The problem is not that women have views. The problem is they don’t find expression. Namita Bhandare writes.
I spent much of my adolescence mortified by my mother. As a teenager, like most other teenagers, I wanted to fit in. My mother, unfortunately for me, was anything but a conformist. She was argumentative, loud and didn’t seem to care what other people thought about her. She had an opinion on everything.
It was terrifying. Other mothers came to pick up their children from school in immaculate saris and perfect nails. My mother had no patience for beauty parlours and refused to stick to safe topics – servant problems, birthday parties and annual vacation plans – holding forth instead on rising prices, failing governance, the need for austerity, the lack of discipline. There was nothing she couldn’t speak about.
It was only later that I realised the importance of having an opinion and being able to back it with an argument. For a college student, debating with other college students well into the night was exhilarating, a heady time of discovery: What did you stand for? What did you believe in? And yes, arguing with my mother was liberating too. She had a voice and she allowed me mine.
An opinionated woman is a rare creature. ‘Well-brought up’ women are required to keep their thoughts to themselves. A well-brought up women does not make her point aggressively. A well-brought up woman does not disagree with her husband/father/brother, at least not in public. A well-brought up woman does not fight back. Writing for Mint recently, my friend Priya Ramani touched upon this when she noted that on Twitter men often use the word ‘arrogant’ pejoratively to describe a woman they cannot slot.
One person’s arrogance is another’s opinion. And social conditioning is deeply ingrained not just in India but all over the world. A May 2012 study by the Op-Ed Project (www.theopedproject.org) found that women make up only 24.4% of columnists at eight major US syndicates. I am not aware of an empirical study related to India, but to me it seems the figure here would be far lower. When women write, as I do, it is often on subjects like gender, family, entertainment and lifestyle – as if these are somehow exclusively the concern of women. It’s as if we are socialised into steering clear of ‘hard’ subjects like science, technology, economics and security.
Earlier this year, TrustLaw, a legal news service of the Thompson Reuters Foundation caused a minor furore by placing India at the bottom of a list of the world’s worst countries for women (below even Saudi Arabia). The obvious reasons – female foeticide, child marriage, rising crimes against women – are easy to spot. The latent hostility comes in far subtler forms of discrimination: When mothers bring up daughters to be submissive, when we teach our daughters to walk on the streets with head bent and eyes down, when we drill into their heads that life must be a series of continuing adjustment and sacrifice.
When women face sexual harassment they are told they ‘asked for it’ because of the clothes they wear or the opinions they articulate. Women are now to be blamed for crimes against them either because they own mobile phones, wear western clothes, don’t get married early enough or just question the authority of their fathers and husbands.
The problem is not that women have opinions. The problem is that these opinions don’t find expression. When they do, as we’ve seen from the impact of women’s reservation in panchayats, all of society benefits from more equitable governance and a focus on issues like education, health, water and sanitation.
This year my mother turned 80. She’s battled diabetes for over 40 years, has had a heart bypass and is virtually blind in one eye. Her once brisk walk is now a shuffle. But she remains as outspoken as ever. She has taught me one thing: to be fearlessly able to voice an opinion. It is my most precious gift.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal