With over 400 languages spoken, nine officially recognized religions, and the centuries-old social caste system, which still has a big impact on modern life, India is indeed a country steeped in traditions. However in recent years, many things have changed — especially for Indian women. Six young Indians shared with Katya Kovtunovich why they consider their country to be a progressive one and disregard the caste system, while keeping faiths and the tradition of sari wearing all whilst expressing loyal views on arranged marriages.
Lekha Menon, Editor of Masala Magazine
There are so many different castes and sub-castes in India. If you'd try to understand them you would go mad but I will try to explain. My surname is Menon and anyone who is familiar with our social structure can easily tell which part of the country I'm from, what language my family speaks, what food we prefer and what kind of clothes we wear. My caste is neither low nor high — it's exactly in the middle. But nowadays it doesn't mean a lot. While I was growing up I watched European and American movies and my English is better than my mother tongue, Malayalam. I became a journalist and started to work for the leading Indian newspaper. I am not an exception — there are a lot of girls like me.
Now in India we also have a new concept 'boyfriend and girlfriend'. It may sound unbelievable but even in the early 2000s our society was so traditional that even in Bollywood movies, you would always see a female character being married a virgin. In my mum's time, a woman could work and earn her living, but had to be married by the age of 25. Today we have more freedom of choice — to study, to become financially independent, to get married or not to get married. More and more girls prefer a single life with a boyfriend. They want freedom and adventures, often postponing marriage and motherhood.
With the changing role of a woman in society, we've also changed our attitudes towards ourselve. It's as if we suddenly woke up from a long sleep and realised: "That's my life and I can live it the way I want. Who are you to teach or to judge me?"
More and more women in contemporary India choose to earn their own money, and no longer want to stay in the kitchen, serve men, and obey their orders. I suppose that's one of the reasons for the awful surge in physical violence towards women — men just can't accept these new norms and the new strong woman.
In traditional society, a woman was always considered guilty, in the case of rape or violence against her. Now we've declared a real war towards it. Any case of violence lands on the front pages of all newspapers and becomes the centre of the social debate. Internet and social media changed the way we look at the world and the way we think. We are not afraid to stand up for our rights anymore.
To be honest, I think it's even hard to be a man in today's India. Many laws have been changed in favour women. If I make a complaint that a man has hurt me he will have to prove his innocence but not vice versa as it was some years ago.
Mitali Sagar and Summiyya Patni, Founders of the fashion blog, House of Misu
We think of India as a progressive country but on your wedding day we'd rather wear traditional sari not a European dress. Though if Vera Wang began making dresses with Indian motifs we might change our minds...
Indian society is still loyal towards arranged marriages with parents often choosing the future wife for their son or future husband for their daughter. We know that it sounds awful and perhaps a bit Medieval to Europeans but this is how we've always lived and we certainly don't feel negative about it. Anyway, most people nowadays naturally find their other half.
For example, from 40 people in my class only two were married by previous agreements. India is more open today than it was some years ago but we still believe in our traditions, as they are the basis for everything we have.
The caste system is still here. Do people in different castes have different chances? Well, yes and no. There are many stories about people who were born in the lowest casts and gain great success. On the other hand, there are the same number of stories about people who were born in the highest castes and have achieved nothing. If you are "from the bottom" you won't have a lot of contacts in high places but with necessary commitment and hard work you can build a great career.
Today more and more people create products, services or ideas for the whole country without dwelling on this or that caste — just like us. Our blog is for everyone. We don't concentrate on any particular group. Fashion unites people and we think that's amazing.
India is slowly building its own fashion industry and every year it gets more noticeable during Indian Fashion Week. We have many fashion magazines: Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, Harper's Bazaar, L'Officiel, GQ and Femina, which is a more traditional lifestyle magazine, read mostly by our mums, while we read Vogue.
In India we also have our own fashion phenomena that does not exist in the West, including fashion for the monsoon rainy season. What is it like? Well, imagine your favourite Birkin bag with a plastic cover or rubber boots, which replace elegant Christian Louboutins during the heavy rainy months.
Manju Ramanan, Editor-in-Chief of Indian magazines Femina and Filmfare in Dubai
I grew up in the state of Gujarat, in a big family. It's common in India to live together your parents, brothers and their families and share household duties. My family consisted of my parents, my grandmother, my brother and his family and my younger sister. Now I live in Dubai and while it's a modern city, we still live as a joint family with my husband's parents. I'm used to having a house full of people and I think it's great. But I know people prefer to live separately from each other nowadays.
Both my husband and I are from the Brahmin caste, which is one of the highest in India. We met at work, fell in love and decided to get married. In my family, I was considered a rebel because I chose my husband. In our family, all marriages had to be arranged with many criteria being taken into consideration, such as caste, wealth and even horoscope sign.
I think the caste system belongs to the past and there is no place for it in the present. I don't believe in it and I don't want it to influence my life or my son's life. I will allow him to marry any girl, no matter which caste she belongs to. I will respect his choice and his feelings.
