Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What happened was that she learnt to walk

I was asked to do piece on urban women's lives in modern India, and how that has changed over a generation, for the Italian version of Marie Claire. The piece appeared in Italian, of course, so I cannot link to the actual beautifully laid-out pages, but here is an English version:

Fifteen years ago, I lived in a tiny place. The only real event there was a fete where we kids took camel rides and ate chocolate cake. My mother had moved from a capital city to the middle of nowhere to work for a school. This immediately made me unique – none of my classmates’ mothers had jobs, nor did they move anywhere independent of their fathers.

I was one of the only single-parented children I knew. Ma was the only woman who wore sleeveless blouses, chiffon sarees and stilettos. She was the only one who had no time to cook. She was also the only one who insisted that each student learn to paint, dance, sew and cook, boys included.

Ma, however, did not make a conscious choice to be a career woman. She had wanted to devote herself to a family. But life doesn’t pan out like a Bollywood film, even if you wear chiffon sarees and stilettos. For women of her generation, a broken marriage meant that life met you like a fist full on the face. Some women lapsed into poverty or dependence. Some, like Ma, caught that fist in both hands and learnt to walk.

Yet I grew up not thinking much about careers. There was a lot of marriage talk amongst girls my age and we took it for granted that it was a boy’s job to provide. I assumed marriage would not be difficult since I had many of the right qualities – neither fat nor thin, fair skin, English-speaking, soft-spoken, ‘convented’, not overly ambitious. It should have made it easy to take a step back from Ma, to live instead like my grandmother. But I had not contended with my own upbringing. Something more powerful than ambition had been embedded in my soul – knowledge that a woman could make her own money, and the love of freedom.

Independence – of thought, action, bank account – is a drug like no other. Even as a teenager, I was independent. I did not know how to ask anyone for money, nor did I like the idea of sticking with a man only because he took care of my bills. So I finally began to think of a career.

Grandma used to say there were only three and a half respectable professions for girls: 1. doctor, because there is no greater thing than to save lives (and there are nurses take care of the truly messy aspects of the job); 2. teacher, because you seem noble even if you are poor; 3. IAS officer, which means you have power and red tape at your disposal along with a big white car with a flashing red light on top.

And there was half an option called engineering. Now it was a great thing to be an engineer – you built bridges and dams, even invented things but grandma knew it was avoidable for a girl to wander in the sun, getting brown, dealing with shady contractors or recalcitrant labourers. But if you were an engineer who just sits in an office and makes plans, it was alright in her book.

Soon, however, it became clear that I was not going to be a doctor, engineer or IAS officer. Nobody suggested that I become an activist or researcher, or work in film or, worse, theatre – that was just madness. Since the only thing I did well was writing, I stooped to a slightly less respectable profession – journalism.
Even after I had my own income, I had minor conflicts at home about the usual things – traveling alone, being out late, boys, living in another city, living alone. But a decade later, everything has changed. Girl cousins and their friends are marketing executives, sound engineers, filmmakers, and radio jockeys. Many of them work in call centres and return home late at night. Some live alone. Every scrap of freedom that I had to fight for has come to these girls on a platter.

This can partly be traced to the mobile phone revolution. Once we were traceable at all times, our families began to relax. We would call home if there was trouble. They could hear our voice and be reassured. Part of the family's anxiety is also soothed by the fact that India has a tradition of earmarking spaces for working women where men are barred, such as women’s only compartment in metro trains and seats on buses. There are women-only travel groups and in some places, separate queues at ticket booking counters.

Some resistance remains, of course, both on social and education fronts. For instance, a cousin was interested in mechanics and wanted to specialize in marine engineering, but she was persuaded by her family to opt for computer engineering instead. They didn’t want her to end up as the only woman on a ship’s crew.
Still, every year, the envelope gets pushed further. When I was little, I didn’t know it was possible to join the army. By the time I graduated, my friends were taking up short service commissions. Now there is talk of allowing women in combat roles. It isn’t just the armed forces or the police that are a viable career option. All it takes is a long walk in any metropolis and you can see working women and feel the shards of shattered glass ceilings. There are female petrol pump attendants, female security guards at shopping malls. In Delhi, I once met a female auto driver who said she picked a legal battle to be allowed into the all-male auto and taxi union. Newspapers are introducing us to women racing car drivers, hiking experts, wrestlers!

But the fact that women have found new careers in the new millennium is not the real good news. The visibility of women at work is. Women with serious economic muscle are still rare. But if they achieve something, they make headlines – being on a list of 100 most influential Indians, being the first woman stockbroker, climbing Mount Everest, creating a bank exclusively for unskilled women, making a fortune out of papads. Such women are a lode star. The rest of us look at them and know that dreaming is not a waste of time.

I still remember the sharp knock of joy I felt as a schoolgirl after athlete PT Usha almost brought home an Olympic medal. It was a heady feeling to know that a woman was not just running to make a career but for the sake of her passion, and for the pride of the whole nation. Now girls like Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal who are regularly in the news for winning tournaments and the fact that they have lucrative careers is not lost upon anyone. At this year’s commonwealth games, women won models in wrestling, athletics, archery, shooting, boxing. Slowly, they are pushing open the heavy doors of our patriarchal hearts. Now it no longer matters so much that sportswomen wear tiny shorts, as long as they bring home great honour.

Successful women change all of us, especially young girls who are struggling to stay in school. For instance, I read recently that a group of teenaged Muslim girls from low income families in Mumbai has taken up semi-professional basketball. For them, sport is a way out of poverty and premature marriage.

