An Indian Entrepreneur’s Plea to Her Brother

The Story Exchange By The Story Exchange

Gauri Singh with her brother

Gauri Singh is founder of The Maids’ Company, a social enterprise in the housekeeping sector promoting equality. After we interviewed Singh for our article The Harsh Realities for India’s Working Women, she sent us a letter to her brother following a heated argument they had in the wake of the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old student. It offers insights into the complicated nature of gender in India and is a passionate plea for hope.

I had a huge fight with my brother today. When I say fight, I mean heated exchange of words. I even cursed him, which didn’t help matters the least bit. The funny thing is, we always fight on socio-political issues – right wing versus left wing, who is worse – bureaucrats or politicians, and we are well aware of each other’s positions, which haven’t changed much over the years. In these many discussions over the past decade, I have never really been riled up enough to actually attack him personally and be nasty to him. I called my brother a misogynist ass. This could not be further from the truth. There are very few men I know who I can say are truly feminist. My brother clearly falls in that category – by thought and more importantly, by action. Obviously he was very hurt and annoyed with my comment.

My survival is dependent on my rebellion.
I spent the last few hours analyzing where all this anger came from. It was clearly disproportionate to the argument at the time and totally misdirected. I think it came from the fact that too often feminists are put down as being too aggressive. Feminist equals a man hater. Gender is a soft issue.

Education/corruption/law reform/ police reform is more important than women’s equality. Women have issues for no reason. The mantra for the self-proclaimed liberal minded is “yeah, no one denies it’s important, but just not that important”. So much so, that as opposed to other haters – terrorists, racists, casteists [those who discriminate on the grounds of caste.] – a large number of people wouldn’t even know what misogynist means, forget it being an insult. It’s about feeling dismissed by the patriarchal society. It’s not getting heard in the personal and professional space. Its always having to prove one’s worth as a woman. It comes from being told your unequal place in the world repeatedly from the media, cops, judges, lawyers, businessmen, artists, and architects. It comes from getting this messaging reinforced by religion, culture, tradition, language, mass media, literature, and philosophy. It comes from feeling dismissed ALL the time. And it comes from being dismissed about being dismissed. No, I am sure he didn’t mean to be sexist, don’t be so sensitive, don’t read too much into it, don’t get so affected, what else did you expect… and it goes on!

I consider myself a rational person. I have spent the last decade working on women’s livelihood issues, and have put everything I have into it – financially, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and all of this with a lot of passion and zeal. I am single and have been living, traveling and managing on my own for the past decade and a half. I am pragmatic and recognize the patriarchal social context that I live and work in. I know that to evoke respect for a woman in India she must be a “maa” (mother), or a “behen” (sister). I understand the larger societal mindset, and have, over the years, honed my skills in being effective as a woman in this context. I take a man with me when a male presence is required to balance an equation. I can keep my surface cool while suffering a sexist dimwit because I need to keep my eye on the ball. Therefore, I pick my battles for the sake of the war and the every day “don’ts” and the omnipresent judgment does not bother me. Or I thought so!

Like all independent and liberal women, I have created systems where I can navigate the daily threat. Over the past decade, I have gone from being a rebellious twenty something who refused to accept a different reality, to being “practical”. I have stopped punctuating with “why”. This was not by choice. This wasn’t acceptance. This was survival.

I was wrong. My survival is dependent on my rebellion.

For the longest time, the issue of security of women in India, my utter frustration with it and how no one seems to want to do anything about it, especially women, has been my constant rant to anyone and everyone who would be patient/kind/interested enough to listen. Post December 16, for the first time everyone (I use everyone loosely) is listening and talking about it. I can feel the frustration of women bubble up to the surface. I don’t know why it takes a brutal gang rape (not the first by any means) to finally get people to wake up about the treatment of women in India. But it’s also heartening to see women and men talk about it with seriousness, it’s awesome to hear women shout out loud, it’s inspiring to see them take initiative and shut down misogynist pop stars. There is this faint glimmer of hope of a better future for my darling nieces and nephews. I want to cling to this hope and do everything in my power to keep the fire going.

But I am not blind. I can see the political establishment dead. The discourse is already shifting from substance to symbolism. History tells us that our society has a short-term memory and our movements perish without much impact. I can see the media glare dimming and can see them salivating at the next story. I can see my facebook feed change from articles based on women issues to vacation photographs. I don’t see any industry or establishment make any substantial moves – be it Bollywood or the corporate world. While the initial reactions and the movement instilled hope and faith in me, the subsequent dwindling of focus fills me with sorrow as I already see the approaching death of this movement.

