I wake up, just as the alarm goes off. Quickly choking its shrill voice lest it disturb Arjun, my husband. We both had a late night yesterday at Preeti’s place. I quickly freshening up, and head to the kitchen to whip up our ‘dabbas’. I work in a school and have to leave home by 7:30. At 6 :30 just as I have finished packing Arjun’s dabba the bell rings and I open it to let my maid in. Shanti has worked for me since the past five years. She is a hardworking young lady a mother of two girls. As I let her in today, is obvious that she has been crying. What happened I ask her. “ what else mem saab! He beat me again last night”
‘Why?” I asked
“Does there need to be a reason mem saab? Because he drank too much. Because I have two daughters. Because the younger one is not well and I wanted some money to show her to the doctor”
“But you earn yourself! Why do you need money from him?”
We talk as I rustle up a breakfast from Arjun. Some aloo parathas, they are his favorite. Arjun leaves for office at 10:00 and I like to leave him a breakfast. I am angry, at men like Shanti’s husband who are irresponsible and violent.
“He takes away everything I earn. The little that I manage to hold on to gets spent on buying food and vegetables”
Shanti says as she cleans up last night’s utensils. As I finish morning’s cooking I make tea for Arjun and me and carry it with a newspaper to the bedroom.
“Tea” I say smiling!
He murmurs incoherently and sleeps again.
“Get up” I say going into the bathroom for my bath.
When I come out after tying my saree, almost ready to leave for school, Arjun has still not woken up. I sit down on the bed and gently nudge him awake. I take my cup of tea and sit down next to him.
“When will you ever learn to make tea properly?” says Arjun
“What happened? Is something wrong? ” I say
“ No nothing Its awful like usual” he snaps
“I will just make it again. Maybe it got cold”. I return my cup of unfinished tea back to the tray and head out to the kitchen.
“Don’t bother! It will be terrible again” he retorts
My eyes fill up with tears. I want to say something to defend myself. Something about mutual respect and appreciation but I know where that will lead. There is no time to argue. Much simpler to remain quiet. I go to the kitchen remake the tea . Check his breakfast and lunch tiffin are in order and dash off to school.
“Shanti make sure sahib eats his breakfast and carries his lunch box to office”
Driving to school, I reflect on my life. I am an epitome of successful career woman. But in the ways that matter is my relationship with my husband any different from Shanti’s? True, there is no physical violence. But is that a result of well cultivated images or actual difference in the natures of our relationships?
I shrug off these negative thoughts. I am getting late and its necessary to focus on the driving. I have almost reached but it is taking forever to get to the school gate. there is a long line of cars carrying children in front of me. Many of these are vans, their windows rolled down and blaring music. Others are cars being driven by harried mothers or fathers or crisply dressed drivers. In either case the movement is slow, as drivers look for appropriate parking spots to park their vehicles and drop off the students. I honk, even though I know it’s no use. I am in-charge of the assembly today and I can’t afford to be late. even in my nervousness I can’t help reminiscing about the time I came to this school myself as a student. My brother and I rode our cycles to school. Other friends from our colony cycled too and it was easily the best time of our day.
“Why don’t children cycle to school anymore?” I ask my friend, a mother of two young wonderful children. As we set out for our evening walk. “What? Cycle to school?” “ Have you seen the state of the city’s traffic? ” “I wouldn’t feel safe sending my children to school on a cycle. When I was a child, my sister and I took the school bus. Some of my strongest friendships were formed in the school bus”
“But most schools don’t run them any more. All we have are vans plied by private drivers that the school administration has no control over. Many of them are young and rash and frankly quite unsafe” She says
I can’t disagree with that. As we finish our walk and hit the main road to head back home four young boys cross us on their motorbikes. They slow down as they come close to us. One of them whistles another passes a lewd comment, and the others laugh. When my friend and I shoot them an angry look. They rev up their motorbikes and take off. Billowing a cloud of smoke from their exhaust pipes right onto our faces.
My friend and I are disgusted.”What is it with these young boys?” ” Why can’t they pass a woman by any woman of any age without making cheap cat calls”
Above I’ve given you a capsule of an average day of not only my life but of the life of thousands of other middle class educated women in India. There are many problems we face every day. Discrimination at work, corruption, red tape, etc. But I will limit my essay today to the five problems brought forth in the events recounted above.
