Women are biggest hurdles to women’s progress; more so in India

May 19, 2010

Two of my Indian friends are expecting a baby – both of them are women who have “chosen” not to work after marrying men who are better qualified then them – what shocked me was the blatant way in which both of them said they want a baby boy (they have not used any tests to determine the gender of the baby). I asked one of them why she wouldn’t want a baby girl; she pondered and then said “I don’t mind having a second child as a girl so that I have something to decorate” – I was aghast at hearing this, was she talking about a human being or a Christmas tree (sorry about the bad joke while I am trying to write a serious piece, but well, you get the point). I really wanted to ask these women if they feel so inferior/ worthless about being women that they don’t want to be responsible for bringing a girl child into the world – but there are some boundaries one doesn’t cross while dealing with not-so-close-friends! If these women would have a baby girl, they would surely try again for a boy. This incident took me back to the conversation I had with my domestic help who never had the privilege to go to school and had 5 children (all girls) in her quest to have a baby boy to please her husband – I was explaining to her to not have any more children and send her girls to school – what is the difference between this domestic help and these friends of mine who want a baby boy! Doesn’t it prove that the education that these friends of mine underwent was a waste if they think in such a manner, which is regressive according to me?

We are no longer living in an age when we need to hunt to feed ourselves – in which case it still makes some sense that men being physically stronger would go out and hunt while the women stayed at home to take care of other chores. In today’s world, the weapon is education and it is gender neutral! Let me exemplify what I am saying. I have another friend who married her boyfriend right after graduation – her then boyfriend and now husband is a qualified chartered accountant. He is an ambitious guy and moved geographies to progress in his career. My friend found it difficult to get a job outside India so she requested her husband to move back to India and this is what her husband had to say “If you can find a job in India that will pay you as much as I make here and I will gladly move back and also become a house husband”. He said this knowing very well that this would not be possible at all. I would have given this guy one tight slap and walked out of the marriage. But my friend didn’t have the “weapon”, i.e. professional education to be able to stand on her feet confidently and has given up on all her aspirations, dreams and hopes or as the MCPs would like to put it; made her husband’s dream her dream!

The biggest challenge we are facing today (not only in India, globally) is the lack of equal number of women in higher/ professional/ specialised education. In India, it’s a bigger problem with the girl child not treated at par with her brothers! If I visit someone and they make their daughter get water, make tea, help in the kitchen while the son gets to sit around playing computer games; I never like to revisit them – as this says a lot about their thinking and most of them are quite open about it; the women of the household will say they are “grooming” the girl for marriage and sending the son for education abroad. In some cases I have also seen that they encourage the girl to study so that she gets an even better qualified husband, in this case the educational qualification of the girl being of greater importance on her marital CV. The easiest way to control women is to not allow them any financial/ economic freedom; i.e. not allow them to earn money. To ensure that not too many women go out and hunt, i.e. earn money, our society does a fantastic job of not giving them the required weapons, i.e. education. Of course it would be wrong to paint all Indian families with the same brush, but unfortunately majority do fall into the stereotype I mentioned above. I admire and respect families where they don’t differentiate among siblings on basis on gender. I came across an interesting article recently written by a Canadian journalist who lives in Delhi (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/special-report/Free-societies-like-respect-free-women/articleshow/5908488.cms) she has described how “Critics say the family has gone haywire in the western world because of the feminist revolution. Women’s rights and their increasing economic power has seen divorce rates shoot up drastically”. This is very true as most of the times I come across women at work who are divorcees; being financially independent helped them to step out of a bad marriage unlike some others I know who suffer silently as they are completely dependent on their husbands. Walking out of the marriage to them would mean going to their aging parents and they think it’s not right to stress their parents at this age with their marital woes! Often my guy friends have told me “it’s different for you, you are a girl; tomorrow you can just choose to stay at home” – this is where the problem lies, working should not be a choice. Women should work; whatever work they like to do and be financially independent ALL their lives. On a separate note, I would be very interested in carrying out a survey of batches of 1988-1992 from the top b-schools in India and check how many of the women from the prestigious b-schools of our country have given up their career for the larger good of the family – as this is another problem, but at least these women have the education and can work again if they want to. Just think of how many atrocities against women would decrease if more and more women would pursue higher education and work thereafter. In some cases, I have friends who were threatened by their parents that they would commit suicide if she doesn’t marry. This comes from a stupid belief of some Indian parents, more so mothers, that if one is getting a “good match” then one should not let go of it even if it means that the guy’s family expects the girl to discontinue her education and not work.

