My town is one of those that counts among one of the most developed ones in India today. With a literacy rate touching more than 95 percent, negligible slums, one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, broad tree lines boulevards, it is comparable to cities in the most developed nations. With an enviable number of educational institutes and a full fledged university with multiple colleges affiliated to it and a very low crime rate, it would seem like the city isn’t far from becoming an example for the rest of the country to follow. Perhaps, if development was measured only by including the male gender, it would qualify easily, but something that seems to be a very glaring discrepancy is the complete lack of ambition among the fairer sex. This is not to say that there are absolutely no career oriented women in my town. This simply means that for such a high level of development indicators and with almost cent per cent women completing their graduation either in town or in other cities or even abroad, the number of women who go on to have successful careers or even start out to have one is abysmally low.
If you were to ask a woman in my town on whether she felt any sort of discrimination or lack of access, you would meet with a resounding no. And this, according to me is the most dangerous sort of discrimination where those experiencing it have made it such a normal and expected part of their existence that they fail to even see or realize it. This is because in theory, they do have access to everything. As most of them come from the upper middle class there is no lack of money for shopping for luxurious brands or making foreign trips. There is also no lack of freedom as most of them come from families that would not think twice about sending them for a vacation abroad with their friends in their early twenties. But then hits the marriageable age when they are ideally supposed to settle down. Even girls who have been working abroad for a few years after having completed their studies simply abandon their careers and come back home to settle down to domestic bliss, where they become the supposedly beloved daughter in law of a new family that is almost like a clone of her original family with the lives of their daughters mirroring their own. There are plenty of distractions at this time with a lot of planning involved in having a wedding that outshines that of others that took place before them and a tizzy of social events begins that rivals the grand 3D parties in “The Great Gatsby”.
If you were to visit my town, you would feel that my fears of this sort of discrimination have no basis as you would never see any parents telling their daughters off for having a career or any prospective in-laws forbidding them from working. However, if you were to stay and have a deeper look, you would see that very subtle forces are at work to wean a girl away from having any sort of independent existence and encourage her to become a cog in the family machine. Firstly, there is an absolute lack of role models in the immediate community that can be looked upto as career women or women in their own right. Even if there are headstrong women or seemingly independent women, they are simply so in the domain of their home and outside of the home, it is the man who is seen as the superior entity running the household. Women who have grown up on family money take very easily to now living off their husbands as they have never experienced any sort of monetary independence in their lives and so do not seem to know how liberating it is to be master of your own destiny instead of living for somebody else. I suspect it is not entirely the parents’ fault here as they simply wish to give their daughters comfortable lives free from hard work. But, what builds character and stands one in good stead is to have a challenge and a struggle and to earn your own livelihood and if this is true for men, it is very much true for women as well who are in no way the weaker sex in today’s world. There is almost a sort of ancient caste system prevailing where the daughters of doctors become doctors and the daughters in business families become housewives just like their mothers and other women in their extended families. It seems like there is no freedom to choose what they want to be, not in the conventional way of being forbidden but of never having been exposed to these ideas.
Apart from parents unconsciously or subconsciously perpetrating these ideas, the messages emanating from popular culture also seem to be that the sole aim of a girl’s life is to find her Mr. Right and everything else will automatically fall in place. There are invisible rules that it is mostly okay to have a boyfriend or two but once some line is crossed and one has had a boyfriend too many or has slept around or partied out a little more than accepted, there is the danger of becoming an outcaste and never being able to marry in town. The only way out for such girls becomes getting married to someone outside the city who does not have much idea about the heady days of the unfortunate girl’s teenage. There are boys who seem to be perfectly fine with girls in short dresses when they are pursuing mindless degrees abroad or getting some “exposure” but once back home become raging patriarchs who forbid their beloved girlfriends from wearing too short a dress or drinking a little more than the permissible amount or even talking too much to a particular guy that she seems to be enjoying a conversation with a little too much at a party. The girls too willingly comply simply because they don’t know any better. This potent mixture of ideas coming in at the time of growing up becomes firmly entrenched in the mind and becomes very difficult to purge even if one travels far and wide in adult life and is exposed to other cultures.
While the men run their family business, the women dream up new ensembles for their next outing and the hair or makeup that they would have to outshine others at the next social event. It becomes quite a full time job to not be seen repeating an outfit and some dexterous mathematics is required to figure out the number of people who would be common in two possible social events so that the same clothes are not repeated. The running to and from boutiques, malls, exhibitions, browsing the internet for a la mode styles, figuring out how to do the latest hairdo from the Game of Thrones, finding matching purses and footwear, getting appointments for facials, it is no less than a full time job, except that it doesn’t pay and simply feeds your false sense of importance and vanity. My town, mind you, is no Saudi Arabia. Women on paper are equal to men according to the codified laws of the land. They go to the same schools and the same expensive colleges abroad, get the same amount of pocket money from their parents and the same amount of freedom to blow up the money, the same night time curfews as the men and the same cars to drive as them. Why then do they become domesticated dolls and men become the breadwinners? At this point in the article, it seems to me time to issue a clarification that I’m no mean feminist of the sort who thinks that a women who doesn’t have a career is a waste of space. On the contrary, I belong to the creed that thinks that everyone should have the freedom of choice. Girls should work if they want or stay at home and mind the children if that’s what gives them joy. Taking care of a house and making it a home is also a full time job and is in no way less important than having a career outside the house. However, what dismays me about the current state of affairs in my town is that if there was actually a freedom of choice and no entrenched attitudes of what a girl should or shouldn’t do, there would be mostly an equal number of women being career women and an equal number who stayed home. A girl growing up would be able to see all sorts of role models around her in her immediate or extended family, a domestic goddess, a restaurant chef, a business owner, a doctor, a bureaucrat, a stylist, a teacher, an artist, a writer, an actress and the list goes on and on. What she sees mostly instead is stylish women clones of each other attending coffee clubs and parties, commenting about who is wearing what, match making the young crowd around them or having an odd glass of wine when feeling particularly rebellious. What you would expect to see with each successive generation is the narrowing of the gap between the way boys and girls live their lives. What you see instead is a repetition of what’s gone in the past perpetuating itself to eternity.