The State of Women in India@75

Having just written about India on the occasion of our 75th Independence Day, I thought I’d also reflect on the state of women in this country, 75 years after we won independence. And because I have just completed 60 years of my life, perhaps a good way to start this discussion is to look at women in my own family and see how much progress, if any, has been made.

Looking at three generations of women in my own family, let me start with my grandmothers, who were young women when India was fighting for her freedom from British rule. My father’s mother, Lakshmi, as I have written in an earlier post, spent her early years of childhood in Burma, where her father was posted in the Indian postal service. She went to school there and thanks to having lived some years of her life in the east, she picked up Hindi and English in addition to knowing Malayalam and Tamil. While her knowledge of Hindi was only of the spoken language, she could read English and even well into my childhood in Assam and in Delhi, she would read the daily English newspaper.

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Alamelu, lived her entire life in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, stepping out of the south only when she came to live with us in Guwahati, after my grandfather died. She couldn’t speak or understand any language other than Malayalam and Tamil, and she would read magazines in both these languages. Both my grandmothers only completed school education and as was the practice those days, married as soon as they were out of school and had children very early as well. That said, my father’s mother had a much better understanding and knowledge of what was going on in India and around the world, because the English newspaper was her window to that world. Later, she would also watch news on TV, both in English and in Tamil and Malayalam. My mum’s mum, though, thanks to a few years she spent with her uncle in Coimbatore, learnt how to play badminton, softball, carrom and draughts (a game played on a chess board with carrom pieces) at the local club, and in fact, taught me how to play the latter two when I was a kid, way back when in Assam.

Three generations of women in the Sundaram family with my father; Sitting (L-R): My mum, Shantha, her mum, Alamelu, Dad’s mum, Lakshmi; Standing (L-R) I, my younger sister, Bhavani along with our father, M A Sundaram

My grandmothers married men who were in professional service; dad’s mum to an IPS officer, and mum’s mum to a doctor. From what I have heard of their lives, their husbands were thorough professionals and spent little of their time on home and family. They were not who you’d call domesticated family men, but were not inconsiderate either, so thank goodness for small mercies. My father has no sisters, so let’s go straight to my mum, Shantha. As I have written last year about her in quite some detail, let me just add that she was so fortunate and privileged to belong to the first generation of women to have completed a college education in our family. She did work too, but only very briefly, as a demonstrator in the chemistry lab in the same college where she finished her degree from.

I can’t help but think that she would have loved to continue working, but suddenly had the additional responsibilities of caring for the grannies, besides raising my younger sister and me. This is where I feel that even with the education she had, she didn’t get to make the life choices she would have liked, especially on pursuing a career. My father and his parents would have been the last people to stop her, if she had decided to continue working. So, what stopped her?

Nothing in particular really, except for being overwhelmed by the huge family responsibilities, very early into her marriage. And, I’d add the lack of a burning ambition, enough to outweigh the other responsibilities. Perhaps she didn’t even give it a second thought then, but I remember her telling me years later how she regretted not having pursued a career and how I should strive for higher goals when it came to my work.

This is what I think women ought to deliberately cultivate and nurture: an ambition to excel in an area of work and make a career out of it. This is what we don’t do enough of, and give up too easily for the comfort of our husbands, in-laws, society, etc. When this is the one area of work, of purpose, of personal goals that can be and is, the woman’s own.

I developed it very early in my life, and it came with my own sense of who I am and my independent spirit. I have my parents to thank for it, of course, raised as I was in a household where I was always surrounded by intellectual stimulation in the form of books, music, cultural interests, travel, and discussions – often arguments too – with my parents and grannies. But my younger sister, Bhavani, is quite different. She never pursued higher studies the way she ought to have, neither did she give any particular area of work enough time and attention to build a career in it. She has worked for many years – off and on – in animal care NGOs, but hasn’t made a full-time career out of it.

Where does that leave us women in our family? Not bad, given the times I am writing about. But not nearly good enough, either. And I alone cannot make up for all the years my mum and grannies lost in terms of their own personal growth. In fact, I have had my career in advertising cut short, just when it ought to have reached its prime, thanks to terrible career moves that I made, including relocating to Chennai from Delhi, where I had worked my entire life.

Now, the problem with looking at the issue of Indian women only from the particular is that it may make some of us comfortable with what we have achieved and prevent us from forging ahead with new ambitions and aspirations. Looking at only the particular – whether it is women in our own family, or successes of women in politics, corporate leadership, scientific endeavour, etc – also prevent us from seeing the larger picture. They obscure the problems that the larger mass of Indian women face, on a day-to-day basis.

In this context, I’d like to mention certain observations that I made while helping Ambience-Darcy Advertising conduct a research project among ordinary middle-class women in Delhi in 2002. It was part of a larger research the agency was conducting, of women across Asia-Pacific to better understand their aspirations.

My art director colleague, Alpna Verma, who accompanied me and did most of the questioning as it was in Hindi, and I spent three days meeting and speaking with a host of women from across Delhi in the privacy of their homes and when their husbands were away at work. I was surprised by the response of these housewives to questions regarding their own aspirations; almost all of them did express a desire to work, even if wistfully, and for a greater say in household matters. From what I recollect of those conversations, it appeared that most decision-making was done by the men of the household, but the women clearly wished for a greater say in decisions and greater consultation. They hardly seemed to have any time for TV or reading, and heard of new products etc from their relatives and friends.

