In comes your cleaning woman. She has a heavy cold and wheezes as she picks up the bucket. When asked why she has not taken the day off, she pins you down for a heart to heart.
“A bad cold, body aches, eyes burn and I think there is a fever as well...asked my sister-in-law to do the houses for me just for today and told her I’ll make it worth her while...we both handle cleaning five homes each and if we don’t help each other out who will? But she has a sick child being cared for by her seven-year-old at home, and wants to run home as soon as she finishes...times are bad and even children are no longer safe alone in our area...that Bibiji in the big house round the corner says we are both lucky to have work...look at me she says...she is college-educated and all but sitting at home because she cannot get a job...and because she has no job, she is treated like dirt and has to do all kinds of chores for the family...today all men, rich or poor, want wives to bring not just dowry but also a monthly salary you see...just imagine, her with a big house and car her father gave and still she is unhappy and unemployed... such is a woman’s life! I am dying from overwork but can’t make ends meet...a college-educated girl sits crying because she cannot go to work.”
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Crazy as she may sound, her ruminations are supported by the (61st round of) the National Sample Survey of India (NSS) that lists the employment and unemployment situation in India for 2004-05. According to NSS, even in a progressive state such as Tamil Nadu, almost 74% of educated women remain unemployed.
The semi-literate or illiterate women, however, in both cities and villages, are more likely to find jobs. But neither is happy.
The jobs available for the poor in India’s vast unorganized sector demand little to no skills, but are almost universally unprotected by labour laws and are poorly paid. And the well-paying jobs available for educated will mostly absorb men on grounds ranging from gender bias to a comparative lack of required skills among female applicants.
Education may be more easily available, but it is still not a level playing field for women in India. Unlike men, most women go through a complex socialization process that makes them believe that they are genetically more suited for non-technical areas of learning that are considered “soft”, such as literature, arts and social sciences.
Men, on the other hand, are pushed into handling scientific knowledge and allied courses that build marketable skills. So most young women, should they be among the fortunate 5-6% who manage to finish school and go in for a higher education, go through college, but rarely opt for subjects such as agricultural and veterinary sciences, law or information technology.
The 2004 report of the Indian National Science Academy on scientific careers for women reports a low (around 20%) presence of women in research facilities. Some 75 million women are involved in dairying and agriculture but the Indian Institutes of Technology and national institutes for scientific research remain female-deficient (less than 10% and 15% of the total).
Large and poor families must make harsh choices when it is time to send children for expensive higher education, and given that most daughters will get married and move out, parents prefer spending on sons’ education since they are viewed as father’s walking stick in old age. Since bad economic times and shrinking job markets are here once again,?we are going to see both, a deepening of the traditional resentment against gainfully employed women, and also the simultaneous creation of a need for women to work for wages.
Here, Indian women will also be facing the classic double bind of the Great Depression years in the US: they will be required to be strong and work outside, but also punished and heckled for their strength, visibility and greater social mobility. Real empowerment of women will not come until all productive work in the poverty sector is suitably rewarded. But we (even feminists) must now review our own subtle biases against women from privileged backgrounds.
In a caste and gender-divided society, women from poor illiterate backgrounds may be easy to overlook and dismiss as serious candidates for skilled jobs. But it is also dangerously easy to put down highly skilled women from affluent families. To us, they may appear to be already empowered and in control of their lives, but few of them actually are.
Family money, as American feminist icon and social activist Gloria Steinem once said, is like hemophilic genes. It mostly uses women as conduits to pass on to men, either husbands or sons. Men who have inherited daddy’s millions seldom, if ever, experience the nasty heckling women do, if they inherit parental wealth and still wish to work at a serious job.
We seldom realize how job interviewers and families may crush such women with the humiliating “Why”, implying if your basic needs for wanting work—roti, kapda aur makaan (bread, clothes and a roof over the head)—are being met so well by the men in your family, why must you work and deprive your children of your constant presence in the home and also a well-qualified man of such a good job?
And most women still do not feel okay about arguing back that children do not always need them and vice-versa, and also that their need for soul-satisfying and self-confidenceboosting jobs is the same as men’s.
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