Last year according to a certain report, India was ranked as the worst country in which to be a woman, beating nations like Saudi Arabia (where women are prohibited to drive). It should have been easy for me to dismiss that statistic as bizarre. After all, I am in a way the face of the urban woman in “new India” – the one who had access to equal opportunities all her life, is financially independent and works for a multi-national company in the busiest part of town. I wear the clothes I choose for myself, hang out in the company I enjoy and pay for my own luxury. In theory, I should be the last person to agree with a statistic that represents our sorry state of affairs, and yet, as someone who has had a far better life than some other women in our country, I know that those numbers only confirm what we have known all along across the rural and urban landscape of India.
I am not even going to reiterate the brutal rapes, the attitude of the rapists or men in general and the safety of women on the streets and at home. Those are the things the world knows and reads in papers every day. But here is some truth about the India I have known and seen (and this is in no way all-inclusive of the struggles that women in India fight against all their lives), that rarely makes it to the headlines.
Life as a girl was great, up until school, when neither our middle class homes nor our neighborhood schools prevented us from dreaming. No one spoke of any disadvantages we would have as women in the world as we grew up. We competed with the boys for better grades, debated with them passionately on world issues, and coexisted oblivious to our roles as representatives of a particular gender, knowing them only as friends, crushes or competition but never the superior sex. We were showered and smothered with love at home, enough to drive our brothers crazy. The newspapers confirmed year after year, that the girls fared better than the boys in the national board exams. Our future looked bright; nothing was going to stop us we promised our naïve selves – not marriage, not children, nothing.
In my early twenties, some of my ambitious, brightest friends succumbed to pressure and got married, negating the powers of their prestigious degrees. Of course, there was nothing wrong with that, except that I know many of them would have wanted a career instead. However, a majority of us with progressive parents still had the freedom to battle for scholarships and pursue higher education, careers and an independent life. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I fully began to grasp the grimness of reality my predecessors have been fighting against. As I lost my naiveté, I began to see through the masks of “urban India” where gender inequality persists, albeit in a mutated form. A friend of a guy I was once dating questioned him (in my presence) as to how he was going to “deal with” an ambitious girl like me. These were two men with similar backgrounds as mine and poorer grades. It was the first time I realized that accomplishments could also be read as threats and ambition was a ‘bad word’ for a woman.
When it came to matters of marriage, smartest of women, with enviable careers and salary packages are expected to be the “ideal” daughter-in-law (read to not have an opinion or a voice). Irrespective of their illustrious educational backgrounds (sometimes more accomplished than their husbands), their parents are still expected to pay for the elaborate wedding and for the guests the groom’s parents want to host in most cases. In some cases, they are also expected to give lavish gifts as they deem “fitting” for the comfort of their daughter in her future house (A house to which she would also contribute a monthly income thereon). The traditional ‘dowry’ system, twisted to a more acceptable (read legal) norm.
These parents who brought up their daughter to fend for herself, who never once thought of themselves as disadvantaged for having a girl child, who applauded her every achievement, compromised their lifestyle and took loans to let her have the best of what the world had to offer. After 25 odd years of having fought inequality, they succumb to an act that single-handedly explains the alarming number of female foeticide in India. These parents have to then gently explain to their very furious daughters that “Beta, aisa hi hota hai” (This is how it is) and shatter her conditioning from thus far, because getting married is her “good fortune” and it comes at a price. During the time that I was single (sorry, I mean Unmarried) in my late twenties, my parents received unsolicited advice from all quarters. People questioned their upbringing for not thwarting my opinions early on, for providing too much exposure and not calibrating my expectations of men in India or lower my standard for a life partner. Because in India being an unmarried woman in your thirties is the only thing worse than dying.
I wish I could say that gender inequality doesn’t affect me in my air-conditioned office or in my posh neighbourhood. I wish I could say that I haven’t known rich educated Indians kill their female foetuses. I wish I didn’t know of women whose sartorial choices are made by their in-laws. I wish I could say I don’t know of incidents of sexist remarks at workplaces. I wish I didn’t know women still making far more sacrifices in their relationships and marriages. I wish I could say “But I give you enough freedom, you should consider yourself lucky” are not the words men in India tell their wives. I wish I could say that I want to raise a daughter in India and give her the freedom that I was promised. But sadly, I know better.
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