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How independent are women in independent India? Are we able to steer the direction of our lives as freely and unencumbered as men? Have our aspirations, and the freedoms to translate them into reality, grown in the past 75 years? The answers to the questions are not as obvious as statistics or hot-takes on ‘Twitter Pradesh’ may make them seem. How do we understand ‘independence’ when our lives are fundamentally interdependent? Who is this Indian woman? Does she aspire for the empowerment advertised by white western feminists or measured by elite experts?

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In a diverse country the size of a continent, our experiences of womanhood are deeply different based on class, caste, climate and where we live. Certainly, urban readers of this paper are not representative of the nation. There is no monolithic ‘Indian woman’ and nor do I have the confidence to write on her behalf. Between women sipping gin-n-tonics at clubs and rural solidarity groups pushing for liquor bans in states, our social landscape is too complex to offer an easy unidimensional story on how gender relations have evolved.
 

Illustration: Jayachandran
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Illustration: Jayachandran

Statistics can offer straightforward answers to some of the questions. Assuming access to an independent income and freedom of movement implied ‘independence’, India’s place in the bottom five of the world when it comes to women’s economic participation, our data on the glaring and persistent gaps between men and women in the job market, and women’s compromised safety in public spaces suggest not much has dramatically changed. If we measure women’s voice and leadership, the results are not cheerful either. Most decision-making systems in India—courts, local governments, and laws—remain masculine. The state and the family—the two critical institutions of Indian life—have delegated all the unacknowledged burden of care to women. Yet, women’s work, paid or unpaid, within homes is barely supported by men, labour laws or infrastructure programmes. Despite increasing educational attainment and decline in fertility rates, women have far less access to jobs, technology, property or communication devices—the oil of 21st-century independence. Research shows that women’s aspirations have expanded in the decades following the economic reforms of the 1990s, particularly in urban India. Increased access to schooling, media and the internet seem to have encouraged women to reimagine their ways of being and doing.

Mind the gap
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Mind the gap

Since I lack the courage to collapse the messiness of everyday life into a simple number or narrative, I will try an alternative lens to tackle the question of how much freedom women have amassed for themselves through the years. For 15 years, speaking to hundreds of women across the country as I researched my book on the economic and emotional lives of Indian women born in the 1980s, I had the privilege of observing the inter-generational shifts in attitudes between mothers and daughters within various families. These mother-daughter pairs can hardly tell the story of the entire country. But their lived experiences highlight the many stories of social change that the statistics hide.

Across states and castes, I learned that the radical shifts in the independence and liberties women claim for themselves is taking place in this ‘missing middle’ of the gender narrative—women who are neither leaders or heroes, nor victims of brutal crimes. These are ordinary women all around us, those who are dressing differently, who are spending more time in school than ever before, those who are silently renegotiating the rules within their marriages, relationships and workplaces. Any attempt at capturing the quality of independence enjoyed by ‘Indian women’ would be remiss without honouring these revolutionaries who have aspired for and achieved far more freedom than their grandmothers possessed. Their struggles and private rebellions offer four important lessons on how women’s lives have progressed in contemporary India.

First, the family remains the primary site of every woman’s independence struggle. India may have gained freedom from her colonizers, but women are yet to gain independence from family control and its associated caregiving roles. If we believe economic opportunities are an important pathway for women’s independence, domestic duties within the family remain an everlasting obstacle.

Data shows that marriage kicks women out of paid jobs. The latest Periodic Labour Force Survey highlights how 48% urban women cite household care work as the primary reason for not being in the paid labour force. Beyond care duties, data on gender-based violence or economic discrimination highlights how the home and intimate relationships are where female autonomy is quashed, where the Constitution is crushed, where non-conforming women are taxed, and where overt and covert abuse is rampant.

Through 75 years, the Indian state has only supported single women after they have experienced marriage — programmes are designed for widowed, divorced or abandoned women; not for women who are single because they do not desire marriage or family life. The lack of support and safety for single women is a way to ensure we remain locked into the traditional patriarchal family as the only source of status, security and survival.

Each woman I followed—despite her class or caste—was socialised to believe that being marriageable was her primary job and that she needed familial permission to pursue her interests. Most enjoyed or grudgingly accepted this idea, a few rebelled against it. But rebellion required covert encouragement from family members and a thriving market for the training and recruitment of women. For example, Gold Mendiratta, a young woman from Jaisalmer, ran away from her family to become an in-flight attendant after a boom in aviation jobs and a bust in her arranged marriage prospects. She was only able to actuate her plans because her older brother paid her fees at an ‘airhostess academy’ and helped find safe housing without informing their disgruntled father. Mendiratta ended up as the first woman in her family to marry for love, hold a steady paid job and leave her home-state.

