27 December 2017

Women Cycling For The Environment--In India

Teaching a Women's Studies course during the past semester got me to thinking about the ways in which feminism--however you define it--is tinged with some of the cultural biases feminists have tried to fight.  I have to admit that I brought some of those attitudes and assumptions into my own thinking about gender equality and the ways in which I define myself as a feminist.

I noticed at least one of those unconscious biases while reading one of the best-researched, and most impassioned, papers I read this semester. It was, among other things, an argument that a universal single-payer health care system is the only kind that can help to erase some of the inequalities between men's and women's health care.

The student who wrote the paper hails from Burkina Faso and came to class in a hijab. She expressed her belief that there was nothing incompatible between her religion, Islam, and her wish to bring about gender equality. Another student, who made a slide-show about female infanticide in her native country (Pakistan) as well as other countries like China, expressed a similar belief.

I have to admit that sometimes I still think that the most forward-thinking people when it comes to women's rights are in secular Western democracies. And I admit that I prefer, and probably always will prefer, living in one.

But I must say that some of the most interesting things--including bike rides--undertaken by women have been, lately, in countries where we are supposedly more "oppressed."  One such nation is India.  Now, know some very strong, intelligent and independent Indian women.  And they are some of the most educated women to be found anywhere.  Still, I rarely see one on a bicycle, at least here in New York, or the United States.

That is why I was so impressed to read about a group of 13 cyclists, 10 of whom are women, on a ride through western India.  They left Pune last week and plan ton cover 1500 kilometers (about 1000 miles) in 16 days before they end up in Kanniyakumari on 3 January.  Along the way, they will pass through a number of cities containing some of the most sacred Hindu and other religious monuments, as well as any number of World Heritage sites--not to mention some beautiful mountain, river and sea coast vistas.

Cyclists in Pune, just before they embarked on their ride.

They are riding, in part, to bring attention to some of those natural and man-made wonders.  Why?  Well, India is one of the world's fastest-growing economies:  According to a report I heard this morning on BBC World News, India will leapfrog England and France (ironically, the countries that colonized it) to become the world's fifth-largest economy in 2018.  All of that development means more motorized traffic, cell towers, factories and mines--which mean, of course, more pollution.  Indian cities have some of the world's worst air quality, and, since wind does not stop at a city line, the smog and other pollution are spreading and threatening some of the world's most awe-inspiring sights, not to mention the health of humans and other living beings.

One of the things I learned in the research I did for the class is that in India and other developing countries, women are leading, or at least are giving much of the momentum, to environmental movements.  Of course, part of my own cultural arrogance led me to believe that such nations "don't care about the environment", seduced as they are by their newly-created wealth.  In addition to being disabused of such notions, I have learned that concern for the environment has been spurred, in India, China and other places, by feminists.  They see--to a degree that almost no one, male or female, in the Western world can--that environmental issues are women's issues. And children's issues.  And that men will be better off if women and children are.

And the bicycle is, if you will, a vehicle for delivering such equality--just as Susan B. Anthony said it was more than a century ago.

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