Problem number one:
Though most women my class will tell you that problem number one is finding efficient maids. I think problem number one is creating a safety network for maids like Shanti. These women toil all their lives. Put in longer hours than any of us ‘working women’. Yet they are not entitled to any health insurance, life insurance or pension. They have no formal system of saving, no ‘social security net’ they can rely on, in time of distress. Though the government can and must do more to ensure that all working people whether employed in the formal or the informal sector have access to medical insurance and pension. As an employer I can make a change. I can find out more about the various governmental and private insurance schemes available and sign up to ensure that my maid gets health/ life insurance. Sure, it will cost me some extra money but the satisfaction I derive will be worth it.
Problem number two:
Almost all of us agree that the problem of violence against women is rampant in our country. Many of my friends have often recounted gory tales about their maids, washer women, malish walis, bartan walis, who are routinely beaten up by their husbands. What can they or I do to end this violence? There are no easy solutions to this problem. Steeped as it is, within the structure of our society that considers women inferior to men.
What you and I can do is speak up. The tendency to keep silent creates a vicious circle in which the abuser thinks it is okay to beat up his wife. Next time Shanti complains of being beaten. Instead of simply tut-tutting and expressing my sympathy. I will takeout the time to meet her husband. I will try to speak to him about the violence and tell him it is not acceptable for him to hit her. I can also meet Shanti’s in-laws or women from her neighborhood and ask them to stand up for her. I can offer her my home as a shelter if she needs it.
Problem number three:
It is not true that violence exists only in lower working class families. Violence both – mental and physical are very much present within our homes too. While we easily acknowledge and speak about the violence to others. There is a culture of silence, that keeps us, educated middle/ upper class women quiet about our own experiences with violence. It is always easier to buy peace by keeping quiet.
We have to begin to stand up for ourselves. Next time our spouses/ in-laws/ families are disrespectful or insensitive to us. We must respect ourselves enough to demand that we be treated better or have the courage to walk out. I am an educated independent career woman. I know I am capable of managing my finances and my life myself. I don’t need to stay with a man at the cost of my self-respect. The fear that binds me is the fear of society. I won’t let this nameless fear hold me back from living my life as I wish to. In the same tune, next time I come across an independent woman living on her own I will not make assumptions about her character.
Problem number four
Eve teasing! Why is it than not only men but even boys feel it is their birthright to make cat calls at every woman they see. Boys when alone do not usually misbehave but the minute they are with their friends they think it is manly to tease women/ girls.
Talking about grown ups around me. I am struck more and more by how biased and misinformed people are about people different from themselves. People are petrified of Muslims, apathetic about economically disadvantaged , and the men are complete insensitive to women’s issues. These are people who are very ‘well educated’, most of them with respectable professional degrees. One can’t help wondering how they managed to complete 18 to 22 years within the education system and still missed the basics.
The recent Delhi rape case brought forth a lot of discussion about changing the way men thought and behaved. I have come to believe that gender sensitivity is a matter of an attitude/ a perspective and the place to impart that perspective is at school. I think we lay too much stress on academic achievements and don’t touch upon inculcating a sensitive humane personality.I feel it is imperative that we speak about gender and social equity with children at school. Talking about gender should be about developing an understanding of society’s assigned gender roles and expectations. It should include talking with children about what they consider ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ thing to do. We need to break these constraining role models handed over by society so that our future generation is not tied up with this false sense of macho-ism and femininity.
I propose to start from home. To talk to the children around me about gender and social equity. I also propose to approach the school next door to talk with students there about gender and concepts of equity. I envisage “Talking gender and social equity” as a short course – two to three weeks to be conducted with school children as a part of their curriculum. The course would have exercises that would encourage children to reflect on socially constructed roles and expectations. I am imagining a kind of capsule learning programme that can spark children’s sensitivity. The program would be adapted to different ages and can be repeated a couple of times during a child’s school life.
Problem number five
Traffic and road safety. Though this is unrelated to the problems discussed above. It is a very real problem that most of urban India faces today. We need to urgently address this issue or else it will become impossible to survive in our cities which are choking up with car fumes. The most important step will be to create good quality public transport systems. Though that is the work of the government and we can not undertake that on a personal level. We can still take some steps that will help in addressing this problem. We can raise our voices in our children’s schools or in the schools we teach that at least these schools provide good quality, efficient and safe transport facilities to the students. Next time we speak to a local MLA, or go to vote, we need to raise the issue of public transport. If we as voters demand better public transport most probably we will get it.