by Erika Murphy
Dr. Molly Hiro is a favorite English professor at UP, married to fellow English professor Dr. Lars Larson. The two, both on sabbatical this year, won Fulbright awards to travel and teach in India. They decided to temporarily uproot their family to a country of festival-loving, vibrant-color-wearing people.
Can you share why you traveled to India?
Honestly, the choice to go to India was secondary to the choice to try to leave the U.S. The academic sabbatical offers a rare opportunity to change your perspective radically by occupying unfamiliar geographic space (if you can make the finances and housing and all work out). I really wanted a break from my familiar, taken-for-granted surroundings, especially because I never studied abroad as a college student (apart from a brief summer program in France). When it came time to specify where to go, India stood out as a nice combination of accessible (because English is so broadly spoken and the people are famously welcoming) and remote (in terms of mere distance, as well as culture and religion).
What are some of the most surprising things you experienced?
One of the most surprising parts of my family’s experience (I went to India with my husband, also an academic, and our two school-aged daughters) was how much we enjoyed ourselves. We imagined that relocating to a developing country would involve so much deprivation and discomfort (power outages, heat, bugs, bureaucratic nightmares, traffic, pollution, in-your-face-poverty) that it would be the sort of experience that we’d look back on fondly but would find less than pleasant in the moment. But none of those discomforts–though they were there at times–compared to the excitement and rewards of getting to know a new place, of absorbing its strangeness, and of growing closer as a family as a result.
Another surprise, and a somewhat more disheartening one, was the nature of higher education in India, or at least in the institutions we got to know. Everything was so top-down: professors lectured, students rarely did anything but listen (albeit with great attention and respect), grades come almost entirely from tests involving recall of the professors’ lectures, rather than from papers that would demonstrate students engagement with and ownership of the material. Any attempts to reform this system (and “student centered learning” has grown as a catchphrase in India) are stymied by the fact that most university teaching is done in English, and most students are fluent only in their native languages (Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, etc.). So, asking students to speak up in class or write extensively in a language they can’t even speak fluently isn’t easy.
It’d be especially interesting to know about more about the female life in India.
Well, I don’t really feel too well equipped, after only five months in India, to speak to this too authoritatively. On the whole, though, I’d say that gender norms and dynamics were much more conservative in the city where I lived (Mysore, about the same size as Portland, but a medium-sized city–even a comfortable “town”– by Indian standards). In bigger “Tier One” cities, you’ll see much more diversity in terms of women’s lives (housewives in saris to CEOs of companies), but in Mysore, the norm seemed to be for women to stay home with children, do the cooking and laundry, etc. (yet of course there is a much greater reliance on “servants” in India so sometimes you’re paying another women to do these household chores). The English M.A. students at University of Mysore included maybe half women, and some of the best students were surely female. But our colleagues told us that most of the female students, after they complete their M.A.’s, don’t pursue a career in university or teaching but go home to their villages and become mainly wives and mothers.
Gender stratification seems to be strengthened or supported by religion and culture. There are all these various festivals that require women to do x while men do y, and then of course there are Indian weddings–for most young people, still arranged marriages, and the weddings are almost always paid for entirely by the bride’s family, and involve a dowry from bride’s family to groom’s, etc. This is why there is still an alarmingly high incidence of female infanticide and/or aborting of female fetuses in India.
Then of course there is the “rape culture” which you hear about a lot now, after a few high-profiled gang rapes in the last few years. No doubt, I felt the male gaze a LOT more in India than I do here, and there’s much more permissiveness it seems around male looking at and touching women without permission (groping…I didn’t experience this but know people who did). A bright spot here, though, is that there seems to be a major backlash against this permissiveness and e.g., the Times of India reported daily about women’s groups, protests, and legislation being created to protect women. So I think things are changing.
On the whole, I think women probably have less freedom overall in India than here, but they’re much less constrained than in some Middle Eastern or other more strongly patriarchal cultures. As I reminded people whom I talked to there, India has had many charismatic female leaders, including a female head of state (Indira Gandhi)…all we have is the hope of Hillary in 2016, right?
What is the dress like?
For women, much more conservative than here. Again, this is not true for the big cities, but in most smaller-sized communities, few women wear jeans; the older women wear saris and the younger generation some version of a loose flowy top over leggings or pajama style pants. (Salwar Kameez) I wore my usual clothes but slipped leggings beneath skirts or dresses, rarely showing much more leg than ankles. Indian women may be discouraged from showing skin, but WOW, they are so much better at embracing color than we are. I could pass time just watching the gorgeous, brilliant fabrics passing by on the streets.
Any personal lessons you carry with you in your life today?
I learned a lot about what privileges we have as Americans, and how incredibly insular we are as a country, so clueless about what happens around the world. Supported by their religious beliefs, many Indians are amazingly open to letting things happen as they will. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, so after observing Indians’ attitudes, I’m working on ceding some control and trusting what will come.
Any words for college women who are travelers themselves?
Mainly I’d say: don’t be afraid to go to places like India. I think the news about violence against women has been blown out of proportion. Europe’s great, but India will provide you an intensity of experience you couldn’t have imagined. Not to mention that it is so affordable to travel there!
To read more about Dr. Hiro’s experiences abroad, check out her blog! Here’s a post on being a woman in India:https://pdxtomysore.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/being-female-in-india/