July 3, 2008, 1:50 pm
'Untouchable' Women Enjoy a Night of Fashion
By C.J. Hughes
Dalits, or "untouchables," strutted side by side with more
conventional models at fashion show held at the United Nations
building in New York. (Photos: Béatrice de Géa for The New York
Times)Tabla drums warbled and lights beat down as the woman glided
down the runway, her sari billowing loosely and hair pulled tight. As
fashion shows go, the sashay-spin-repeat sequence was fairly routine.
But the background of many of the models at this event on Wednesday
evening, held inside a fourth-floor dining room at the United Nations,
was anything but.
Known as Dalits, or "untouchables," the women have such a low social
standing in their native India that they sit below the lowest rung of
the officially banned but still-present caste system.
Women dressed in pool blue, to honor the United Nations' official
shade.In fact, this particular group of women — 17 on stage, another
20 or so in the audience, all with dresses that were pool blue, to
honor the United Nations' official shade — once cleaned septic systems
for a living.
But for those who imagine that the indelicate task can somehow be
pulled off by sticking a hose from a truck into a tank in the ground,
Using straw brushes, these women, nicknamed scavengers, would
hand-sweep the contents of often-dry latrines into bamboo baskets,
then cart away the results on their heads.
Reviled to the point where others would let them die in the streets
rather brush their skin, according to event organizers, theirs was a
grimy and dangerous existence that would make a Dickensian lifestyle,
in contrast, an improvement.
"Gandhi had a wish to make a scavenger the president of India," said
Bindeshwar Pathak, a New Delhi businessman, at a panel that took place
before the event in an auditorium lined with ash wood.
Mr. Pathak, who is the head of an international company that
manufactures flush-style private and public toilets, has also built
four clinics across India to teach scavengers — there are an estimated
500,000, of 160 million untouchables, which make up 16 percent of the
population — basic hygiene, literacy and job skills, to better their
Indeed, Wednesday's fashion show was partly a tribute to Mr. Pathak
from the United Nations Development Program, which in a 156-page
report released Tuesday praised his for-profit, private-sector
solution to an intractable social problem.
"Giving them this opportunity shows the world that scavengers are
equal to everybody else," Mr. Pathak said.
The former scavengers, none of whom had traveled outside India before,
also seemed to help publicize what the United Nations has decreed the
International Year of Sanitation.
This effort (earlier ones focused on peace, and microcredit) is to
reduce by half the 2.4 billion people who drink and bathe in dirty
water by 2015, though with just 300,000 aided so far, progress has
admittedly been slow.
"It's a huge undertaking," said Vijay Nambiar, chief of staff to Ban
Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, at the preshow panel.
"But we must raise awareness of sanitation with special attention to
the privacy, dignity and security of women."
Though the message was somber, the mood turned light after guests
adjourned to the Delegates Dining Room, which provided views of a
Waiters in tuxedos balanced platters of wedge-shaped samosas by tables
of saffron chicken and lentil salad.
On the nearby 50-foot runway, the former scavengers strutted side by
side with more conventional models, whose bobbed hairdos and heavy
makeup balanced bright gold, pink and green chiffon gowns.
Some in the 175-person crowd leaped at the chance to meet Mr. Pathak,
whose social service may be as admired as his entrepreneurial talent.
Although his net worth hasn't been widely reported, his company,
Sulabh International, made a profit of $5 million in 2005, according
to the United Nations report, which is a Bill Gates-level sum in an
Much of that revenue presumably came from Sulabh's numerous public pay
toilets, which are also found in Ethiopia, Madagascar and Afghanistan;
Mr. Pathak also runs a popular New Delhi toilet museum.
"I'm here because I think what he's done is remarkable," said Anjali
Sud, 24, of the Upper West Side, who works for a magazine publishing
company but volunteers at the United Nations in her spare time. As she
spoke, her sister Anisha Sud, 21, passed a pen to Mr. Pathak for an
Fawning, too, was Virender Yadav, 54, a New Delhi native who now lives
in Richmond Hill, Queens, and whose arms were piled high with free
brochures and books.
"This is very unusual, I was very surprised," to learn that former
scavengers would be in New York City, Mr. Yadav said.
"I am so glad they are bringing them up in the world," he added.
The culture shock wasn't lost on the former scavengers, either, such
as Usha Chaumar, 34, who wore bangles on her wrists and a glittering
bindi on her forehead. Like her fellow travelers, Ms. Chaumar comes
from Alwar, a city in Gujarat State, and like the others, she was
married young, at 14, though her husband is now deceased.
"All my friends and relatives need to get better jobs," she said
through a Hindi interpreter, "so they can come into the mainstream."
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