India is in the middle of an independence movement. For women.
As the country marches forward with high economic growth rates, millions of women in cities have come out of their homes. They go to colleges, universities, IITs and IIMs. They can be seen on the streets, in buses, metros, offices, malls, movie halls, coffee shops, pubs and in Parliament. They drive scooters, cars, airplanes and fighter jets. They are employed in large numbers. They are government officials, entrepreneurs, scientists, and wrestlers.
Yet, while it is deeply satisfying to focus on the outer independence movement of women – we can count the changes – this approach is also flawed and, worse, diversionary. Just because women are visible, it does not mean that they are not invisible at the same time.
I hadn’t always felt this way. One afternoon a few years ago I gave a talk to young women and men at the renowned St Stephen’s College in Delhi. As a social scientist, I was looking forward to getting a sense of the changing lives of young Indian women. But that’s not what I heard.
One young woman said her seven-year-old niece who loves chocolates gave her only piece of chocolate, without being asked, to her nine-year-old cousin brother when he demanded more than his share. The reverse never happened. Nor was it expected. The definitions of a woman given by some of the brightest male and female students in the country dripped with words like ‘nice, caring, compromising’.
The discussion led to more questions in my mind, which led to over three years of extensive interviews with middle-class Indian women in our metros and finally my book, Chup. What I heard women say was disturbing. Over and over I would shake my head in disbelief that yet another intelligent and smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom was so unsure of herself. Or that she sounded, after the obligatory gender equality claims and sometimes passionate lecture, like her mother would have sounded thirty or forty years ago.
Based on the thousands of hours of listening to girls, boys, women and men, I came to a startling conclusion. Our culture trains women not to exist. Being a woman is itself taboo. Not allowed. One way of ensuring that women do not exist is to kill them. A safer and less crude way is to train women to disappear.
I found that girls are trained in seven cultural habits of non-existence and these show in their everyday behaviors. These are:
Deny the body
Most women, an astonishing 90% I spoke to, disliked their bodies. Since the physical evidence of bodies cannot be eliminated completely, women are trained to shrink and contract their bodies. Payal, 23, says, ‘My mother sometimes asks me to walk “posturing down” so that my breast area is not the area of focus for strangers.’
Women were taught from an early age that to speak softly and gently were feminine qualities, and were scolded and punished for being loud. Naturally, if you can’t speak, it follows that you can never argue, or reason, and if you do so you are labeled a problem, difficult, domineering and ill-mannered.
Thoughtfulness and a self-sacrificial attitude were deeply ingrained in the women I spoke to, like the little girl who gave her only piece of chocolate to her cousin brother. Namrata, 30, like many others, said her goal in life was to ‘always satisfy others and give them no opportunity to complain’.
Deny your sexuality
The need to please often led to complicated sexual behaviors where many of the girls didn’t think enough about their own pleasure or agency even as they had more sex than their parents. For many young women, it was easier to have sex than to deny their boyfriends.
Women are trained not to trust other women and to perceive them as mean, jealous, competitive and unable to keep secrets. During the three years of research, I found that women talked down other women and rated men higher on just about everything, including their ‘cool quotient’ and their ability to have fun and keep women’s secrets.
Have no individual identity
Women lose whatever sense of self they have under the weight of long lists of adjectives ascribed to them. Muskan, only 15, had a long list of behaviors expected of girls: be self-respecting, kind, gentle, polite, loving, caring, truthful and obedient, respect elders, help everyone unconditionally …
And lastly, be dependent
Fear of being alone and dependent, especially on men, keeps a system of male superiority ticking. Women who are afraid need male protectors.
It is deep training in these habits that makes so many women feminists in belief but not in behavior. Feminists with bad habits. These habits are not personal. But each woman thinks she is alone, she is the only one, and so she hides. When ten women are apologetic, it may be personal. But when hundreds and thousands of women are constantly afraid and apologetic, it is no longer personal. It is systemic.
The old explanation for gender inequality is patriarchy. This concept serves to highlight systemic bias against women, but it has been so overused it has become flaccid – it merely stops the conversation and, thereby, action. In addition, it blames men, without whose participation a change in gender relations cannot happen.
We need new ideas. We need our behaviors and our thinking to catch up with our new dress codes and lifestyles. It’s time we looked in the mirror, looked at ourselves for who we are – and take a step towards real, meaningful change.
Dr. Deepa Narayan is an international poverty, gender, and development adviser who has worked at the World Bank, the United Nations and in the non-governmental sector. She was a senior adviser in the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management group of the World Bank from 2003 to 2008. Her groundbreaking ‘Voices of the Poor’ studies brought together the experiences of 60,000 poor women and men from 60 countries to re-examine our core assumptions about the experience of poverty. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Dr. Narayan one of 100 most influential global thinkers. India Today named Dr. Narayan one of India’s 35 Great Thinkers. She has authored or co-authored seventeen books. You can read her book Chup here.