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International Women's Day: All's not well

Kusum Lata Sawhney did a fantastic write up in the Hindu Magazine, Sunday, March 6 2011, weekly edition, to celebrate the 100 years of celebrating womanhood on International Women's day. She wrote about what makes the mother-daughter relationship a truly special one. It evokes memories, brings to light how Indian moms are changing so as to sync with their own pressures, perceived failures and disappointments. She talks about how the values of life have changed. She reveals that today's women want things faster because they are more ambitious for themselves and not necessarily for their family's happiness. Let's face it - our problems as women have more to do with our values and ambitions and less to do with male domination, that we so commonly hear of.

The same author  says, "The issue is not whether we are spoilt or not, but in fact, to understand that we are spoilt and we have to rein it in. ...It was very different before. A generation that was grateful for what they had, working constantly to make it better but realistic enough to know what was possible and what was just a pipe dream."

This is true. I agree. 

Two generations ago, it was unimaginable for daughters to question their mothers. I know this sounds unbelievable but I've never raised my voice to my parents, I have never argued with them and if I ever did, it was always with my sister, never with my parents. Even now, I can not even imagine raising my voice to my parents. It's just the way I am. 

We have come a long way. 

In the days of my grandmother, for instance, it was unthinkable for a "respectable" woman to step outside the house unless she had the protection of her father, brother, husband or son. In many parts of India, this still applies but women in general, from those who work in the fields to those who occupy glamorous jobs, we have traveled a long way and contributed immensely to families we are a part of, societies that have benefited from the work that we do and overall, the nation's growth.

However, all's not well. There are widespread social consequences.

Here are some:


Ask any older generation or contemporary Indian woman what she fears the most - safety would be one of her answers

A friend from Mumbai told me that whenever she travels alone or stays in a hotel alone, she is doubly careful not to mingle with others and she keeps to herself than risk giving the wrong impression that may lead to trouble later on.

A friend of mine, who had worked in a multinational company Bangalore and in other cites, told me that her worst experience was when she worked in Kerala.  As part of marketing, she had to meet affluent clients and most of the time, they made suggestive comments, lewd remarks and insulting gestures. When she complained to her employers, they said its part of life, its part of the profession, they offered no help, assistance, they told her to deal with it because for them,  the affluent clients cannot be lost but they can always get another employee.

In Delhi, if you are working and you are single, the one thing you are alert about 24X7 is how you are perceived by others at the workplace. A majority of working women fear cab drivers particularly if they are traveling on their own.  

We are celebrating Women's Day but the biggest problem affecting Indian women is still safety.

Real Happiness

Today's Indian woman appears happier and more in control of her life than ever before. 

But, is there real satisfaction and real happiness? 
There is a constant pressure that today's Indian woman faces.  The quest for real happiness continues, like an internal struggle for most women. Earlier generations had not pursued this pipe dream and that was their safety net.

For example, a single woman today has to face the pressure of her family and society to get married to a respectable family, not always of her choice but that of her parents. It's not a bad thing but not a great sign of advanced India either.  

A single woman who decides to put off marriage for a later date is subject to the worst kind of moral judging by those around and near her. Her reputation is torn to shreds, forcing her to rethink her decision or risk losing her reputation.

Has any of this changed? Not unless we decide to begin with ourselves.

In the course of my work, I have met several bright, talented young girls from good, educated families who see their work as a temporary phase before marriage and force them to marry against their wishes. Some fight, some give in - but what makes it sad is that the society forces this on some one because of gender, not even giving a voice or choice. The richer and more well settled a girl is, the more of a trade-off her marriage becomes. It's happening today and we all know it but the society keeps mum. We no longer have social reformers with guts to challenge what is happening in the name of family honor and respectability.

Take married women. If they are working, the pressures of doing the balancing act is double the effort, strain and tension. They have to be social and professional multi-tasking robots.  Gradually, they become great at it but at what cost? 

Peace of mind ends up in pieces, tensions spar at work and boomerangs at home because not all women have the ability to segregate what happens in office when they are back at home,  and so many little things like that affect a working woman.

If its not a working woman, the family related worries and pressures take a toll. 

Where is the real happiness in any of this? Happiness in a woman's life becomes fleeting like candy floss.  

But of course, we must celebrate womanhood because we are doing a great deal of amazing things that our grandmothers couldn't imagine and tey would be proud to see us doing it today.

My maternal grandmother did not study at any place but she was a very beautiful and intelligent woman.  She was married off very young and she had children very early in life, perhaps at an age we cannot imagine. 

What I always remember about her was that my grandmother was happy, simple and very spiritual. She took great pride in her family and her children. 

She never cribbed and she was very tolerant about things even if she didn't always agree with them. She never said her life is incomplete because she didn't earn or because she became a widow when she was in her forties.  She took life's twists with complete faith in God. 

I used to jokingly ask her if she would have accepted if her sons had married from another caste or religion and she used to say, "I don't mind at all. What matters is they love each other. I would never never like any of them to marry because the girl's family has money." 

Today's mothers - will they say the same? Time will tell.

When she turned sixty years old, she renounced wearing jewelry and vibrant sarees. She said that she wants to prepare for her death by leading a simple life. It was a choice she made and a bold one because no one liked or approved of it. Today, it is inconceivable to meet a woman like that but in that generation she belonged to, it may not have been a rarity. 

Women like my grandmother saw their family as their wealth.
We, as women, are tied to those whom we love and by destiny. We cannot run away from the children we bore, can we? We cannot and we will not. 

An Indian mother cannot run away from the responsibilities that she holds close to her heart.

Freedom of Choice
There are so many professional, highly competent women who are unable to even exercise choice of clothes that they want to wear because their fathers, husbands or their in laws will not permit it. 

Of course, they won't permit it for fear of how their women are perceived and the safety issue creeps in but even so called contemporary women don't always use the choice of asserting themselves because they know the implications of exercising such real choice would rock a boat that's already dithering in troubled waters.

That brings us to the problem of choice. Indian women, through their journey as girls, brides and mothers, were never given any real choices by the society. They were reined in by the guise of customs, traditions and what not so that they would remain respectable and would uphold the family's honor. 

Many girls in well-to-do families are not given choices because they are seen as chattel. This is true not just in affluent places in Delhi but in several areas in southern India too. 

It's not so different now. I have met many girls who say they chose x profession though what they really wanted to do was painting or modeling or singing or acting, but their families said that would be a disgrace or not socially acceptable, etc.  

We, as women, talk about making choices about our education, marriage and children. How many women really have ownership of making such choices in this country? 

Handful. Maybe less.

Coming back to Kusum Lata Sawhney's cover story in the Hindu, she sums up stating, "A mother may appear cruel but by being honest, she is demonstrating her love. As my mother keeps saying. 'No one else will love you the way I do' and when the child understands that no matter early or late - in those times or these times - it becomes a great source of power and fulfilment. No matter the times we live in."

Proud to be a woman. Happy International Women's Day.


Hi Swapna,

I agree..Thr are lot of problem have been facng by the women..

AT the same time, those problems have been encouraging enough to become more powerful one after the other..

Well written swapna..Thanks for the same.. wll chk out the article by her..
Vidya said…
Wonderful post Swapna! The variables keep changing from generation to generation. Still nothing alters 'safety' conditions!

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