They said that education was the solution to women’s problems. They said that a job, a salary and the independence that came with it would set women free from the constraints imposed by a patriarchal society. But is a job alone enough to empower women or even allow her to live her life with dignity and security? Or is it a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire and exchanging one prison for two? Women run around frantically juggling responsibilities at work and at home where they play triple roles as wife, mother and caregiver for the elderly. However, their household role offers little in terms of reward or recognition. At work too, they end up being paid less than men who do the same work. They are wary of voicing their problems though, as the scoffers will immediately reply that they asked for it by taking up a job. Some others quip that women are already too ‘liberated’ and too successful and are not entitled to complain.
The reality, however, is that only a few women have made it to top positions and are in the news mainly because they are exceptions to the rule. Prejudices run deep even in ‘advanced’ nations like the USA that are still to elect a woman president, where contenders like Hillary Clinton are heckled and asked to return home. Women and their abilities are disparaged. It is said often that women can cope only with liberal arts subjects at school or that they can manage only limited roles at the workplace. Such notions are reinforced by stereotypical depictions of women in movies, TV and advertisements.
Another media representation of women is perhaps more dangerous, when they are shown as sex objects rather than as people, which in turn leads to sexual attacks. Distorted perceptions follow her when she enters the work world, where the interviewer often focuses on whether she is married and is likely to have children. Needless to say, no male candidate is asked these questions. Also, many companies associate masculine characteristics with success and achievement.
Does all this mean that I am suggesting that a woman is better off remaining at home ― submissive, dependent and fearful? Definitely not. Imagine her plight if she were to lose her husband, to death or divorce? If she chooses freely to become a homemaker, then more power to her! But if she wishes to work, she must be allowed to achieve her potential and given support in the form of flexible timings, work from home options or daycare facilities. Men must step forward to share in the household responsibilities and parenting. Her performance should be judged on factual parameters and not on whether she stays late at work or goes out for a drink with the boys. Sadly, a woman who leaves work on time is branded a shirker whereas, if she leaves late, she is at risk of being raped or killed. The authorities often point fingers at the victim’s behaviour or her clothes, instead of focusing on making public spaces safer. A few years back, when a TV news reporter in Delhi was shot dead when she was driving home late after completing her work. Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister at the time, gave an interview suggesting that the girl was at fault for being out late.
We find many instances where women criticize their own sex for working, blaming them for any mishaps that occur at home or in the children’s upbringing. A working woman is made to feel guilty and is told that she is the cause underlying the disintegration of society and family. Ironically, she is often forced to work due to financial necessity or to ensure a better future for herself and her children. At work too, there are few effective mechanisms to address her grievances or tackle instances of sexual harassment. She herself is reluctant to pursue the issue as her character and her behaviour are called into question ― again.
Should we resign ourselves then to matters as they stand? No, for then we will be playing into the hands of the naysayers. Cynicism and apathy are the foremost enemies we must tackle when we are trying to effect a change. We must raise our voices, alone and in a group, again and again, until we are heard and noticed, until we can see a difference. In this effort, it is not just women who can partner us. Men too have shown up in the trenches to support tougher laws and stricter enforcement where crimes against women are in question. We must remember the massive protests launched throughout the country in the aftermath of Nirbhaya’s death.
In our lifetime itself, we have seen signs of a new order. A potent symbol of women’s emancipation is the growing number of women who drive around on our streets. Mobility is the new watchword facilitating evolution. I have watched women practising to ride a scooter for endless hours on our quiet street, after finishing their day’s work, sometimes with a husband or son tagging along. And then, one fine day, she has earned her license and is ready to tie up her pallu or dupatta and rev up her engine. She rides off, not into the sunset, but to drop her children at school, then rush to work, and return home, picking up groceries and vegetables on her way.
Proud, purposeful, plucky. I salute her and other women like her who have ensured that their daughters lead better lives than their own. As grandmothers, mothers, sisters or daughters, let us be the wind beneath her sails and not the doubter, the naysayer weighing her down. And tomorrow will be a brighter day, when half of humanity will claim its rightful place under the sun.
Finally, my message to my sisters: Be a woman with a voice. And people will listen.
Usha Narayanan is the author of ‘The Madras Mangler’, ‘Love, Lies and Layoffs’ and ‘Pradyumna: Son of Krishna.’ The sequel to ‘Pradyumna’ releases in July 2016. For more, visit www.ushanarayanan.com