So, to my dear brother who I love and respect very much, the anger and the frustration were not directed at you. I know you are a wonderful feminist. It was directed at your cynicism. It was directed at you not escalating this change to the top of your “better world” wish list. It announced the death of a movement that I want to cling to. I know our realities are different but I appeal to all, men and women equally – please don’t be cynical, please have hope, please continue to let this remain a part of your active imagination, please protest with passion, please keep working hard to balance this world. Please do this for the women of this world, please promise me that you will try everyday.

The Story ExchangeAn Indian Entrepreneur’s Plea to Her Brother
  • rahul

    i felt every word of this article …. it moved me ..thank you for sharing and being so honest !

  • Anu Ganesh

    Well said Gauri. May all women have brothers like yours.

  • http://twitter.com/anaredmond Ana R

    Good Luck, Gauri. It’s not just one place or time or person that needs your rebellion – http://infinut.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/nirbhayas-courage/

  • Sekhar

    I don’t exactly agree with you…I mean obviously there are differences between men and women and society reacts to this difference by assigning them different societal and cultural roles. I think it stems from the the start of society, how men used to go out and hunt and women used to stay home and cook the hunted meat. The only reasons these roles were assigned in this manner were because obviously due to the physical prowess of men over women, it seemed practical and more efficient that men were the hunters and women the homemakers. This has slowly evolved to current society where the men are the breadwinners, go out and work and women are the nurturers who stay home. It seems to have a biological context as well and ties with Darwin’s survival of the fittest–men ensure the survival of his clan by providing food/money and women make sure that the clan doesn’t die out by nurturing the clan’s progeny. If this division were not integral and a core element of the culture of humankind, it would have died out long back a more competitive and efficient trait/norm taking it place. The very reason it hasn’t is a testament to its effectiveness.

    What she seems to be getting at is that now women don’t want to be limited to this ancient role–they think of it as a burden, a inequality rather than trying the understand the underlying CAUSE of the difference. Now society itself has changed, the man no longer has to be the sole breadwinner, both are taking on the man’s role, and but in my opinion, this seems to lead to the key aspect of “nurturing” be suffering in society–women are taking on the man’s role, but now who is there to take on the women’s role? As in everything in life, there should be a balance. Women can go out and work, but they cannot forget their fundamental role. There is inequality because there never was equality in the first place–men are different than women, they are supposed to complement each other, ying and yang, shiva shakthi, it’s the very equality that is the BASIS of society. We should revel in it not criticize it.

    • The Sky

      Well, all that ancient ‘men hunt and women cook’ scenario, evolved to this point for a reason. Point is, you don’t hunt anymore, in fact you cook. The best cooks are males now. The best hair dressers and make-up artists are men. I know fathers who can change diapers better than a mom! And women don’t have to do physical work anymore as work itself has changed! Work is not in the jungle, but in offices. So there is your balance. And yes there is always a balance. The imbalance is caused by men like you…who so desperately want to cling on to the archaic ‘hunter’ role as they feel threatened by women standing shoulder to shoulder with them at work places.
      And we are not equal physically. But all we want is equal rights! We are more vulnerable physically, that is why men have to hold our hands and fight for us, while we fight for ourselves. Clearly, you are not at all like a man that a sister, daughter or wife can have a fight with, like the author mentioned above. Its a pity!

      • Sekhar

        Clearly, You haven’t read what i’ve wrote. I’m not against women rights or anything. They can have what ever they want, everyone should be treated with equality and with no gender bias. I know people don’t hunt for food anymore nor they go to jungle for food. I was making a point how it all started *Sigh* …..Your point of men being best cooks, hair dressers etc is all called “WORK” and earning bread for the family. That doesn’t define balance at all. So let me understand your point of view. So because men can cook, do all the chores you want them to be home and take care of kids and family while women can go to offices? is that what you mean? It is easy for you to point at me and say Men like you….look into your family or people around you first before pointing at me. No one would give their daughter to a man who wants to be a home father and do chores and take care of family. The first thing they would see “Is the guy well settled? Is he making enough $$$$. I did not accuse anyone unlike you pointing at me directly when you don’t know anything about me. Yeah Pity for people like you

