In July 2014, Airtel released a TV commercial 'Boss' which created quite a media storm. I wrote parts of this blog back then and am revisiting those thoughts today, in response to a very well-written blog by a fellow HuffPost blogger on why Indian women have jobs but no career.
Those who have not seen the Airtel ad or have forgotten it, it was about a lady boss who assigns a lot of work and a tight deadline to her male subordinate and goes home to cook dinner for her husband. In the final shot, it is revealed that the same male subordinate is actually her husband.
An Indian woman shown as her husband's boss at work was phenomenal. It was certainly quite progressive even by the western feminism standards. But it also had some deep-rooted problems. It reflected a half-baked understanding of gender equality which we are witnessing today. Modern Indian women have come halfway to gender equality and have rather strange aspirations as to their gender's performance, which only reinforce gender norms and hierarchy. And that explains why they have stunted career goals and easily give up professional life for the sake of home.
A section of young Indian women today are no longer bound by gender norms, they are bravely and confidently stepping out of the confines of four walls and entering men's world, taking up traditional men's role and proving themselves to be even more successful.
But men are not taking the traditional roles played by women, are they?
We encouraged and enabled girls to come out of the kitchen but we didn't inform boys about the importance of entering the kitchen. Modern parents raise their daughters as sons, modern women aspire to be the 'son' of the family. But men don't aspire to be the 'daughter' of the family. So while we have more and more working wives, we still think stay-at-home husbands are a shameful lot, living off their wife's money. We applaud masculine qualities in a female police officer and call her Mardaani, but we would be horrified at the idea of our mainstream hero wearing saris and jewelry. If I get a toy gun or a bike or GI Joe for a little girl as birthday present it will be appreciated but if I get a Barbie doll and kitchen set for a young boy, his parents would probably freak out and never invite me to another birthday party.
While every individual has the right to work and pursue professional goals in theory, in practicality, there may arise situations where giving up a career for babies becomes imperative. In such situations, it's always the woman who quits, particularly if both were earning equally. If the wife earns more, she may continue for the sake of money, but the moment the husband finds a good job paying either equal or better, she'd quit. Who would sacrifice their career is decided by gender and not merit. Though money often trumps gender.
Modern Indian women's aspirations are not to shed traditional gender roles but to acquire new un-gendered roles. So while women are working and perhaps taking higher position than their husbands, they are still cooking because that remains their domain and that is their expression of love and care. And men continue to stick to their traditional roles with no sense of urgency to share household responsibilities.
A modern patriarchal narrative and a new gender construct
To add to their confusion is the modern patriarchal narrative that puts pressure on working women to perform both traditional gender roles assigned by the society and the new roles taken up by them out of free choice by inculcating in them a false glorified sense of being able to multi-task and balance the two. Images of woman with multiple hands à la Goddess Durga with mobile phone, laptop in one and cooking utensils, baby, baby products, books in other hands are often circulated through social networks to enforce this new gender construct - women are simply better at multi-tasking.
This new gender construct is being instilled in young woman's mind in every possible way at school, home, workplace. Take a look at any TV commercial trying to show gender equality, you would have a smart independent woman who is managing both home and work and is being rewarded for such capabilities. TV serials like Tomaye Amaye Mile (Bengali adaptation of Diya Aur Bati Hum) is built upon this construct, an intelligent and brave female IPS officer is constantly asked by her mother-in-law to prove her worth as the 'Bahu' of the family by performing her household duties, "If she can cook the special meal well, then I would forgive her coming late from work," declares the mother-in-law. All the drama and crisis in the protagonist's life is related to her being torn between her demanding work as an IPS officer and her role as a wife and daughter-in-law. She is shown to feel guilty and have self-doubt, she questions herself, "Am I really so incapable? Am I losing this battle." All ends well though when she passes her mother-in-law's tests and proves to herself and everybody else, "yes indeed, she is special, yes she can (manage both)."
Yet another modern patriarchal gender construct is that she is educated and independent, so she is better at her gender's roles. She is a doctor as well as a mother so she knows what's best for babies; she is smart and tough, that's why she can train her children well; she is smart enough to know what to eat at breakfast so that she can keep her cool when her husband can't find his socks; she doesn't worry about washing clothes because she has smart technology and knows how to use it...the list goes on.
Modern Indian women aspire for these images and work hard to live up to these expectations. They try to perform both their professional duties and household chores with a sense of pride and achievement because they have been made to believe that only very special women can achieve this feat.
(Why, in the history of humankind, were men never asked to aspire for this? Why were they never told that no matter how tired you are from work, you must come home and cook or do the laundry or the dishes. If you don't do that you are a bad husband. It doesn't matter what you achieve in your work sphere, if you can't cook well for your wife and handle your baby you are a bad father? Men don't have the pressure to prove that they are good husband or father by cooking and cleaning, their worth is proven by their ability to provide. This mindset hasn't changed much even though today women can also be the provider.)
This ability to balance it all is also how modern women are being judged as a good mother, a good wife. As Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo worries,
"...if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure"
Every woman need not worry about being a good mother. She may just deliver the baby and leave the nurturing, caring and upbringing part to the man while she focuses on her work, particularly when she is the CEO of one of world's biggest companies.
But no, that is too much of radical men-hating, family-breaking feminism we are talking about. Women must still do the care and nurture part because that's how nature designed them. Nature made men and women different to play different roles and any woman who neglects this natural duty is a bad mother. You might be a CEO, but you are a bad mother.
Suppose a woman hates doing household chores, is a terrible cook, and totally sucks at baby care and her husband, out of his own choice and love for wife does all the household chores and also handles the babies. What would such a woman be called by the society? She would be judged and reprimanded. And even though her husband takes up household chores out of his free choice, society would presume he has to do it because his wife is useless.
Putting the problem in simple metaphor, modern Indian women are stepping up the ladder to reach where men are. Men are neither stepping down nor letting go of the ladder. True gender equality would be when we completely destroy the ladder - the gender hierarchy and hetero-normative gender binary.