps a case can be made that things are better in these places than they would have been without a female leader as a role model for the nation. That is, maybe India would be killing even more women without changes brought about by Gandhi's position.

My guess is that President Obama's eight years in office will accelerate trends that already exist in society toward integration, intermarriage, and advancement for non-whites. His status and success, along with Republican governors like Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, will inevitably make people feel differently about themselves and their neighbors. But these important changes cannot quickly overcome hundreds of years of political, economic, and cultural history. Sadly, improvements will be incremental.

Changing the world overnight would be great.  But don't discount the value of progress.  One less person burned alive means a great deal, especially to her.

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