WHILE we at GiveIndia were in the process of making this film to mark International Women’s Day and listening to what women from all walks of life had to say about what equality means to them – I too asked myself the same question. Women make up half the world’s population, but do we feel like the equal half? The answer is obviously no.
So I looked into my own small, privileged world to ask why.
I consider my upbringing to have been a fairly liberal one. Though my father belonged to a conservative Bengali Brahmin joint family, he was the black sheep having gone to the UK in the 1950s to study art for god’s sake (sure path to penury) and then marrying a ‘foreigner’ who came back and made India her home.
Perhaps the first time I consciously felt discriminated against was when my Enid Blyton fuelled Malory Towers dream didn’t happen. My older brother and boy cousins – who were also my playmates – were barely 10 years old when they were sent off to boarding school in Darjeeling, then an idyllic hill station, but not me.
During their long winter breaks they were not only spoilt rotten by the family but all their tales of dormitories, bunk beds, matrons, tuck and sneaky midnight parties had me longing to belong, to be a ‘boarder’. But it was a firm no from my folks – I was a girl after all, about to hit puberty and this was a mixed school.
Another ridiculous incident brought it home. I was a college-going teenager, it was dusk and I had gone into the bathroom to take a shower. As soon as I stepped under the faucet to turn the water on, one large, fat cockroach seemed to appear out of nowhere just near the drain, waving its antennae menacingly at me. I shrieked. I was already undressed, my clothes now damp on the floor, so I wrapped a towel around me, opened the door and screamed for my dad repeatedly.
He rushed to my aid, as you can imagine, thinking it was an emergency of some sort. When I told him he had to save me from an insect the size of my toe, he was more than annoyed. But this is what he said, and herein his illogical approach to my girlhood: “You go out and come back home late at night (read sundown) and you aren’t scared of that (referring to my history of being eve-teased on the walk from the bus stop to our gate). But a cockroach…!”
Then again, aged 21, I was off to London on a one-way ticket my English mother had presented me with – go check out half your heritage, she said. A couple of months before my departure, Baba had a ‘talk’ with me – he was sheepish but serious. There was a ‘boy’ he said, in England, the son of someone known to someone he knows, who was looking for a wife from India – and would I agree to meet this ‘boy’!
I told him that any ‘boy’, living abroad who had asked his mother to look for a bride for him wasn’t looking for a girl like me. Baba said he’d give me two months to think about it. I was aghast. I told him time wouldn’t change my mind and thought that was that.
But no. Two months almost to the day, he asked what my decision was. I melted, I loved my father, so I gave in and agreed to meet the ‘boy’. But added that if I was to consider a stranger as a life partner, I would have to tell him my entire history, geography, biology, etc – and then check if we had any chemistry. OK, I didn’t quite put it like that to Baba but it was enough for him to give up on his barking idea – and off I went to London, without any chains.
Later in life, as a married mum of two young daughters, I had applied for a job in one of India’s leading media houses. If I got the job, we would move from Kolkata to New Delhi. At the interview – a panel of four or six men, I forget – I was asked what sort of remuneration I expected. When I named my figure – a grand ₹10,000 – the HR guy asked why I expected so much. So I diligently, but stupidly, gave him my budget for rent, children’s school fees, blah, blah. He cut me short with: “What about your husband? What does he do?”
“If I were a man, would you be asking me what my wife does?” I blurted, thinking that’s it, there goes the job, but did I care? Why was my salary being decided according to what my husband earns? To finish the tale – I got the job but not the pay packet I wanted, needed.
These are just a few lighthearted instances of how inequality and gender bias creep in even among the most woke, educated people. It’s a conditioning that will take millennia to break. But there is no reason why we should not keep pointing it out and chipping away at it 🙂