Two to Tango


A beloved friend of mine recently asked me to write a blog on how Indian women are not taught to live on their own, not encouraged to travel on their own and not expected to stand for what they believe in. I nodded in agreement at the time, wondering how I would do justice to such an article when I do all these three myself, and manage to get away with them at most times. She posted an article written by another Indian woman instead, which spoke about how Indian women should learn to be by themselves, and take up tasks that are culturally embedded in us as “male tasks”. My inspiration to write came when I was reading that very article and my seven year old peeped over my shoulder to read the headline. She asked me very innocently what the article was about and I told her. She turned to me, nonchalantly and said, “But mama, you are fine by yourself. You can do everything.” I nodded, proud for what my daughter observed and proud for the example that I was apparently setting for her.

Three years ago, and even more so before that, I would never have imagined that I was anywhere close to capable of doing anything on my own, without the support of a man. And while I won’t get into the details of my life here, I’ve realised through the process that cultures like India do not make it easy for a woman to get by on her own. Don’t get me wrong here; there are several successful and capable Indian women who thrive in the system, single women even. And the Indian middle class is changing so rapidly that what I write about now will be redundant in the next five years. However, in order to get there, we need to be aware of the implicit ways in which the system is designed to keep us in our place. And unlike popular rhetoric about everything that is wrong with the system in India nowadays, it is not Modi’s fault. Nor is it Kanhaiya’s or Rahul Gandhi’s or our ancestors’.

Everywhere in the world, there have been struggles for women to get to where they are now – and sometimes, in places that one might think are the most advanced, women still struggle. Why, in Switzerland, it was only in the 1970’s that women were even allowed to vote! Not so long ago, the sole responsibility of a woman was to reproduce and then, care for the young. It was just common sense at a time when people struggled to earn a living, often in extreme conditions and men were often sent to war. The division in gender roles made perfect sense then – after all, only women could birth and nurture their young! And at that time, rules were made, in religions and governments alike – for the purpose of keeping some societal order. Unfortunately though, when the world and its circumstances changed, there weren’t many women “sitting at the table” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) to ensure that those rules changed for them too.

And so in India, my generation was still raised to be the perfect wives and mothers, everything else, a mere compliment-worthy add-on. According to the census, around 24% of women in urban India work (the corresponding figure in a country like Norway is 73%), and several of them do extremely well for themselves. I am positive that this will keep rising in the coming years, due to changing attitudes, as well as due to the fact that the Indian economy needs its women to be more active in the workforce. However, while more women step into the workforce, there also has to be a corresponding change in the way we raise our girls, as well as our boys. A recent advertisement of a laundry detergent in India reflected (or tried to advocate) this change: in the advertisement, a father apologises to his daughter for not setting a better example for her to grow up with – that household chores were equally a man’s job, and not just the woman’s.

Charming, I thought, watching the ad and thinking about all the men I know who come back from a day’s work, grab a beer and sit in front of the television, oblivious to anything else that goes around them. I also felt a sense of appreciation for those other men I know (far fewer though) who ensure that they pitch in and do their bit. What would their parents have done differently?, I wondered.

Gender roles within families are varied, with each family setting (or mirroring) societal expectations. A child raised in a family with clear cut gender roles will struggle to accept otherwise, as will a child raised in a family where tasks are carried out equally amongst the family members, especially the parents, and put into a situation with clear cut gender divisions. Socialisation sets the norm and unless a conscious attempt is made to change that norm, the status quo will remain bleak for Indian women. Or is it just Indian women?

An interesting fact is that while families in the occidental west are depicted to be more egalitarian, with equal partnership and household responsibilities, research shows that the bulk of household work is still done by women, despite holding a job outside of the house too. A research conducted by Quartz showed that Slovenian men spent more time than any other in doing unpaid housework (119 minutes in a day), followed by Danish, Estonian, French and Belgian men. The same research showed than Norwegian men (Norway being the topper on the gender equality index in the Human Development Reports in recent years) spent only an average of 58 minutes daily on unpaid housework. In 2005, Spain introduced a reformed civil code, in which marriage contracts included sharing responsibility on housework, child-care and caring for elders. In 2002, the district of Barajas in Madrid also published a manual for housewives and househusbands with tips to do regular household work (like working a washing machine); another district held a workshop on similar lines for men. An article in DailyMail, UK, quoted researchers as saying that women still spent three times more time than men in doing housework, despite the fact that both held full-time jobs.

Policy making plays a huge role in changing trends in equal opportunities for women. One of the biggest considerations in gender based role division in a family is parenthood. While most gender divisions came into existence because of the biological dependency on the woman to give birth and provide nourishment to the offspring, greater emphasis is now given to ensuring that both partners take part in childcare. Lanfranconi and Valarino, in a 2014 study, identified the Swiss policy on parental leave as “enabl[ing] a more equal division of work between men and women by fostering paternal involvement in childcare.” A 2015 study by Ronsen and Kitterod in Norway, found that the Norwegian parental leave policy “contributed to… a more equal division of paid and unpaid work among parents.”

There are several policies that have been implemented to combat the discrepancy in women’s workforce rights in the face of motherhood. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women introduced “maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances”. Similarly, the Maternity Protection Convention C 183 adopted in 2000 by the International Labour Organization requires 14 weeks of maternity leave as minimum condition. However, national laws vary widely according to the politics of each jurisdiction. Amongst the Arab-Islamic nations, the maximum maternity leave with 100% pay is given by Iran (6 months), followed by Oman (14 weeks); none of the countries offer paternal leave. In the occidental west, Estonia tops the table, offering 62 weeks of 100% paid maternity leave and two weeks of fully paid paternity leave. However, Norway does better when it comes to gender equality in parental roles, offering 25 weeks of fully paid maternity leave plus 14 weeks of fully paid paternity leave.

National policies on family vary according to the immediate socio-political concerns. Several occidental countries have initiated campaigns and incentives to promote larger families. The “Do It For Denmark” campaign was designed by travel company Spies, to help reverse Denmark’s 27 year low birth rate. The company even offers three year supplies of baby products and a complimentary child-friendly holiday for couples who conceive during a holiday booked through Spies, as well as an “ovulation discount”. Other countries with falling birth rates are also offering economic incentives to women to encourage them to have babies. Countries need an average of 2.1 children per woman to maintain a stable population. In 2013, the birth rate in the United States was 1.86, according to the Washington Times. According to them, the emphasis on a successful professional life over raising a family and the cost of having a child were the primary reasons for falling birth rates. Finland offers new mothers starter kits as incentive, while France offers liberal parental leaves and cheap child care options; Germany offers a year of partially paid maternity leave.

Conceptually, it seems an anticlimax of sorts that occidental societies have strived to push away from gender inequality and traditional family ties, only to be offered incentives to stay at home and raise children because the economy demands it. Practically, there is no denying that women are required to ensure the sustenance of a society. However, there needs to be a greater push for policy changes and a conscious shift towards men taking an equal role in household chores. And for this, like my beloved friend said, women (especially in countries where gender roles are more etched in the societal mentality) need to be encouraged to stand their ground and men need to be encouraged to change how they see the woman’s role in a society.

Unlike other posts on International Women’s Day, I do not claim that women are superior, only that we deserve to have a more equal role in society that is not dependent on our biological clocks.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

Two to Tango

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