What do women want? Yes, yes, I know the list, or at least the partial one: juggling work and home without guilt, a non-drunkard husband who provides, sleep, stilettos without pain, a ‘wife’, more hours in the day, light cotton saris that never crease, conversation after sex, and yes, a government that does its job. What if the last item on the list was possible?
Power girl: To be one, try mastering these Judo moves. Vano Shlamov / AFP
I got an interesting response to a previous column titled “Women of India, unite—you’ve nothing to lose”. A Mr S.C. Aggarwal, founder, Poverty Trust, wrote, “‘Suppose all the women of India are united, win 60% Lok Sabha seats and you are chosen by all the members of Lok Sabha as prime minister of India, will you kindly indicate 20 steps you will take to cure the present economic ills of the country and also 20 programmes which you will launch for the welfare of urban? And 20 schemes for the welfare of village women? Kindly think it over, have discussion with Meera Sanyal, Mallika Sarabhai, Barkha Dutt etc and disclose as early as possible what are those schemes or programmes.’”
Carte blanche can be terrifying. Suppose you are prime minister? What would you do? Citizenship is easier. Vote, protest and demand. If possible, be specific: Don’t cut down trees in Lalbagh to build the Metro in Bangalore, stop moral policing, give us safe drinking water. Imagining yourself a leader with the power to make things happen is harder. To write a manifesto requires vision and imagination. I have read the Congress party’s brief and glossy version and the BJP’s list of things it will accomplish during office. Neither is inspiring. Both allow waffle room. Perhaps that is their purpose: to promise while allowing excuses for non-delivery. Now, thanks to Aggarwal, it is my turn.
Aggarwal, who holds a Guinness record for most number of letters to the editor, is also the author of a book titled War On Poverty—Role Of The Privileged People. I am not about to tell him how to eradicate poverty. Women’s empowerment, however, is a subject close to my heart. Hence my earlier question: What do women want? The answer, in my mind, is self-evident: safety, health, education and jobs, in that order. Interestingly, in an informal non-scientific poll I conducted recently, safety was last on the list. About four score and 10 women work in my apartment complex—as maids in the 64 flats, as housekeeping staff and in the garden. Most don’t speak English and haven’t studied past class VIII. When I accosted them and asked what they would like the government to do for them, they mentioned education and healthcare for their children and families.
What about jobs, I asked. To them, jobs were a given. They had to work and would do what it took to feed their family. Jobs were not something they depended on the government for. As for safety, it was up to each woman. Don’t stay out late, they said. Dress “decently” so as not to attract unwanted eyes. If you have an abusive husband, seek help from neighbours to calm him down. Hide the bottle, empty it out in front of his eyes and bear the beatings. When the situation becomes unbearable, pray to God, or decamp to your mother’s house. Safety, for these women, wasn’t a citizen’s right. It was a responsibility—their responsibility.
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
I realize that this is a small skewed sample. I know all the usual caveats about India: Generalizations are useless; contradictions coexist; blanket statements will be overturned in a matter of minutes. Having said that, let me proceed to do all of the above.
Are Indian women safe? On margin, no. Yes, it is possible for a woman in Mumbai to take a cab at midnight. But for most women, safety is a wild card, not a guarantee. What is worse, we women are our own worst enemies. When things go horribly awry, when a TV reporter gets murdered in Delhi, we make senseless comments about “adventurous” working women and the consequences they have to bear. How then to ensure the safety of our women?
• Make judo, karate and krav maga mandatory for schoolgirls.
• Give away pepper spray with ration cards.
• Get a female cop to come and talk to your women employees. They will tell you things that are counterintuitive. One cop said: “When a man pulls over, points a gun and asks you to get in, don’t. Most sexual offenders don’t want to shoot you. They want to take you to a private place and torture you.”
• Make organizations accountable for their women employees. A CEO I know, who works for a multinational bank, says that the one thing that keeps him awake at night is the zero-error law with respect to the safety of his women employees. “It is the last drop-off that I worry about,” he said. “You can hire a guard to protect the woman who is dropped last but what if he is in cahoots with the driver?”
• Start with the men. Organizations such as Men Against Violence Against Women (mavaindia.org) are doing terrific work by teaching young men how to adopt “positive models of masculinity” and helping them deal with anger. Perhaps every mother ought to send her son to a MAVA workshop. For the sake of her daughter.
After attempting a manifesto, Shoba Narayan has decided that it is easier to be citizen than leader. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org