        • Modern Marvel

          Are u explaining what it was like in stoneage or do u really believe that women are the nurturers???..i wonder whats wrong with men staying at home and looking after the kids if they want to..why is it ok that a woman should stay at home and look after the kids and cook when a man can do it as well. Ofcourse this is based on a mutual understanding. And the very same traditional and conservative mindset of defining a woman’s role of nurturing and looking after the house etc etc… is so backward. We no longer physically live in stone age but obviously, men mentally enjoy the privilidge of being called the “breadwinner” . If education truely prevailed in every household in treating women equally, giving them the rights to do whatever they wish to do without restricting them to cooking and being the nurturer, we would be seeing true equality today. Unfortunately everyone seems to be completly acceptable of the fact that women are second to men and moreso i have seen more women accept that. I am sure it would hurt your ego to sit at home and have your woman go to work..since its not a very manly thing to do..:-)

        • Lon2516

          “I mean obviously there are differences between men and women”
-Sure, men typically have more upper body strength, which is great for close-quarter fighting. Although… if you took most women from a Yoga class and most engineers off the street, you might find it is not always the case.

          Actually, you are incorrect about a few (all) things, society would have started more equally, not with gender division. In the Lower Paleoithic period it would have been scavenging, and not hunting for the primary food source and there has been no evidence to any gender roles based on these activities. Also, there is little evidence suggesting any society has had a full sexual division of labor where men only hunt and women gather fruits and nuts. Hunting is time consuming and difficult. You need everyone working for new food each day so if there is division it is often the women might hunt smaller game while men hunt larger game (again, the upper body strength is handy)….but even in later societies without large game hunting, there are still many where both genders hunt the same game equally or hunt together.

          Along with the upper body strength, the large game hunting by men was a great way to gain social status and improve their odds for mating. If women traditionally gathered the more reliable foods, the men could try (much less reliable) to showcase their genetic quality and status to the women by coming back with large game. However, in societies where the women still gathered the smaller game and food, since it was a more reliable (although less exciting) food source than large game, it became in a man’s interest to “protect” his woman (or physically dominate). Isolating her role will allow you to ensure she is there to provide you with food when you are not able to hunt, and it might also provide you more confidence that the offspring is yours if you limit her movement and independence. Later societies might have grown from wars and armies and not through smaller scale food accumulation, which benefits from a model that promotes the virtues of strength. We would not be without society if it wasn’t for gender bias….we would have simply been left with the societal structures that were prevalent for a much greater period of our time, which involved MORE equality. Societies that placed more focus on wealth accumulation and physical strength for military might were able to wipe out more egalitarian societies and gave way to the civilizations we have today…so it is not because of gender inequality that we have civilization, it is because of it though that the civilizations that we have today continue to still have such imbalance in their make up. Given that wars today use little upper body strength and a women could fly a drone from the home she just finished cleaning, I am not sure there is still a need for such imbalance.

          When one group begins to get an edge in social power, it tends to consolidate and protect that power. If you can control the laws and education, then you can produce works which justify the inequality and support your group’s edge. Even 100 years ago you would mostly find published works talking about how different the female mind and body was compared to the man which would justify the segregation of roles. (“A woman is slow, dainty, prone to faint, and has weekend lung capacity.”…sure…but it might have had a little something to do with the mounds of fabric, high heels, and the physically restrictive corset which can cut off circulation and crush the lungs from being able to fully expand.) The same was done while trying to give scientific justification to slavery. Since simple academic or literary works are not enough to control a segment of society, you need to make sure gender inequality is also justified through religion and scriptures. It is difficult to argue with injustice if it is “God’s will”. So if your gender can control the scriptures, such as the all male councils who selected the books for the Christian bible or you are Constantine or King James, then it should not be a surprise that your gender is able to maintain its social grip and social divisions are enforced. Again, not unlike how religion has been used in the justification of slavery or the caste system. There are not any major religions today where female religious leaders were used to define the scriptures or their original interpretations….so it should not be a surprise that religion has not typically been used to promote equality. Which is a bit odd…if women exist for love, and beauty, and compassion, and nurturing a family, and giving birth…these traits seem more inline with God, so you would think women would be more in control over the path of religion, but they are not. Political/military stability needs religion to come on board with the social view that protects its power structure….so if you were an early religious leader…in might have been in your best interest to promote a bit of gender inequality in your teachings if it kept the powers that be happy, society more inline, and it meant you would be more easily protected by the state.