While I came away from each of those discussions feeling sorry for the women, the very fact that they were willing to express their deeply felt aspirations was heartening. It meant that these women, while resigned to their fates, had not given up entirely on what their future might hold. I am not sure what the rest of the APAC research revealed about the aspirations of women, as it would have varied country to country, but the fact that women aspired for better was a positive sign. However, it also made me wonder if all the advertising for FMCG brands meant for this segment of women in India are actually reaching their audience, given how little time they spend watching TV.

Education of girls in India must lead to jobs and careers; Image: Nikhita on Unsplash

What can change the status quo? Obviously more and better education of women, where they learn to question the status quo themselves and want to change it. In much of middle-class India, the kinds of homes one visited, where is there any chance or opportunity for intellectual and cultural growth for women at a personal level? It ought to be the responsibility of media to think harder about this issue and find ways to engage with these women that furthers their personal growth. Provided, of course, that these women can find the time for media consumption in the first place, whether through TV or magazines and newspapers. In the digital age, I think many of these ordinary middle-class women might be on WhatsApp and that would have certainly helped widen their social circle and interactions, as well as widened their horizons, to some extent.

The flip-side of women’s education in India, though, is that it is increasingly a ticket and a passport to marriage, as it increases the value of women in the marriage marketplace. It is not progress, is it, when women have to give up their jobs and careers, the moment they get married? When on the other hand, education ought to give a woman the right to decide her own future, be financially independent and make her own life and career choices.   

Unfortunately, there is growing evidence of women in India dropping out of the workforce as their families do better, since there is no longer the need for a second, supplementary income. It is obviously the men who are deciding these matters, so one wonders if even working women have a greater say at home. Women’s labour force participation rate, as I have written earlier, has fallen to all-time lows in India especially in just the past five years, from 2017 to 2022. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, India’s ranking in closing the gender gap is still near the bottom of the list at 135 out of 146 countries. We lag even farther behind on some parameters such as health and survival, and economic participation and opportunity.

This is where we come to the third challenge regarding women at work. We need to regard women as an essential part of the workforce, contributing to the Indian economy and leading lives of fulfilment and personal growth. Not seeing women only as a second income in the household, and an “assistant” or “support staff” in the office.

This can only come from hiring more women at senior levels in organisations and giving them a chance to lead. Recognising women as equals at the workplace, as colleagues who men can engage in intelligent and serious conversations with about work, is also critical. Unfortunately for men, that also means accepting that sometimes their women colleagues are better managers, better thinkers and better leaders than they are. It means developing a healthy respect for your colleagues, irrespective of their gender.

Need to hire more women in senior roles in India Inc and in organisations; Image: Smartworks on Unsplash

However, hiring more women at senior levels is also a male prerogative, as it is men who dominate most industries and occupy positions of power in most organisations. And I have known certain companies in my industry of advertising and brand communications who hire women for their physical appearances, who they look like, what they wear and who their name also happens to sound like. And unprofessional bosses at such circus-like agencies even think they can meddle and remote-control the lives of women employees long after they have left the organization, as I should know, with Perfect Relations and BBDO India (Chennai).

They have also been trying to make women men, and vice-versa. I can see the same unprofessional idiots trying to make me my father, for example. Besides, they have been cosying up to the government (at all levels), as I have written earlier, in an attempt to cover up their nonsense. In the process, they have even turned the government as well as advertising agencies such as Ogilvy into a circus. And it is important to understand that both these companies, who collectively, have wrecked my career and made life miserable for me and my aged parents for the past 15-18 years are doing so, in order to cover up their egregious acts and unprofessional ways in the first place.

As a woman with over 20 years’ work experience in the advertising and brand communications industry in India (would have been 35-40 years, if such idiot bosses hadn’t wrecked it) I can say with complete certainty that I do not and will not tolerate mansplaining, being talked to badly, being objectified in any way, or even being put on a pedestal and worshipped like a goddess. No, thank you. I also do not tolerate people meddling with my life, work and personal possessions, the way my luggage was meddled with while it was in storage at the packers’ and movers’ warehouse in Chennai for many months in 2004-05.

I would like to be left alone to do my own work, decide my own future career growth and live my own life. As I have said before, I feel terrible about the fact that I have not been able to look after my aged parents and grannies, the way I had intended to. And now that my mum too has passed on (October 2021), I have only my father to care for. The insensitive, unprofessional crooks should learn to leave me alone at least now, for they are not meant to be in the corporate world after all the harm they have done. I will not have anyone wreck my career and then try to hijack it, to suit their purposes. And those incapable of an intelligent discussion on brands, brand strategy and communication ought not to bother me, in any case.

If we are to rise as a country and make progress, and be seen as professionals in our respective fields, we have to realise that we cannot leave half the country behind. In India, we often talk of Bharat being left behind. No, women comprise the half that is being left behind too. On our 75th Independence Day, the Gujarat government announced the remission of 11 convicts who were serving life sentence for raping and murdering seven members of a Muslim family, post the Godhra riots in Gujarat. They have been allowed to walk free after serving only 15 years of a life-sentence for commiting the most heinous crimes possible, putting the life of that lady and her family now in grave danger. This was done because the Supreme Court was hearing an appeal for their remission and simply passed it down to the state government to decide.

And as I know only too well, we have also failed women by destroying their careers, wreaking havoc in their lives and leaving them out of the country’s growth story.                   

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