It was with reluctance that I began replying with a “Julley!” to all the warm greetings in the streets of Leh. Perhaps I was cautious of coming across as an over-enthusiastic tourist, or a buoyant foreigner but one cannot help but beam after such an interaction.Understanding the context of Ladakhi history is as important as acclimatisation to a traveler, because it remains a distinct flux between a traditional, sustainable society and one where ‘modernisation’ is paving a solid road.
The light plays many tricks on the eyes in this region. One second the brilliant sunshine radiates from the snow-capped peaks and the next second the shadow paints acute angles onto the stark landscape. It was important for me not to be deluded by the landscape and therefore romanticize the past while reflecting on aspects of this society.
One of the first factors that I was exposed to was the changing position of women, and it was accentuated by the statements in Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book, “Ancient Futures.” Hodge spent time in Ladakh in the 1970’s and documented her observations about the very idea of western progress in context of Ladakh. I decided to compare her observations to my own experiences in this region.
In traditional Ladakhi society, women have a very strong position in the household and polyandrous marriages are common. I observed this by watching the Abi-Le (‘grand-mother’ in Ladakhi) where I was staying, who stormed about the house all day attending to some matter or the other. I asked about her insatiable desire to be working and learnt that traditionally both men and women play a very active part in any kind of economic functioning and that roles are not very clearly defined. Women are uninhibited in the public sphere in such circumstances, and openly interact with men. Hodge observed how there was a dynamic balance that did not necessarily mean inequality. Even though the women’s domain is predominantly the private sphere, the public sphere of the male has far less significance than in the industrialized world. The idea of infidelity too, is said to be more flexible here.
Juxtaposed with this reading was my experience with an urbane section of Ladakhi society in Leh. The age group ranged from 20 to 30 year olds and all of them had spent a lot of time in big cities in India and abroad. Through them I was exposed to some distinct conservatism when it came to the girls. The girls in the group had to be very cautious while lighting a cigarette even in a tiny café, lest they be seen by a Ladakhi while the boys were unabashed about the same. Their timings of getting home were completely different from the boys and I didn’t see any girls driving confidently through Leh with aviators amidst raucous laughter. I learnt that marriage hung over most of their heads from a young age, and that their integrity was far more subject to gossip and scrutiny as compared to the boys.
It felt ironic to me that while visiting Leh in the summers, the girls had to maintain a ‘low profile’ in comparison to their behavior in Delhi so as to not scandalize the elders. Information and defamation spread like wildfire in this desert area, and I observed some of my female friends sitting on spikes. This was in stark contrast with the confident hustling and bustling of the elderly Ladakhi women who were a distinctly formidable force. A friend pointed out that with television and increased westernization, she had seen a distinct clamp-down on women and an altering of gender roles.
While the liberation of women does not necessarily connote freedom in the spheres I discussed above, it is merely to shed light on the condition of women in this ‘new-age’ set up of Ladakh. It is established that women’s liberation is not completely linear, yet this was the first time I was being exposed to such a glaring reversal in the name of progress.
While this is just a microscopic glance into an otherwise nuanced change, it is funny how it’s possible to find oneself in a crossroad between a book and one’s environment, between criticism and romanticization and between bright light and cool shadow at an odd time of the day.