Imperfect analysis

Published : Apr 08, 2011 00:00 IST

Writing on new-age working women is a good idea, but this book lacks a context and a framework.

ECONOMIC emancipation for women and the liberating influences brought about by it are issues that have long been debated and discussed. Today, there is no disagreement that denial of equal economic opportunities can be construed as one of the severest forms of discrimination against women. There is still a yawning gap between the constitutional rights envisaged for women and the actual realisation of them. Little wonder then that the Women's Reservation Bill continues to be a matter of debate even after 16 years, and additionally, there are serious attempts to dilute several existing and important protective provisions for women.

In the centenary year of International Women's Day, it is perhaps pertinent to look at these issues and the changing relationships at the workplace as they have affected women and their emancipation sought by the women's movement. The work done by women, and the value, social and economic, accorded to it are other subjects of debate that keep surfacing time and again. Given the strong patriarchal and feudal attitudes that prevail, some are confused about whether the Indian woman has really arrived. The confusion grows when real images and examples of successful women who have made it despite all odds are shown in various forms in order to convey a message to cynics that the Indian woman is not really badly off, that she has a lot of enterprise, and that through sheer grit and self-determination she is able to achieve much. But maybe this is not the end of the story.

Gita Aravamudan's Unbound: Indian Women@Work is about the challenges faced by a cross section of new-age working women, a term coined by the author presumably to denote the period following liberalisation and a section of women who entered the job market then. The author, who is no stranger to gender issues (she authored the sensitive Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide), looks into the lives of young women who tell the author how they struggled, coped with, compromised and sometimes rebelled in order to become what they are. The book is a collection of individual experiences cutting across different work sectors. There are journalists, radio jockeys, information technology professionals, brewery entrepreneurs, domestic workers and item girls. To that extent, the book offers variety and some interesting information about the characters. But, in sum, these are all subjective experiences, and the protagonists find equally subjective ways of dealing with them.

Gita Aravamudan's writing has a certain flow, which is communicative and not intended to stupefy with bombastic words; an easy style that is comfortable but does not provoke or excite the reader intellectually.

It seems the author has tried to look for answers but not hard enough. She concludes one interview with a television media personality with this observation: She was, in other words, a woman whose unbinding was total and complete. Not many in her generation could hope to achieve what she had accomplished. Not many could aspire to have the kind of freedom she had. The statements do not inspire, but they do inspire awe. If there is any struggle, it is of the inner self and for self-accomplishment. The problem with using terms such as unbinding and giving them an overarching importance and meaning is that a situation to justify the latent gravity in the term has to be created constantly. That is one of the major limitations of the book. It presupposes several things; it predetermines several outcomes in order to justify the title.

Clearly, the book seems to indicate that women do have a choice, provided they assert themselves enough. But the question is whether it is enough to base an understanding on a handful of so-called achievers, strugglers and stragglers, ignoring the vast number of women with low-paid, insecure jobs in the unorganised sector. It is equally important to understand the agencies and factors that shape the conditions in which such women work.

Is it enough to have individual strength to deal with the kind of situations mentioned in the book? The samples chosen by the author for her study are mostly educated women, mainly from upper-middle-class families, and some from other privileged backgrounds. They have articulated very typically middle-class concerns. Whether the book was intended to study only mobility and employment trends among upper- and middle-class women and the occasional angst of the item girl who is proud of her sexuality is not clear; to that extent, its scope is limited. Stories of women who work in the most depressing conditions in the unorganised sector would have made the study more interesting.

The tenor of the book gives an impression that nothing has changed fundamentally over the years. There is a certain finality in the tenor in many sections of the book, where the author articulates her own conclusions and views, which, in the absence of a logical trajectory of events, do not appear convincing.

For instance, in the preface, while describing the period of the 1950s and 1960s, the author says that a silent, almost unnoticed revolution was taking place at the bottom end of the ubiquitous middle class where money was a problem. Educated girls were now viewed as economic assets. Girls who had graduated from high schools, she writes, began to enter the job market as nurses, teachers, stenographers and bank clerks. But there are no data to support this. There is also no indication that this was region-specific and contingent upon the specific conditions of development and maybe social reform in some States.

