Debating India




Saturday 15 November 2003, by DEB*Sandipan

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 24 novembre 2003.

How liberated is the Urban Indian Woman? She is at five stages in the journey to the destination.

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Who is she? What is she in the early mornings, when she stretches her arms with a sleepy half-smile to prepare for another day? Who is she in the night side of her mind? When she looks down at her lap, the naked bulb above drawing long spears on her cheeks with the shadows of her eyelashes? Who is she, when alone in an elevator buzzing up the shaft, where no one can see or hear her? When her body shudders in the arms of her man? And then, when she curls up and snuggles into his chest?

Data is clay. Masses of gunk in which hide the secret shapes of sculptures. Like she lay concealed among the endless ticks in ’relevant boxes’ in 1,086 questionnaires collated from 10 Indian cities. We went looking for her cryptic contours in her to-the-naked-eye random responses. We searched for her in the blinking numbers laid out on unwaveringly gridded spreadsheets. We found her.

We found five of her.

At the cusp of the millennia, XX chromosomes seem to be cleaving five ways in urban India. And, as befits India, the two ends of her spectrum are more different from each other than a Mizo is from a Malayali. Yet, like the Mizo and the Malayali, the five women also form a continuum, a flowing river of attitudes and values.

Here she is then, her five faces in the mirror.

The Conservative

The Conservative does not believe that women are more comfortable with their sexuality than they were five years ago. That is, nothing for her has changed. Indeed, in many ways, the Conservative is dramatically different from her four sisters. When asked if it is all right for a woman to plan an independent holiday, only 23 of the Conservatives would agree, as opposed to more than 70 per cent of all the other women. More than 60 per cent of the other four types of women believe they need some time off once in a while from their families. The figure for the Conservative: 23 per cent.

She leaves the management of her money to the male members of her family, would hardly ever use a different toothpaste from her husband, does not believe that men should share household chores and responsibilities with the women (more than 70 per cent of her sisters feel otherwise). Not too many of the Conservatives even think that a woman has a right to her father’s property, or that eve-teasing should be reported to the police! She is against women marrying younger men, and not comfortable with the idea of a woman choosing to divorce her husband to marry another man. Yet, as many of the Conservatives visit the beauty parlour as do the others!

The Conservative’s mean scores on most of the questions hover between 5 and 6 on a 10-point scale. Which could only mean that she does not have much of an opinion on most of the issues being probed. She seems an unquestioning receptacle of hand-me-down male shibboleths, loyal to ideals that would make a lot of Indian men very happy indeed.

Yet, somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows all is not all right. While more than 70 per cent of her sisters believe that families today welcome the arrival of a girl child, only 30 per cent of the Conservatives assent. In this discomfort could lie the seeds of the questions she could start asking in the near future. And stop being taken for granted.

The Beginner

Unlike the Conservative, the Beginner has at least begun to have some doubts.She is still capable of being shocked by the idea of a woman overtly pursuing a man she is attracted to, and cannot dream of making love to her betrothed before the wedding night, would not think of an intimate relationship with another man even if she is in an unhappy marital situation, but in some low-resistance areas away from her sexuality, she is beginning to assert herself.She does not believe that ambitious career women are selfish, and is even coming round to the view that women from financially well-off families could still want to have a job. She wants time off to herself once in a while from her family, could be using a different toothpaste or soap from her husband, and strongly believes that married men should equally share the household chores with their wives.

But these are just her first faltering steps. Only 23 per cent of the Beginners think it is all right for a single working woman to go out and party with her male colleagues after work hours. And only 30 per cent believe that a woman has a right to divorce her husband to marry another man she finds desirable, while 60 per cent feel a woman should get married before she is 30. Seventy-nine per cent of the Beginners are also firm believers in the old dictum that sacrifice for the family is a mother’s greatest virtue.

But it is clear from her somewhat equivocal responses that unlike her more hidebound Conservative counterpart, she has begun to raise her eyebrows at some of the subtle assumptions-which a patriarchal society made on her behalf without waiting for her to cast her vote. She has started her journey.

The Traditional Modernist

She has crossed the threshold into that space deep inside her which is hers alone, where no man has the right of entry. Sixty-nine per cent of the Traditional Modernists are much more comfortable with their sexuality than they were five years ago. Seventy-five per cent of them agree that in a man-woman relationship sex can be as important for a woman as it is for the man. About 68 per cent of them are now quite willing to demand that their men satisfy their sexual fantasies. But live-in relationships are a strict no-no, and there’s no way she will walk out of an unhappy marriage into a better man’s arms. In fact, only 17 per cent of them believe that a woman could even be attracted to a man other than her husband.

