Last month, I interviewed a young girl who told me how passionately she wants to write. Her resume showed an Economics degree and I idly asked why she had not picked Literature instead. She had an outrageous story to tell. Apparently, she had stepped out for some photocopies and her father had simply changed her choice to Economics in the college application form. She found out much later, when the admission came through.
Perhaps he did it because matrimonial ads tell you specifically what kind of girls men want: Govt. or Bank employee. BTech or MTech girl below 24. Educated, working girl. Good looking Professional or Medico bride. Or perhaps he did it because that’s what Indian fathers imagine they must do – ‘manage’ their children’s lives.
Either way, what’s interesting is that even if some of our girls and women have finally won the right to study, what they are still far from winning is real control over their life choices.
When women fought for the freedom to step out of their homes to work or study, what they were asking for was the freedom of choice. They wanted to choose what they wanted to do with their lives. Instead, what they got was another variant of patriarchal manipulation that still serves men. It’s no longer enough to just be a “talented, fair girl from decent family”, she must also be a bank employee or BTech. One male friend even said that he wants his wife to work so that she would “stay out of his hair”.
The compulsion is no longer about forcing the woman to stay home; it is to provide that second income. Even as the compulsion continues to bear children, rear them, and do everything else — the cooking, washing and wiping up when the children (or drunk husband) puke all over the floor.
The pressure to be wage-earner is huge. I know a woman, a talented graphic designer with two young children and a husband who travels incessantly on work. She runs a small now-on, now-off business from home. All her female friends have 9-5 jobs. So disturbing is the subliminal societal and peer perception of homemakers that this successful mother, wife and human being often suffers from clinical depression.
In an ideal world, life choices would be available equally to both men and the women. Like my friend Sathya, who opted to work from home when his sons were young because his wife, an airhostess, had to fly out of the country many days a week. This liberty to all genders to interchange roles is what we fought for; not for another rigid recasting of roles.
Last week, I was in a village near Madurantakam where I met the newly married wife of the young Panchayat thalaivar, a pretty and smart lab technician. I asked if she had found a job yet near her new home. Before she could reply, her husband said: “She has been working seven-day weeks for many years, ma’am. She wants to stay at home now, take a break.” Unselfconscious, untrammelled by role expectations — these two were more avant garde than many of their urban counterparts.