On the day that India’s first woman President was taking the oath of office, an acquaintance - also a woman - was telling me a story. The acquaintance and I are bound together by our membership of the Delhi Golf Club gym, among the cheapest in the city. These days I go there during a time that is quaintly referred to as “ladies hour” - between 11am and 4pm - and do the “ladies” have tales of woe.
The gym is unisex. It’s the showers that are causing the friction. If you allow women access to the showers only after 11a.m. (ladies hour), you are pretty much excluding working women.
Is there a way out? Sure. But only if you want to find a solution.
If you’ve never been to the Delhi Golf Club, here’s a quick rundown. Dotted with heritage monuments that date back to the Lodhi dynasty, the course is among the most spectacular in the country. But if you were to sit in the bar, you’d be excused for thinking you were actually back in the Lodhi era. This is what a venerable member - a man - told my acquaintance when she complained about the patently unfair timings for women: “You ladies should be lucky that we allow you inside our club at all.”
Why should the dinosaurs at Delhi Golf Club concern anybody? It’s because these very dinosaurs thump themselves on the chest declaring their supreme satisfaction at being members of Delhi’s “elite” club. Assume then, that these worthies—which is not to say that there aren’t honourable exceptions - are a part of the ruling elite: executives, bureaucrats, judges, businessmen.
Ironically, on the very day that my gym acquaintance was being reminded of her “good luck” at being allowed into the club, Kiran Bedi was voicing her objections at being passed over for a promotion that, on the face of it, is hers by the fact of her seniority.
And why had India’s first woman police officer been superseded by an officer two years her junior? Because, said Bedi, she was not in a position to network and go out drinking with the boys - attributes essential to today’s successful professional.
It’s not my case that Bedi is a paragon of virtue. But what she claims does strike a chord with many working women whose chief imperative is to get the job done and rush home as soon as possible where children and homework and dinner await. Not for us the luxury of drinks after work or cosy little office offsites. Yes, we grit our teeth and do it, but never without huge doses of accompanying guilt.
And yet, despite everything, we do have women in very powerful positions in this country. Our oldest political party is headed by a woman. We have a woman President; the chief minister of Delhi, and Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are women. So why is the Women’s Reservation Bill dead in the water, regardless of who’s in power, the NDA or the UPA?
Elsewhere on the planet, the normally sedate Washington Post has sparked off a minor debate over the comments made by its fashion correspondent over a hint of Hillary Clinton’s cleavage during a debate on higher education funding. The blogs are abuzz: The article was trivial; no, it wasn’t derogatory; Clinton’s response to raise funds smacks of opportunism, and so on. But the bottom line clearly is: We’re simply not comfortable as a civil society over displays of overt feminism from women who work.
Here’s a statistic that is so famous that it’s almost a cliché: Women represent roughly half the world’s population (far less in parts of India), perform two-thirds of all work, receive one-tenth of world income and own less than 1% of world property.
At this point I’m not even going to get into the merits and demerits of the Bill, I’m merely questioning a deeply ingrained attitude shared by men in positions of power. Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and child welfare (a “soft” ministry that like tourism invariably goes to women) tells of a male colleague in Parliament who asked her in genuine astonishment: “But if women come into politics, who will cook at home?”
At the end of the day, we do live in far more gender equitable times. What is galling - regardless of the statistics you pull up of the number of women in positions of power - is the male attitude that women continue to encounter, overtly and covertly.
Unless that changes, the future looks pretty bleak.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org