Equality is still a distant dream, of course. Even if we do the same work, women don’t always get the same wages. And while it is true that women-only spaces set us free and make us feel safe, most of us think twice before stepping out late at night. Mumbai is considered a safe city for women – thanks to a decent public transport system and crowds that make your head spin at all hours – but most of us constantly worry about being molested on a deserted stretch. In Delhi, still called the ‘rape capital’, women worry unless they drive their own cars or can get someone to drop them home. Things are changing with the introduction of the metro and radio taxis – knowing the identity of the driver beforehand is a relief, and now there are women-only chauffeur services. But we still agonize about safety, about what clothes attract too much attention.

In that respect, one of the most visible changes has been in the way we dress. Most working women have switched to jeans or salwar-kameez, which was once restricted to parts of northern India. Those who claim ‘Indian culture’ is under threat have physically attacked young girls for wearing jeans or skirts (never mind that Indian men have switched to ‘western’ trousers) or for going to pubs. The good news, however, is that many urban working women are starting to go to pubs if they wish to. Attacks are met with howls of protest – quite innovative ones too, such as posting pink panties to the cultural police.

To tell the truth, we would be glad to wear sarees more often if they were easier to handle during commutes. In fact, we look forward to festivals and weddings so we can wear traditional clothes. But perhaps western clothes do mean something more than comfort to the less privileged Indian woman. I used to have a neighbor who said she felt like being clad in nothing but jeans all the way up to her neck! And she would have, if her life was not ruled by a disapproving husband.

An independent income is the first step towards choosing how we dress or live. But it isn’t the last. Single women still find it difficult to rent houses, particularly those who don’t work nine-to-five jobs. Landlords often have strict rules. There are restrictions on male visitors and the ‘cousin-brother’ who comes to visit is an oft-told joke in Delhi. Few women can afford to move out of their homes until their mid-twenties and as long as they stay with the family, there are restrictions on their love life. Even liberal parents usually expect a definite marriage plan, assuming they accept boyfriends in the first place.

On the other hand, I also know many women in their late twenties or thirties who are not married and are refusing to ‘settle’. They focus on their own work and their own pleasure. Besides, once we become independent, we force others to reassess what they can expect from us. This is reflected in the matrimonials (yes, we still have arranged marriages, though now girls often voluntarily join matrimonial websites).

Increasingly, middle and upper class men prefer a career woman as a bride, a qualified professional. Skills like cooking or sewing are not considered essential. This doesn’t translate into gender parity, of course. It is still women who do most of the housework, but most middle class women in India can afford to hire other poorer women to do the harder work. Domestic workers play a big role in setting better educated women free to pursue other professions.

Parents too are changing their attitudes since daughters are taking better care of them. In certain communities, parents would not even eat a meal inside a girls' marital home, and they would never accept money from a daughter. Women of my generation are rejecting this old notion of ‘giving away a daughter’; they don’t stop being daughters when they become wives. Nowadays we even have television advertisements where the daughter is shown driving a family far, or gifting cars to her old parents.

Recently, I had a conversation with an older man who was complaining that modern girls (like me) are not ‘soft’; we are too much like men. I remember thinking at that time that what he really means is that he can no longer talk to us like we’re clueless. He can no longer boast of how hard he fought the outside world, how bravely, while we ‘soft’ women hurry to undo the harsh effects of his big battles.

Sadly for him, I knew all about the big, bad world. And I like a bit of a good fight myself. I too feel the thrill of a new deal or a bonus. I put bread on my own table. I deliver lectures. I report the news and sometimes, I am in the news. Who knows, some day, I might even go wrestling in the mud. Because even though I like my heels to be soft, I like new experiences even more. If I have to choose, I know what I'll pick.

Above all, I like to be my own person, even if it means being tougher, harder, less attractive.

And so I am grateful for a mother who has showed me how to survive as a woman, alone. And it isn't just me who is grateful. Fifteen years later, her ex-students, both girls and boys, call Ma up to tell her that she changed their lives in some way. Perhaps, she did it just by being who she was – a working mom, a beautiful woman, a good teacher who helped them take baby steps towards equality and modernisation.


Chryselle said...

Good one, Annie.

Anonymous said...

i happen to come by this post via a blogger friend and i must say, fabulously written!!
Kudos to your mother!! :)


sakthi said...

I have not read another article recenlty that captures so elegantly how life changed for an Indian urban woman..

"Every scrap of freedom that I had to fight for has come to these girls on a platter.".. I say the same to my mother.. :) ofcourse in not such beautiful workds..

Jai_C said...

very good article. covered a lot of ground in one piece. Good insight about the mobile phones!

Though abt the old uncle-ji:

I'd thought that women who work outside the home would have a greater appreciation for the hardships and battles of that space not less, as compared to women who dont.


Anonymous said...


br said...

loved every bit.. thanks for such a good read.

Deepa said...

Great post.

//I remember thinking at that time that what he really means is that he can no longer talk to us like we’re clueless. // Loved this. :)

Deepa said...

And yes..kudos to your mom.

Kits said...

Gosh, your mom sounds like an amazing woman! Kudos to her!

Lovely read this was.

Anonymous said...

great read - reflects how things get 'easier' for each new generation. also, your piece underlines how different our perspectives of feminism can be from the West. Women only spaces, including girls schools and colleges are not regressive at all - in fact, like you pointed out, they allow for all kinds of freedoms to our women.

Smriti Ravindra said...

gosh, how did i miss this? This was a lovely read.

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