Let me tell you a story... For one of the Femina Magazine issues I interviewed a girl whose name was Sushma Andhare. She is from the Kolhati community in Maharashtra state, which is one of the lowest castes that exists in India. Girls of this community are famous for erotic dances such as the Lavani and they earn their living with their body. A man can take any girl from the stage and make her his lover. Naturally, these girls never get married because of their reputation. People say their children are known under their mother's names because nobody knows who the father is.
Sushma was raised by her uncle. When she was 14 she realised with fear that one day she was going to join her mother and aunt on stage. At that moment she made a firm decision — not to follow the same fate, no matter what, and go to school instead. The family abandoned her as she refused to work for the "family business" and left her with no financial support.
A huge devastating earthquake shook their neighborhood at that time. Luckily, the government decided to help people in the region and made all the schools free of charge. Sushma went to one of them and graduated with the best grades. Afterwards she enrolled in a college where she wrote and defended her doctoral thesis. Today, Sushma Andhare is a well-known Indian activist, Buddhist leader, author of several books and a popular lecturer. She claims her mission is to save girls and to show them that each of them has a chance to change her life no matter what their castes or families have "prepared" for them.
Nisha Nair, Vice President of an insurance company in Mumbai
We live quite well in big cities, but the vast majority of people live in small towns or villages and it seems they live on a different planet. The caste system still presents itself as a great power in many places across the country and women really have to struggle for their rights.
There are 30 women in my department. All of them represent different cultures and castes, they speak different languages but there is one thing that unites them — every woman of these 30 is an exception. They've moved mountains and broken down hundreds of barriers and traditions to get to where they are now. They wanted to be independent and to rule their own lives.
This may seem surprising but men in my department ask for more days off than women, although women still have to take care of their home and children. Men don't believe in women's abilities, their ambitions and strength. I always hear phrases like: "Of course she won't come to work today because it's a public holiday or she must be tiding up and cooking". All these force women to be even more determined and to prove to the world they can do anything.
According to Indian tradition, a woman must put her husband, his family and her children first and only then think of herself. But I believe if you don't love yourself you can't love anybody else. If you're unhappy you can't bring happiness to anybody's life.
Right before my wedding I told my future husband: "OK we are going to live together for the rest of the days but you have to remember I will make decisions about my life by myself and you can make yours." Now we have separate bank accounts, we have different friends. Sometimes I go out with my girlfriends and we chill in bars until really late at night and I don't hear any arguments about it. I've always been really independent and never hide it from my husband and his family.
I am a Hindu and my husband is a Catholic. When we got married his parents wanted me to change my religion. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to them that it's not about the religion, it's all about what kind of person you are. I stand for freedom of choice.
Merilyn Varkey, Office Coordinator
Girls in Mumbai can hang out in the evening but in a small town in the Kerala state, where I'm from, girls can't even step out of their houses after 7pm. It doesn't matter whether you are a housewife or an engineer or a doctor — you must be at home by that time. If a girl wears jeans, she will draw too much attention to herself. If you want to blend in with the crowd, you'd better wear a sari. That's how things work in my hometown.
I believe the caste system has no influence on your friendships and professional relationships; however, when it come to marriage and building a family, it is indeed crucial.
My family is Christian and we have quite contemporary views on many things. But my marriage was previously arranged. My husband's parents were looking for a suitable wife for him for about five years. My parents were doing the same for me. I met five or six guys and at every meeting, I was accompanied by my brother, as our tradition doesn't allow girls to meet men without a male escort such as a father, uncle or a brother. You have only 10 minutes to get to know the guy and in these 10 minutes you have to decide if you want to be his wife or not. When I first met my future husband I asked him if he liked tea or coffee and he answered that he didn't drink any of these beverages. I remember thinking to myself: "Oh my God, what kind of person doesn't drink tea or coffee?!" And I said 'yes' to him.
I see many European people of my age who are still unmarried. There are many girls in our office who are at least 35-years-old and they are still single. They look at me and say: "Wow Marilyn you are a mum of two! That's amazing!" In these moments, I am deeply grateful to my country's traditions because who knows if I'd be married by now if I had to find a husband for myself.
I think sometimes about my possible career in Europe, which I'd have had if I had been single, with no children. I was very ambitious; I had dreams about travelling the world. But I don't regret anything. I really appreciate everything my parents did for me especially for their help in finding a good husband.
Family life is not about passion and insane love. It's about mutual respect, responsibility for each other and care. If you respect and care for the person you live with you'll fall in love with him or her. My parents also had an arranged marriage and they have been together for 36 years. When my father is away from home he phones my mom three times a day! But when they are together they don't really pay attention to each other and sometimes don't talk to each other for the whole day. I guess this is real love.
Do I want the same for my children? Yes, I do. If they won't be able to find suitable partners by themselves we will arrange marriages for them. Future spouses of my children must be Christian but not European. No way! I can't even imagine someone from another country in our family. I will have a very hard time accepting it.