On Friday morning, we drove out of the cramped, noisy, and polluted monstrosity that is Delhi past fields of sugar cane, lemon-yellow mustard flowers, sturdy black bullocks and thin white cows to the sprawling campus of BPS Women University.
My students have met many Indian women in the privileged, modern enclave we've been residing in for the past few days. Hip, fashionable college students. Hard-bargaining shopkeepers. Well-to-do shoppers in upscale malls. Successful professionals. All through our stay, I've had the uncomfortable feeling that there was a kind of falseness to the experience, that it belied the reality of life for most women in this country. Our trip to BPS helped bridge that gap.
The lives of rural Indian women have little in common with their well-to-do urban sisters: they are circumscribed by child marriage, the dowry system, pressure to produce sons, and a deeply engrained belief that women are meant only to be wives. Girls are fed less well than their brothers, offered poorer medical care, given more menial work, and taught to bow to male power. They also receive far less education than boys. The 2011 census showed nearly a third of India's women to be illiterate, compared to less than a fifth of its men.
Before India achieved independence in 1947, the situation was even more dire, with illiteracy virtually universal among Indian women and schools for girls almost nonexistent. Female education went up against social and religious values: It wasn't considered merely unnecessary, but wrong. (And, in case any of us gets the idea India was alone in this, I hasten to mention that the founding of my own university in 1905 was opposed by a number of prominent people on the basis of the belief that education damaged women's health).
Over a century ago, a remarkable man named Bhagat Phool Singh became deeply concerned about the plight of India's women. Born in a tiny village in the state of Haryana, just northwest of Delhi, Singh developed a deep sensitivity to the experiences of the women in his community. He became a man with a vision--to empower women through education. In 1936, he turned that vision into action, starting a school for girls. The school was tiny at first--it began with just three students. But it grew--and so did the opposition to it. The zeal of Singh's opponents was intense, fueled by religious fanaticism, a desperate desire to maintain a tradition stretching back through millenia, and the firm determination to hold onto male privilege. For offering women and girls the opportunity to learn, Singh was assassinated in 1944.
Bhagat Phool Singh's legacy didn't end with his death. His school continued, fostered by a daughter who shared her father's vision. The numbers of village women who came to study there grew. The facilities expanded. In 2007, the once-tiny local school, was transformed into a thriving university for women, with colleges of medicine, law, engineering, management, humanities, and social sciences.
Unlike most of the universities of India (and the world), BPS is not a place for the elite. Many of its students come from from desperatly poor rural areas. Most are the first members of their families to be educated beyond grade school, and many have parents who are illiterate. To attend BPS, they pay only what their families can afford.
We were greeted at this unique university with the usual Indian graciousness. We were taken on a tour of the university's excellent facilities, served a delicious meal--superbly prepared by members of the university's hospitality department--and given the opportunity to chat with some of the students.
The flavor of traditional Indian culture is everywhere at BPS. All food served on campus is vegetarian, the university houses a college of Ayurvedic medicine--India's 3,000-year-old medical system, and the warm hospitality is typically Indian.
As we boarded the bust to return to Delhi, I found myself thinking about the uniquely Indian quality of BPS Women University. To me, it showed that the beauty of India's ancient culture can be treasured and held onto, even as the dark side of its tradition is slowly chipped away.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...