In the sectors mentioned in the book, women from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan were definitely not coming out in large numbers to work even in the 1950s and 1960s. They were mostly agricultural workers. Some statements obfuscate the repression and economic pressures in middle-class families. For instance: The education and autonomy of middle class women had had a trickle down effect. Even working class families were getting their daughters educated and many of these young women were entering the job market. They brought home pay packets that transformed the lifestyle of the family.

The discrimination in education continues even today. A recent national survey on primary education revealed that boys were more likely to be sent to private schools, while girls of the same family went to government schools.

The overall situation is clearly not in black and white and the author does bring out shades of grey occasionally. With a limited understanding of what gender actually means (even her respondents do not seem to know that gender is a social and not merely a biological construct), the author quotes a former chief executive officer of Tesco Hindustan Service Centre as saying: The capability of the individual matters. Not the gender. As a woman you need to have the confidence that your gender cannot hold you back. The terms sex and gender have got mixed up here.

By the 1970s, women professionals were beginning to appear all over the white collar landscape, writes Gita Aravamudan. There is no information about the class or caste background of these women professionals. It is left to the reader to assume many things, including these details. Though not mentioned in the book, in 1975, the seminal report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India came out, detailing the horrific conditions in which women were located. It would have been useful and informative for the reader had the author given some idea of the historic momentum unleashed by the report and the impetus it gave to the women's movement and women's studies in the country. How did these changes come about? Were they structural? Were they reformist? Or was it just the easy availability of opportunities that saw a huge contingent of middle-class women enrol for jobs or in educational institutions?

There is a complete absence in the book of the role played by the women's movement. Had some women politicians, women's studies' scholars and women's movement activists also been interviewed, it would have thrown a different dimension altogether to the narrative, given the tremendous challenges these women face.

The book picks up momentum somewhere in the middle where there is some detailed discussion on sexual harassment at the workplace. The interviews too are interesting and engaging. There are lots of illustrations of sexual harassment at the workplace involving important people. Overall, it is sympathetic to women, but there is this element of doubt that a good number of high-profile cases could have been fabrications, given the huge out-of-court settlements arrived at.

On occasion the narrative tends to moralise, which is slightly disconcerting. For instance, her interview with Shefali Jariwala, who popularised the Kaanta Laga item song and who then disappeared from television screens, is otherwise very sensitively conducted. The moralising part comes when she speaks about Pearl Miglani, the first woman DJ, who took her music very seriously as far removed as you could get from Shefali's DJ Doll. Such comparisons are quite unnecessary. There is more moralising elsewhere when she discusses the plight of a young unhappily married professional who suffered guilt despite not having had a physical relationship with a colleague.

The graphic details make interesting reading. Gita Aravamudan informs us that Shefali Jariwala went into a depression following the breakdown of her marriage and also because of obesity-related problems, but she subsequently regained her self-confidence. Shefali Jariwala, apparently, was a good student all through (secured 88 per cent in her school final), studied engineering and entered the entertainment industry on her own mettle. The author's understanding is that Shefali Jariwala's decline into obscurity and becoming the subject of lewd remarks or sexually loaded comments were an outcome of the way she was portrayed in a leading song-and-dance sequence.

Sexual harassment is not occupation-specific; the degree may vary, it can happen almost anywhere and in any society where the dominant ways of looking at women have not fundamentally changed and where there is a weak enforcement of laws protecting women. Many women who do not do item numbers sometimes face equal, if not more, harassment. Celebrities, after all, do enjoy a certain protective immunity because of their celebrity status compared with ordinary mortals who struggle for a living on a day-to-day basis.

The idea of writing on new-age working women is good. What the book lacks is a context and a framework. Documenting details of people's lives always makes interesting reading, more so if it happens to be a cross section of women achievers. The achiever and loser models are also constructed stereotypes and reflective of the deeply unequal society we live in. To draw parallels between the lives of a domestic worker and the CEO of a company as if to portray a commonality of issues faced at the workplace and of discrimination obfuscates more than one reality.

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