Guest post by Pujya Priyadarshni
As I flipped through the news channels recently, I felt proud to see two women as Defense Ministers of India and France. Conquering a traditional bastion of men, it sure seemed a victory worth celebrating for women. Basking in this sense of pride, I wondered when I had acquired a gender lens to my world view.
Was it choice or the result of life experiences? I never took gender classes at university, in fact I have avoided them feeling that it may shape my world view in a certain way. Still I find myself constantly battling gender sensitivities and insensitivities in my interactions.
Childhood and adolescense is usually a good place to start a journey of self-discovery. My mother, I realized, had brought me up as her child and not her daughter. True, given that I was the only child, she perhaps didn’t have much of an option. But still she chose consciously to bring me up in a gender neutral way. Nothing was ever out-of-bounds nor was I expected to be a certain way owing to my gender. Her life’s lesson to me has been one of recognizing that one has a choice in life and that one must always exercise it.
My thoughts then moved to my workspaces so far. Despite a relatively healthy gender ratio in most, was the space truly equal? I tried analyzing it both at the larger organization level as well as the smaller team one works in. As reality sunk in, the moment of clarity was discomforting. At a company seminar, I remembered the response of a leader to the question of the lack of female representation at the apex level. He had responded by saying that he believes women should definitely be a part of top management and that he was working towards improving those statistics. A perfectly acceptable answer so far. However, he then went on to add that he believes from a business perspective, it is better to send women in some cases than men!
And by this simple statement he objectified all women in that room. In smaller teams too, the reality is often very grim. Office WhatsApp groups abound with gender insensitive forwards promoting stereotypes such as “Men are from Bars and Women are from Malls.” Similarly, women often aren’t invited to after office hours drinks. Reasons range from the assumption that they have to go home and cook for the family or simply that they won’t be interested. Here the fault line is not just gender but marital status as well. More recently, the callousness with which the #MeToo campaign was derided in some conversations reflected the ‘maturity’ of our society!
Perhaps, the issues of sexual harassment and unequal pay are manifestations of the inherent gender constructs that play out at the workplace.
Interpersonal relationships too are abound with examples of sheer imbalances in our society that are taken for granted. A close friend who had dated her boyfriend for a decade found her relationship split wide open closer to marriage. Why, you may ask? Somehow, rules of engagement are very different between dating and marriage. Increasingly, young men in India are influenced by the quintessential “modern/western” (synonymous in our daily jargon) lifestyle, but when it comes to marriage they want a ‘bahu’ (daughter-in-law) for their parents and not a life partner. Suddenly, the expectation is that the girl would shift in with his parents, start cooking and turn a new leaf from the 19th century. The entitlement culture of patriarchy clashes with the change in aspirations of women in a variety of ways in India currently.
However, there is a silver lining. Today, girls are being brought up as equal participants at the home front. They are no longer the consolation prizes in case of no sons. Parents increasingly recognize them as individuals in their own right and as assets. If the Indian film industry is even remotely a reflection of the Indian society, it reflects a picture of changing India. Films such as ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’, ‘Toilet-Ek Prem Katha’and ‘Queen’, portray strong female characters from humbler backgrounds but sound fundamentals. These characters invariably derive their strength from their parents, who unconditionally support them in their decisions: whether it is Jaya’s decision to leave her husband’s home in the absence of a toilet (Toilet Ek Prem Katha) or Rani’s decision to go on her honeymoon alone when her marriage is called off (Queen). Today, daughters have a say in their life’s’ decisions and are not mere puppets in the hands of their parents or husbands.
Going back to my original musing, I realized that indeed life experiences shape our world view. However, since our life experiences too are the result of our choices, then aren’t the choices the real lens? It is thus not the clothes we wear, the gadgets we possess and definitely not the pages we like on Facebook that define who we are. It is our upbringing and our interactions we choose that can and will define our future. This thought gave me a ray of hope because gender, after all, is a mere social construct. Thus, we have the choice to redefine it.