Tomorrow, the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit will begin in New Delhi. Between discussions on agriculture and infrastructure is the plenary session titled simply: Investing in Girls, Investingin Development—The Girl Effect.
Word power: The World Economic Forum measured the gap in the education of boys and girls; in India, that gap is very wide. Bharath Sai / Mint
Gender is the focus of several recent surveys, including the Shriver Report, WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2009 and a survey by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which plans to measure the extent of domestic violence and child abuse in the emirate. WEF’s gender report measured the gap between men and women using the usual four factors: economic opportunities, education, health and political participation. Nordic countries came out tops and India fell in the bottom quartile.
The problem with gender reports is that while they can help governments decide policy, and nudge countries to perform better, they offer little to women in terms of how to live or improve their lives. They don’t answer the question: Say you are faced with a thousand little girls, what message would you give them?
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I know: It depends on the sample. Well, let’s narrow it down by country and region. Let’s limit it to India. I wouldn’t presume to lecture rural girls given that I know little about their lifestyle. So let’s narrow it to urban Indian teenage girls which in itself is a large enough sample. What would you tell them?
There are macro messages. Learn to love without losing yourself is a key one, given a woman’s congenital desire for harmony; difficulty with saying “No”; and her penchant for spreading herself too thin in the emotion department. There are micro messages about learning self-defence, and managing hormonal cycles. But the bulk of it has to do with nuances, and gender parity reports, as George Bush famously said of himself, “Don’t do nuance”.
Recognizing nuance requires battle worn maturity; to see both the glorious achievements and also the thin limitations of feminism. It involves realizing that being a feminist means different things in Boston and Bangalore. Bostonians would be aghast if you didn’t call yourself a feminist (and this applies to the men too). In India, let alone Bangalore, feminism is still an ugly word, particularly in our parents’ generation. Many older Indian women are loath to call themselves feminists because they equate it with aggressive bra-burning types. Entire swathes of women in India—and not just in villages—have no clue what feminism means, nor do they care. Talking about gender parity to a housewife in Saurashtra or my aunt in Salem is meaningless. They are too bound by tradition and religion to question the status quo, ranging from why only the wives observe the karva chauth fast, to why not hire women drivers trained in krav maga to drop women employees, especially those working late. They are conditioned not to rock the boat.
So while the message is important, choosing a target audience is equally so and urban Indian girls on the cusp of womanhood are my chosen targets. These are the girls who will implement and live out the findings of today’s gender parity reports. So what would you tell them? What will you tell today’s high school girl students at Chennai’s Vidya Mandir, Delhi’s Loreto Convent, Mumbai’s Cathedral School, or Kolkata’s La Martiniere?
Here’s my message: Gender equality is a myth. Doesn’t exist. Get over it. We are inferior to men in many ways and superior in others. So don’t bother equating yourselves with them. Competing in the world using the male paradigm is setting yourselves up for failure. Instead, choose a different paradigm.
The question then becomes: What’s the paradigm?
Women are surfers. We catch the wave, cope and adjust. We endure. Men are archers. They aim, execute and move on. Gross generalizations, I know, but humour me. Recently, I read two books that relate to this topic. One was The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine and it talks about hormone-induced waves, surges and troughs that affect the way women think and function. Much of her analysis applies only to the West and indeed, America. For instance, she talks about teenage girls being “drama queens”, and while that may be true for urban girls, it does not apply to rural Indian girls who are anything but drama queens. They are quiet, non-assertive, and if anything, too obedient. But the book makes a point of emphasizing how hormones affect women without, I might add, telling us how to use these peaks and valleys to improve our lives.
The second is more of a self-help book by Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches one of the most popular courses at Harvard University. His course uses exercises, journals and specific questions to elicit and quantify happiness. His book, Happier, isn’t as successful as his course, mostly because asking readers to “name five things that make you happy” is not going to make them do it or think about it but a classroom setting most likely will. Nevertheless, Happier talks about changing paradigms. It suggests using an internal standard to measure success rather than the usual societal measures of money, fame and power.
The Female Brain stresses how women are different and Happier suggests new paradigms. I am merely combining these two ideas and suggesting that we change the paradigm for girl students. Schools and colleges are best equipped to implement this for it involves revamping courses and curriculum. It involves asking questions like how we can train girls to multitask, which is not just an important skill but one that women are better at, according to studies. It encourages career and guidance counsellors to talk to girls about taking advantage of their natural talent for networking and forming communities. It suggests re-examining which competitive sports play to the physiques and talents of girls, unlike sports such as cricket and basketball which have been grandfathered in. It involves looking at the core competencies of girls and allowing those to flourish alongside traditional subjects.
As a feminist, I think women ought to compete on their own terms. As a mostly rational human being and an erstwhile Communist, I think equality (of any kind) is worth aspiring for but is largely a mythical construct. Gender parity is desirable for individuals and countries, but ultimately living your life as a woman involves not just competing with the males but also cherishing those qualities which make us—both women and men—gloriously different and therefore unique.
Shoba Narayan’s core competency is to ask questions. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org