A lot of the women in the lower classes of society in India actually work; but the work they do is not white-collar work. Most women in the upper classes are business women or high flying socialites; in any case they are a very small number when compared to the overall population of India. So when I say women are creating hurdles to progress of other women, I largely mean the great Indian middle class. Amidst all the IPL controversy recently, a journalist wrote that “we should not forget we live in the times of sunanda pushkar and sania mirza” – while these 2 women are strong headed, rebellious and hence the target of gossip columnists, what we should really not forget is that we live in the country of Rani Laksmibai and Indira Gandhi! So while we talk of women’s reservation in the parliament and in the IIMs, we should walk the talk as women, as mothers, by not differentiating between genders!

In the meantime; I pray that the two friends of mine whom I mentioned at the beginning do NOT have baby girls – not for their sake, but for the sake of the girl child!

Can’t a single working woman live in a city different from the one she belongs to?

February 4, 2010

I called a colleague in India for some work and this being the first time we spoke; he first expressed shock over the fact that I work in “China” and then asked me if I got married to shift here!! This is not the first time such a conversation took place and almost every time people assume that I moved outside my own city (Bombay) as I must have got married. Indian men are most likely assume that if a woman is not living in the city where her parents live or the city she is originally from; it must be because she is married and her husband is working in the new city.

The other day I called a junior of mine from b-school who like me is from Bombay and now lives and works in Bangalore and she was talking about these “narrow minded” men as well who assume that she must have got married and hence shifted to Bangalore. The sad part is when men from your business school; who may/may not have done as well as you academically and are doing a job similar to yours ASSUME that they can move cities for “better career prospects” but women would move only for husband’s better career prospects.

Talking about being “narrow minded”, one cant forget to mention some of the NRIs. Most Indian social gatherings (here in Shanghai) end up having the women together in one corner and all the men huddled up in another. During the couple of such gatherings I attended by mistake (once bitten, twice shy – now I just keep myself away); this is the kind of individual conversation I had with a handful of women:

Fellow desi nari: Haan ji, toh kahaa kaam karte hai aapke husband?

Me: Sorry; I am not married – yet.

Fellow desi nari: (in a surprised tone) Toh tum yehaa pe kya karti ho?

Me: (!!! thinking WTF) I work here; excuse me! (and move on with a smile to have a repeat of the same conversation with another desi nari.

So rampant is this assumption that now I actually feel like punching the next person who assumes that I shifted to Shanghai because I must have got married! GIVE ME A BREAK! I know how to live my life and don’t need a guy for that!

Thankfully there are some exceptions to the above rule (whom I count among friends and rightly so) wherein these people don’t assume stuff about others. I also know Indian men who have moved geographies to be where their wife is working. Unfortunately these constitute only a very small minority of Indian men! I have a theory that for a lot of Indian women; their own dreams, aspirations take a backseat when they get married (more so if the marriage is on insistence of parents, or for image in samaj etc) and these dreams are reborn as dreams for their children when the children are born – but more on this theory later.

In their new book; Superfreakonomics; Levitt and Dubner look at rates of women dropping out of work compared to men from a prestigious university and not surprisingly women drop out more and for more family related reasons then men do. This is true; no doubt. But does this make it the rule? Don’t ambitious women exist? And is it nice to assume that every woman who moves to a new city is doing so because of her husband/ family? I aspire to live and work in different cities around the world and I know many other women who do too. Problem is that men STILL expect women who are as smart; as qualified as them to not follow their dreams but go after their husband’s dreams instead – too bad it doesn’t cut ice with a lot of us!

p.s. I am not saying that only men should follow women; but they should not expect women to be the only ones to follow at all times! It’s a two way street, darling.