If she is a working woman, there’s no way she is going to take a job that is not nicely 9 to 5, or which could require any travelling. She frowns on professions like films and fashion modelling, and is not comfortable with a working woman going out with her colleagues after a day in office.

In a way, the Traditional Modernist is making many more choices than any of her four sisters. The Conservative is not making any, the Beginner is just starting to grope at alternative scenarios, the Cautious Adventuress’ worldview is more well-formed, and the Frontierswoman has created her special spaces where she is comfortable with who and what she is. But the Traditional Modernist seems plagued by conflicting ideas. She is very clear that her career is a distant second to the needs of her family, yet would not call an ambitious working woman "selfish". Fifty-four per cent of the Traditional Modernists think that women should get married only after they start working and gain financial independence, but 83 per cent of them also want women to be married before they are 30.

Perhaps nothing indicates her dilemma more than the response to the question whether men have been able to keep pace with the new emancipated woman. Fifty per cent of the Traditional Modernists thought men had coped, 50 per cent did not. She is halfway up the ladder.

The Cautious Adventuress

She has thought a lot of things through, jettisoned much of the baggage she inherited. Only 32 per cent of the Cautious Adventuresses believe that a woman’s career is second to the needs of her family, and only four per cent think that an ambitious careerista is "selfish". She finds nothing disreputable about joining the films or being a fashion model, professions where the body is key.

The Cautious Adventuress is convinced that a woman and not her family has the right to choose her husband, that a woman should have a right to her father’s property, that working mothers who leave their children at home with maids, or in-laws, or in creches are not selfish. That a mother’s needs are as important as the needs of her family, that looking good is hardly the prerogative of the young alone. But there’s one door in her head that she has only half-opened. She is at the doorsill, peering timidly in.

At what is possible for her sexuality. Though she is far more comfortable with her sexuality than she was five years ago, considers sex as important for herself as for her man, demands that her man satisfy her sexual fantasies, that’s about how far she goes. She has circumscribed her sexuality totally in terms of matrimony. She thoroughly disapproves of pre-marital sex, even with the man she is engaged to, and is deeply suspicious of live-in relationships. An impotent husband, a sexually unresponsive spouse, an unhappy marriage-none of these is reason enough for her to seek pleasure elsewhere. Then she seemingly contradicts herself when she firmly expresses her view that a woman who’s married more than twice is not immoral.

She still has a few conflicts to resolve before she blooms in the fullness of her femininity.

The Frontierswoman

The first quality of hers that struck us as we looked at her responses to our questionnaire is that she knows her mind. Unlike any of the others, nearly all her average ’agreement scores’ to the statements presented to her are above 7.5 on a scale of 10. When she agrees, she agrees wholeheartedly. And when she disagrees, she rejects outright. Thus, whenever she has differed from the view expressed in the questionnaire, her average score has fallen to below three. No middle-of-the-road 5s and 6s for her. "On the other hand" is not a phrase to be found in her dictionary.

She is comfortable with her sexuality, is willing to openly pursue any man she is attracted to, thinks pre-marital sex is okay, as are live-in relationships. She will not stay locked in an unhappy marriage, and will seek pleasure elsewhere if her husband is sexually unresponsive. And, significantly, she thinks it’s fine for a man too to find solace in another woman’s arms if his wife is frigid.

She sees nothing objectionable about a married working woman having a good time with her male colleagues after work, or a woman marrying a younger man. Much more than any of the others, she believes that being sexy is more than about having a good body.

Yet, she carries some strong family values. She does feel a woman is incomplete till she is a mother (she believes this more strongly than anyone except the Traditional Modernist). Again, it is only the Traditional Modernist who agrees more than her with the idea that a mother’s greatest virtue is the sacrifice she makes for her family (of course, the Frontierswoman also believes very strongly that the mother’s needs are as important as those of her family). Motherhood is truly something she cherishes. She’s even uncomfortable with the thought of leaving her children at home with maids or in-laws when she goes to work.

The Frontierswoman has created her space and that space has rooms, rooms where sexual liberation lives in neighbourly comfort with traditional virtues. Even the pure numbers that our survey has filtered her mind down to cannot hide this woman’s intensity. The Frontierswoman is a wonderfully passionate human being.

And much more than any other woman, she believes that Indian men have not been able to keep pace with her. More than any other woman, she feels that a man can’t handle a wife who earns more than him, that he is uncomfortable reporting to a woman at work. It is time for the Indian man to adapt to her.

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