Mrinal Pande

Today, as many political leaders in the rich countries are being castigated for ruinous foreign policies they’ve framed, and the CEOs of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch are brought low, we are learning a few more facts about inefficient and gullible leaders and lenders from rich countries. And surprise, surprise, most of them are not women.

These thoughts crossed my mind when I recently attended a school reunion where three generations of Indian men were present with their wives. As I watched, uniformly wealthy men pumped hands and thumped shoulders and talked endlessly about money. Their women, however, eyed each other hesitantly for some time before sitting down in a semi-circle like a bunch of smooth bananas. I gathered from conversations that began to flow that being born with the proverbial silver spoon and living in proximity to big money does not automatically lend a woman the same power and control as their fathers, brothers and husbands.

In fact, chances are that a rich woman who stands to inherit a sizeable portion of the family wealth will have experienced patriarchal control more forcefully than a girl from an ordinary educated middle-class home. But even when they do rebel, rich women seldom aim to address and challenge the circumstances of their life. They mostly punish their families in the only way most women know, by punishing themselves.

Things have not changed much in post-independence India, between generations of rich women, in any noticeable degree. Girls continue to marry men who hold professions they have enviously eyed and are convinced they themselves can’t have or manage on their own. Even some erstwhile stars from radical groups on campus who had married other ambitious young radicals now looked and talked like all other matronly wives. While their husbands had realized their early promise and gone on to become major political leaders, media barons and star journalists, the wives had gone back into being wallflowers. None of them had demonstrated the courage to challenge the female-deficient empires their husbands had created and led.

Why, they even continued to smile indulgently at the gender bias that was reflected in several of the post-dinner speeches the men made. It seemed they had all accepted their roles as somewhat frivolous and less productive companions to “famous men" and in the process, downgraded their own not inconsiderable roles as intelligent women who were not only bringers of enormous dowries but also mothers and full-time homemakers.

Many of these women, I was to discover by and by, in their personal lives faced problems common to the poorest women: indifferent to callous husbands, being a single parent most of the time, tough and demanding in-laws, being abused or neglected by alcoholic and/or philandering spouses and, last but not the least, feeling answerable for every penny spent or invested. In some ways, one felt, theirs is a worse plight as unlike poor women, they mostly lead paranoid and isolated lives, worrying constantly that those outside their class that offered to befriend them might be aiming to use them or their money in some way.

Yet , even as they are stuck in a really bad marriage, not only the police and the society but even feminists are unlikely to sympathize with their plight and call to punish their abusers. Despite the Volvos and Audis they are driven in, most of our rich wives remain mere arm candy and, at best, conduits for passing power and wealth to children (read sons and sons-in-law). No matter what comrade Brinda would say, class doesn’t work for these women; in fact, in many ways it is reversed.

There is no denying the obvious advantages money brings to women: good health care, housing, the facility for travelling far and wide, the arts and the leisure to imbibe their true meaning. The tragedies poverty unleashes on a large number of our women in rural areas and urban slums can not be minimized either: malnourished bodies and truncated minds, exhaustion from too many child bearings, constant worries about and fear of being deprived of roti, kapda and makan (food, clothing and shelter).

Nonetheless, the fact remains that whether in Nandigram or in New Delhi, we can make out a clear connection between female-headed households that form the largest part of the most vulnerable poor in India and the concentration of wealth in male hands in most Indian corporate houses. Nor are the discriminatory wages paid to women labourers in rural areas unconnected with the fabled glass ceiling faced by the middle-class urban women. The only way to undo this concentration of power and money at the top would be to start chipping at it from within. But for that, it is essential that more and more women pause to think about the caste/class system as they have actually experienced it, not as it has been handed down to them by Messrs Manu and Marx.

Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of ­Hindustan.

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