          “No one would give their daughter to a man who wants to be a home father and do chores and take care of family. The first thing they would see “Is the guy well settled? Is he making enough $$$$.”
First- should a daughter be “given” to a man like other property? Also, if you can keep women from earning, then you can maintain your hold on social order. A man is not needed to hunt big game, but if he can define laws and social norms to keep women from hunting the same “big game” and earning on their own, then you can maintain your control and force female dependence. “I have money. Women do not. Therefore I will get a woman.”

          So, civilization actually all started WITH equality of the genders, and if you can fight, rape, and secure wealth then you can control power, and use that to ensure your own reproductive chances. If you control power, then you control education, religion, and laws to further secure and define a role that benefits you. The gender inequality is neither “how it began”, nor a romantic (in fact its often a violent) notion that needs to be recognized or valued…and certainly not one to use to define how a rational society should act today.

          Also, your yin/yang comment is cute…but not valid logic and it is actual part of the problem…the Yin is the “female” component and described as being negative, yielding, soft, cold, passive, etc while the “male” Yang is positive, aggressive, hard, focused, solid, etc., which is just another way to try to justify the inequalities…and surprise, the concept and the assignment of gender to it was not created by women. Are women really passive by nature, and so should be fenced in at home….or when you do not have the same legal or financial protections or even physical strength…is being passive your only mode of survival? “Remember slavery where we told people that there are just genetic and social differences that should determine roles and are justified by God and the laws of nature, and we were able to imprison, beat, or use them anyway we wanted?” “Ya…that was how it use to always be….good times, we should make sure that never totally changes….good thing we still have women.”

    • Gauri

      When we say equality we don’t mean “same-same”. We mean
      equality when it comes to rights of women as opposed to rights of a man in a
      modern civilized society. The breadwinner versus nurturer linking back to
      hunter-gatherers has been an argument, which has been around forever. I am not
      engaging with this argument as I think that’s distracting from the issue at
      hand – mentioned in the piece above. The piece above does not
      discuss/comment/talk about the role of a woman versus a man in modern society.
      This not about what personal choice a man or a woman makes – they can choose to stay at home and care for their families or go out into the world and work.
      Today that’s a gender-neutral choice. The comment is about – do women even have that choice to make??

      The point being made is about the unequal treatment of women
      in India, which is reinforced by the society at large. Its about unequal pay
      for the same work, hours and merit; its about the security to move in public
      space irrespective of the time; its about the glass ceiling that exists; its
      about having the same moral code of judgment for a man and a woman; its about
      unequal education; its about the unequal opportunities from the time they are
      born to the time they die; its about the freedom of choice.

  • R K

    I am of the opinion that women are gradually growing as a force and given the twists and turns, mankind’s course of history has had, there will certainly be a time, when future human societies practice equality or even if not, the dominating gender has to succumb. Any upheaval in the past has taken its time without happening overnight. Just taking the case of our independence movement, sepoy mutiny was followed by a lull, eventually followed by formation of Congress, other movements, salt satyagraha, culminating in Quit India and arriving at independence. Equality is one thing, the feminine gender is struggling for atleast a few centuries. Earlier it lacked preparedness in terms of access to education, income etc, but gradually due to many initiatives from the societal elements as a whole, spaces were created and also spaces got created for this preparedness. Hence this should eventually culminate at a point where the society recognizes the female and it certainly shall – probably towards the end of our lifetime or another 50 years down the road. Meanwhile, the male counterpart has to understand at his best in accommodating his opposite gender. Having said the above, the female gender has to enjoy her freedom with dignity, respect and importantly with responsibility rather than to compete. Ultimately as long as we understand our better roles better, keep our relations symbiotic, society will always be conducive to equality. It will be not in “who runs the show better”, but in “how well the show runs”.

  • Hitendra

    Talking about cynicism, most of us are content living on a borrowed one. I am trying to get people involved in my project by asking them to at least earn their cynicism over a course of 2/3 – the time before which they dont even switch their jobs. Getting mixed results. :)

  • amarjot

    straight from the heart…

  • Karin Kamp

    Wondering what people in India think about the ‘knife initiative in Mumbai: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21384169