Second, friendships and solidarity groups play a vital role in allowing women to seek and gain well-being and freedoms. Nearly all the women I surveyed reported being the first in their families to have friends beyond the family circle. While their mothers socialized within a network of cousins, aunts and in-laws, the women I interviewed gained friends and acquaintances through jobs, self-help groups or schools. These networks became their safety net, allowing them to explore opportunities, discuss experiences and hopes, and find time to rest. For example, Zahira Pathan, a Muslim garment worker who worked and lived in a low-income neighborhood in Ahmedabad, was able to leave her abusive marriage thanks to the protection offered by her fellow garment workers. Sandhya Mondal, a part-time Bengali domestic worker in Delhi, would leave her children in informal day-care organized by women in her slum when she went out to work. Both women educated their daughters at good schools, gaining help for admissions from contacts made through their work.

Thanks to this education and access to new role models, their daughters are now unwilling to partake in an arranged marriage. Pathan’s daughter lives in Mumbai and holds a steady job as a survey investigator with a market research firm.

Pathan was the first woman in her family to earn an income, live as a single mother and be part of the meagre 11% of urban Muslim women who hold paid jobs. She paved the way for her daughter to aspire for more freedom. The fact that her daughter would never wear a dupatta to cover herself, that she could explore the possibility of love before marriage, that she had a mobile phone of her own, that she could use the internet easily, that she could confidently call me and proclaim she thought an actor was sexy, that she knew and used the word ‘sexy’ freely and repeatedly while living far away from her family as she pursued a career, is nothing short of a revolution in the scope of independence the women in her family have traditionally enjoyed. Her maternal grandmother had never been to school and always maintained purdah.

Third, each woman I followed interpreted the notion of freedom very differently. For Pathan, freedom meant freedom from having to earn a living. She complained about how men were no longer living up to their end of the breadwinning contract. She aspired to quit her job. For Mendiratta, it meant the freedom from an oppressive arranged marriage and the liberty to explore her sexual appetites. As for Mondal, freedom meant being rescued from hours of load-shedding and irregular water supply so she could watch an hour of cable television in peace. When I asked these women about how they saw the ‘status of women’, none used laws or statistics to explain themselves. They articulated the quality of their lives through the ease and safety with which they could laugh and have fun, the quality of eligible single men and their familial relationships, and the quality of food offered to their children.

While their ideas of freedom differed, each woman complained about exhaustion and chronic time-poverty due to the burden of managing work deadlines, household dishes and feminine dignity. Such framing defies any narrow technocratic definition used by experts to measure women’s ‘empowerment’ or well-being.

Finally, while women from marginalized communities push for more independence for themselves and their daughters, the tales of elite upper-caste society are more worrying. Upper-class women highlighted the growing conservatism and resentment of posh men and women towards professionally ambitious women. Each English-speaking elite and middle-class woman gossiped about ‘liberal bros’ who espoused progressive beliefs and barely practised them. This is in keeping with our current politics where powerful leaders offer public lectures on how the role of women is to be within the home and support the economic flourishing of men.

Patriarchy has become increasingly sophisticated among our elite. ‘Higher’ castes report one of our lowest female employment rates. The latest government data—released in June 2022—shows that among the richest 10% in urban India, 21% women have paid jobs compared to 60% of men. While patriarchal controls are more transparent and open to question among our precariat, the elite continue to evade any real change by socializing educated women to believe that they exclusively bear the burden of love and nurture within the family unit. Following the economic boom after liberalization, upper-caste men garnered majority of the gains from growth. Participating in patriarchy became more profitable in a growing economy and many elite women continue to prop up and protect abusive boys’ clubs while singing praises of sisterhood.

To conclude, while each woman I followed charted her own unique path towards independence, each paid a unique price for seeking more freedom. Everyone I interviewed reported losing the tag of being a ‘good woman’. Social judgement and nasty gossip were penalties the women had to pay. Their grandmothers had never faced such a backlash, a sign of how far some of us have travelled in a society that insists that non-conforming women feel ashamed of themselves. Perhaps, the best measure of how far ‘Indian women’ have come is our growing shamelessness.

The writer is an economist and author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh

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