Culture

Deepa Narayan: "How free is the modern, urban Indian woman?"

While researching for her new book, gender and development writer Deepa Narayan spoke to hundreds of women only to discover that we think we are more modern than we actually are

I spent three years interviewing talented and smart young urban women, plus a limited sample of young men, asking, “What does it mean to be a woman or man today?” and ended up with 8,000 pages of notes. My findings shocked me. I went back and reanalysed them and kept interviewing more and more women but the same findings kept repeating themselves.

I came to the overwhelming conclusion that a woman’s early cultural training not to exist undermines her later effort to be a feminist; or equal, or free, or empowered, or a leader. 

On the outside, today’s educated, smartly dressed women in New Delhi and other metros are pilots, cops, engineers, scientists, politicians and bankers. We are so captured by the external glamour of modernity that we do not see that women are still being trained not to exist, not have a strong sense of self, and to habitually feel afraid, powerless and insecure.

But this training is so disguised that it survives by making a virtue of hundreds of little behaviors that actually delete women’s sense of self. Nishita, 19, a college student from a well-off family, describes herself as a “blender”. She says, “You basically blend yourself into the other person’s energies because you just want their happiness, and that is what I wanted to do.” How can you not approve of a woman who wants to make others happy? But as a blender, Nishita constantly changes her opinions to please others and becomes incapable of initiating any action on her own, without the reassurance of other people’s approval. No wonder then, that women initiate few start-up companies; this year the share of women-led start-ups was two per cent of all equity funding.

Since women protest against old ways, parents nowadays avoid the word ‘sacrifice’ but use the English word ‘adjust’ instead to train girls to give up what they want; shaving off still more bits of the self. Rashi, 25, put it this way: “I was taught to learn to ‘adjust’, not be too demanding; whenever I started crying over something I wanted mum always said, ‘beta, thoda adjust karna padta hai,’ (darling, you have to adjust a little).” Afraid to be called selfish, Rashi is paralysed by fear over making the smallest decisions for herself, in case it makes other people angry.

Women are expected to sacrifice for others. Sacrifice is easier when women don’t have a strong sense of self, strong opinions, strong desires, strong ambition and clear dreams. That is why, self-less is a good word, and selfish is a bad word — when applied to women.

Pooja, 25, like many others is supposedly free; a computer scientist who left home at 21. She has short hair, she wears shorts and she travels whenever she wants. But the freedom Pooja claims for herself fills her with guilt because she is not sacrificing and suffering like her mother did. She says, “Freedom…I don’t know. I get tense thinking about it. I am not free. I can’t make decisions. I hide my thinking and I can’t say no to anyone.” She feels lost and directionless.

CHUP 300 CMYK

A self-less woman is also a quiet woman. She certainly does not speak up. In fact, 85 per cent of intelligent and educated women said they were afraid to speak up. Nikita, 24, with a graduate degree in finance from the USA, says: “If I am not sure of something I won’t say it.” Swati, 25, an engineer, sums it up: “Women are more afraid of everything — men are very confident, even when they know nothing.” Good, quiet women do not negotiate salaries at work. They wait to be noticed and rewarded. 

If women are afraid to speak up, they are even more afraid to engage in logical argumentation, especially with men. A woman who argues is considered ziddi, stubborn, someone who wants her way — the opposite of the cultural ideal of a woman who does not have an independent mind. Ifra, 24, says quietly, “I have a clear understanding of what is expected of me — don’t shout back, don’t argue, talk politely, balance your emotions, don’t be too ziddi.” Ifra is often depressed. Almost every woman I spoke to says she avoids conflict, particularly with men. Only one woman says she enjoys argumentation, the majority, (over 85 per cent) were afraid of even saying no.

Trained to feel inadequate, yet realising that men have the power (and seem to have more fun) women compete for men’s approval and turn upon each other. They become prejudiced against women. This is reflected in the fact that most women, 75 per cent, said that they did not want to work for a female boss. Women also judged other women as mean, jealous and competitive.

Ruchi, 30, for example, works on women’s causes and teaches at The University of Delhi, but even she had nothing good to say about women in her circles. “I see women bitching about other women like crazy. They backbite, step on each other’s work and steal credit.”

This is not to shame women. When 10 women don’t want a female boss, it is personal; when hundreds of women don’t want a female boss, it is no longer a personal fault but the outcome of a culture that trains women to become insecure and fearful. Such women do not make good bosses. But then, neither would men if it the roles were flipped.

Whether at home or work, our daily behaviours show us to be more scared, less outspoken, less confident, less willing to be disliked, less willing to negotiate, less willing to be take risks and less successful than our male counterparts. And if we can’t un-train ourselves from these habits, we will never break the glass ceiling. 

Deepa Narayan is an independent international poverty, gender and development advisor and writer, and the author of Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women (Juggernaut; on stands now)