Guest post by Pujya Priyadarshni on International Women’s Day
Ensconced in my chair, I was busy reading the obituary of Opportunity (NASA’s Mars Rover) when a mundane office circular announced the planned celebrations for the upcoming International Women’s Day. In that moment, the irony of this disjunction hit me. Here I was reading what may be the first dedicated obituary of a robot, a huge leap for humanity and an increasingly imminent reality, when I was distracted by these mortal efforts of workplaces to become more equal and gender just. Has reality always been so contradictory or is the new normal of the 21st century, I wondered.
Hidden in one corner of the flyer was the call for stories with the promise to publish the best ones in a coffee-table book. Distracted as I was, I read through the three proposed topics. One caught my eye: ‘the inspiration that helped you become who you are’. An ostensibly simple topic, it had within its fold the eternal question of ‘who you are’ and what constitutes one’s identity?
The topic naively presumed gender to be the starting point. Conventional wisdom reposes faith in the age-old binary of man-woman, good-bad, right-left, young-old, and rich-poor among others. While, the same may be embellished with career aspirations, skills and personal attributes, the binary remains the defining distinction. But, is that really true today? My first response to a question on identity may not even include my gender. As I found myself grappling with the question of what does gender really symbolizes today, Opportunity faded into the background.
Was I who I was because I am a woman? And what does it really mean to be a woman? A conservative may respond to the latter with worn-out adjectives like kind, compassionate, giving and accommodating. Feminists may have their own version. But going back in history, perhaps the gender binary has been ‘mankind’s’ most well-preserved myth. Long considered the minority ‘other’, the transgender have been ubiquitous across faith, mythology and history. Today, the narrative articulated by the LGBTQ community goes beyond biological and clinical definitions and accommodates the freedom of choice and self-determination. Man, woman, queer – your identity and gender are of your own making. It’s a kind of liberation that perhaps the language binary cannot capture.
But still, all this relates to the ‘human’ realm. Moving to the question of the new age ‘sentient and sapient’ beings, technological advancements such as robots, singularity and AI systems come to the foray. Opportunity, or unofficially Oppy, was a ‘she’. Sophia, the world’s first robot citizen, is groomed and programmed to mimic a woman. These are only a few examples, but they highlight the lingering need to hold on to the binary. Yes, gender is a social construct, but it is embedded in sex and physical prowess. Then how does one explain such gender assignment to non-biological entities? Perhaps, the bigger question is ‘does it matter’? While an instinctive response is no, current trends indicate otherwise.
Today, globally the female labour-force participation rate (FLFPR) is approximately 49% and has witnessed a declining trend since 1990 and continues to be considerably less than men, as per the International Labour Organisation (ILO). On the other hand, 2018 saw the powerful #MeToo movement and a resurgence in the expression of women’s rights and gender equality. For now, the angst is against men. However, increasingly workplaces are not going to be the preserve of humans alone. As humanity continues to savagely explore new scientific frontiers, women may not get an uncontested reign at the workplace like the men did post the industrial revolution. The shape and nature of our future tyrants is still evolving and will be very different from the beasts of our pasts and our current oppressors. And we as a society must recognize and compensate for this. To draw a parallel from climate change negotiations, the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) ensured that that global constraints and changing realities were not hindrances for those nations that were still awaiting the flight of their destinies. A similar framework needs to be envisaged today as the global debate on the ‘Future of Work’ evolves to define ‘inclusive’ workplaces in the new age context.
While critics may discredit such efforts to refine the definition of inclusive as semantics, it is a starting point. Hasn’t the turf war on the word ‘mankind’ versus the more inclusive ‘humankind’ that started in the 20th century and which continues even today (remember Justin Trudeau’s theatrical ‘peoplekind’ some time back) contributed to the women’s’ movement? And as the future beckons, the reality will go beyond biological beings as we know it. It may well be the death of the metanarrative as a fragmented reality emerges. Simply, that may translate into a longer drop-down on identity documents beyond the conventional ‘he’ or ‘she’. But a more comprehensive outlook would entail men, women, systems, machines and the environment forming a cohesive ecosystem.
A more dramatic future is proposed by the author of Ascendance (a literary science fiction novel I recently read), who proposes an alternate reality where men and women diverge as antagonistic species for the reproductive link between them is lost. In such a world, men and women cease to have common links and machines are the only companions. Here, perhaps language may get dominated by the species that use it and the binary may be lost in translation. For women, ‘he’ may not exist and vice versa. Whatever shape it may take, change is inevitable. Even the word ‘women’ innately takes into its fold only men and women (Maybe that’s why the author of Ascendance used Gynakae instead of women).
As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, we must brace ourselves for the changing meaning of ‘women’. It is about equality and equity, empowerment and upliftment, opportunity and choice. As our landscape evolves, we will have to be accommodative, compassionate and inclusive, not because we are ‘women’, but because the future tide should not rise to the advantage of a select few like it did in the past. Come March 31, we will celebrate International Transgender Day. What will be celebrating in the Aprils and Mays to come, you may ask? Your guess is as good as mine. For now, I must return to Opportunity’s obituary.