Over the past weekend, a cartoonist friend wrote on her Facebook status: “A day for women!! A DAY! Thank you very much, mighty kind of you, sir!”
The sarcasm is not lost. Another link took us to an article put out by the British newspaper The Guardian, which spoke of “the gender war of household chores”. It showed a woman immersed in housework, and a comment read “women everyday”.
March 8 marked International (Working) Women’s Day. The day was adopted by the UN only in 1975 and had its roots in socialist and leftwing protests a century ago. Things have come a long way from the times when the day was marked by tiny, fringe active groups, to times when the event gets observed by students in the university, the State (however conservative) and commented on by the Pope.
In a state like Goa, the situation is complex indeed. Women have seen a swift change in their situation over the last two to three decades, one could argue. (Not everyone might agree.) But that has come about not because Goan men are particularly chivalrous, liberal or generous, but mainly due to forces like education for women and migration, one suspects. Because of these trends, the positive changes in the roles assigned to women came about, not thanks to anybody’s generosity or farsightedness.
In recent months, the #metoo debates have shifted the focus largely to the war in sexual equations between the genders. In any debate, you can choose any aspect to focus on, and here too. I personally felt while the issue of sexual misconduct is an important one (especially if you’re a woman), it tends to put all males somewhat on the defensive. As one woman bluntly and rather colourfully put it on Twitter: “I’m sorry you had only shitty men in your life, but then not every man is a rapist, just as not every woman is a whore.”
Concerns on the issue need to also focus on the role that women are given in society, the glass ceilings they face, how girls and women are different from boys and men and which of these legitimate differences need to be accepted, the aspirations that women are compelled to grow up with, the pressures they face in their families or their workspace and in society, and much more.
Growing up in a generation that has seen the gender equations drastically change since the 1960s, one feels there is another aspect of this issue which gets mostly swept under the carpet. That is what’s happening to the role of men, and how they are responding to it all.
Goa, of course, is in a slightly different – or rather different? – position from much of the rest of India when it comes to the gender debate. Women get quite a bit of access to some forms of higher education and play significant roles in the workplace. Religion might not have survived as we know it without women, even if they are not given positions of power. Goa might seem to be deceptively egalitarian at times; my Pakistani women colleagues were quite surprised to see so many women riding two-wheelers in the state.
But of course, gender issues are not decided on by who rides what on the roads. Women can still get serially killed, hung by their own dupattas, and some months later the state will forget all about it. Till the 1980s, there was a marked bias against employing women, say, in many newspapers (I know), though now many sections of the media are ably ‘manned’ by women. Education, nursing, even lower sections of government are women-driven in Goa.
Since the 1960s, the role that men have been expected to play in society has undergone vast changes itself. As women enter the workforce in huge numbers (but not always equal numbers at the top), the inability of men to accept the reality might be in part reflected by all the alleged sexual misconduct at the workplace. This is no justification, but just a description of the reality.
Women are seeking equality, but would it be scaremongering to say that women could soon become more-than-equal? I recall the times when newspapers would carry ‘Girls outshine boys’ headlines, after high-school or higher-secondary results. This is not news anymore. (There is another entire debate about why boys perform poorly in our academic system, but let’s not go there.)
If someday women get the levers of power in their hands, will they be a better ruling class than the males they accuse of mismanaging things badly? In our college days, many of the more thoughtful and articulate young women would define themselves as feminists. Some of us males were also sympathetic to their cause; after all, if we wanted a better world for everyone, on what grounds could we deny the same right to one gender which comprised half of humanity?
Today, one can easily come across women who shrink away from the ‘feminist’ label and would not like to use it to describe themselves. Is it an indication that the issue has been pushed too far, not in the direction needed, or only on some aspects that it should be touching? It is also a sign of our times that campaigners like Madhu Kishwar, whose thought-provoking magazine on women and society called ‘Manushi’ we read, subscribed and even gifted with pride earlier, have themselves reached out to quite another end of the political spectrum themselves.
Men in Goa are only reluctantly getting used to the idea that empowering women will also mean a loss of their privilege. But while this issue is sometimes aggressively taken forward, there are few signs of evidence that a serious debate can take place from both sides of the issue.
Everyone seems to say that our world has always been living with such problems. Maybe that’s not true. While we obviously had such cases since the beginning of time, till not very long back, the hold of religion, and concepts like sin, might have deterred many from such actions earlier. Our young (and not so young) men will need to relearn about what kinds of behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Women will need to avoid confusing sexual attention and desirability with affection and friendship.
A friend in distant Canada, George Lessard, put it well in a Facebook post. He quoted journalist and author Gene Fowler (1890-1960) as saying: “Men are not against you; they are merely for themselves.” Isn’t that how life is, mostly?