It was one of those end-of-term panel discussions where more grey-haired faculty members than students are in evidence. The theme was women in the media. After we, the miscellaneous senior representatives of the print and visual media, had spoken, the discussion turned towards discussing the daily working lives of Indian women.
“Excuse me for sounding rude, but may I intervene here?” This from a young undergraduate dressed in a pair of low-slung jeans and a bedraggled-looking top. “I have been observing, like most of you may support greater freedom and mobility for women, but how come you all are dressed in six-yard saris? Like, they are pretty and all, but I think the message this outfit sends out is terribly regressive, don’t you?” She sat down among approving giggles and whispers from her peers. Her intense bony jaws resumed masticating a chewing substance with obvious pleasure at having ticked off these old crones in their motherly shawls and six-yard saris that impede movement and hamper liberation.
The grey-haired artist and co-participant next to me leaned across the table. “This is what we grew up wearing, my dear, and at our age we find it perfectly suitable to our needs. Why should we try force-fitting these ample Indian hips into a pair of designer jeans?”
We all laughed and the tension dissipated. But come to think of it, isn’t it strange how traditional Indian clothes, like our mother tongues, have come to stand for a drab respectability and a certain dispensable servility among the young supporters of women’s rights on our campuses? To them, real careers and power dressing mean plunging almost from pubescence into the hard-nosed male world of finance capitalism, dressed in expensive Western-style outfits, no matter how unsuitable and uncomfortable they may feel.
No doubt there are several good reasons for such defiant and premature prudence on our campuses. Compared to us, the young face rougher times. They must also compete harder for good jobs and are far less likely to live with their families or have full-time servants. And even after paying several times more for a home, they’ll perhaps not see their lives and surroundings improve and become safer over the years. Still, for the young lady, a better rejoinder would have been to tell us, “How do you think our generation can chase and ride the Blueline buses of Delhi in six-yard saris with pallavs and shawls trailing suicidally behind us? Have you any idea of the current price of saris when you add to it the tailoring costs of blouses and the murderous rates charged by launderettes and the local presswali? Are you suggesting that to save money we live off our parents forever and permit them to manipulate our lives?” And she’d have been largely right.
But the mood among the young girls is not inclusive activism any more. It is more worry and fear about life after graduation coupled with a desire to conform and fraternize with one’s own class, even if it means disowning most others. It is not that they are not preparing for public careers after graduation, most of them are. But they are obsessed with a limited perception of success and almost totally cut off from the variety, elasticity and mercurial nature of a young 21st century India in the grand sense.
Few girls in our more renowned colleges, despite those women’s studies cells, actually identify their problems with those faced by their poorer counterparts in the Indian workforce, namely the large group of young women vendors, labourers and part-time domestic workers who must work both at home and outside, and travel in public transport dressed in saris. Do they fear retaliation and ridicule if they do so? On their own turf today, not many of our young girls from small towns, who are so elated to be admitted to prestigious colleges in Delhi or in the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, get to share their opinions in mixed gatherings unless their command over English is good.
As young employees, women still remain far less likely to be called on to lead in a group that also has men. When they do debate women’s issues hotly among themselves, girls talk only about women from their own class because they have had no direct interaction with non-English-speaking women from marginalized groups. What our young badly need today is not more premature prudence, but a better and closer introspection about what their whole workplace culture is all about. Even after having suffered multiple kinds of discrimination, do they want to remain in a segregationist rat race unquestioningly, without trying to restructure the system from inside and make it more woman-friendly?
Our present job market, in the name of ratings, fosters a strange linguistic Darwinism (those who can read and write English deserve to inherit the new India). This has been deepening a gradual, but steady de-ideologization, not only among the students, but also among our journalists, economists, bureaucrats and technocrats. And it is because we usually avoid challenging this strange mindset that divides women more firmly than caste or class, each time we begin to discuss women’s empowerment, that we get deflected into discussing non-issues such as comparing the merits and demerits of wearing a sari or a trouser suit.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.