On June 17, there was a news item about a young woman Swati Vishwanath Nage, 29 who fell off a local train while on her way to work in Mumbai. A couple of days later, there were several follow up stories and one of the most poignant details that emerged about Swati was how she was supporting her family who lived in Valsad. She had postponed her marriage so that she could help her father, who had a small transport business and owned a truck, to pay off the educational loan that he had taken for her younger brother. Her father told newspapers that his daughter sent home money every month and was dedicated to the family. I wondered, had Swati postponed her marriage because she feared that her husband might have objected to her helping her family financially?
A new month will begin on Tuesday but I haven't been able to get Swati out of my head. What happened was truly unfortunate and I can only imagine how her parents must feel. I think what really struck me about Swati was that she was the face of the contemporary Indian woman. A woman with a good education, a woman with a drive to put that education into good use and an unfailing, touching dedication towards her family. A woman who worked hard, a woman who had dreams of a better future.
I have felt acutely over the last couple of years that as Indian women continue to take on varied roles and responsibilities, our society continues to fail them.
I am talking about attitudes. You see, as women focus on getting themselves a solid education and then a good job, and bringing home a salary that they generously share with their family (be it their parents or husband and parents in law) they are still held back by some out of date beliefs and value systems.
I have met so women who talk about how running a home is solely their responsibility in spite of the fact that they work as hard as their husbands. How their parents-in-law and their husbands forbid them to hire domestic helps like a cook, silencing them with "You can't escape cooking just because you work. When I come home at the end of the day I want food that is cooked by you. I don't want someone else to do your job" I believe cooking is therapeutic and a great art for those who enjoy it but if you have a job that entails that you will return late in the evening, you might want some help. Even women who are homemakers would want a break once in a while, a sort of weekly off that all of us in the organised sector duly claim as our right.
Recently, I received a phone call from a 33 year old US based guy, who's done no less than a Ph.D in his area of interest. He was raised in India and went to live in the US some 11 years ago. The conversation that we had will remain in my mind for a long time. Here are a few excerpts. "How would you address your husband to be? As tu or tame? (tu is the Gujarati equivalent of the Hindi tum , and similarly tame is the equivalent of the Hindi aap.) I told him that it would be something that I and and my husband would discuss. We would zero in on a form of address that both of us felt comfortable in. I also told him that I hadn't really thought of something like that but now that he asked me I recollect that most of my friends call their husbands by their names or in a very endearing way by using tu but it denotes no disrespect. I asked him, whether he would like to call his wife tame? "Well, women aren't usually addressed as tame. It's only the men who get to be called tame. And I have seen my sisters addressing their husbands as tame and I would like it to be in my case as well. The whole question is about how a woman will address her husband." His next question (and this was the first time we were interacting) was, "So, when you get married would you choose to take on your husband's surname or keep both the surnames? I have seen women using their maiden and husband's surname after their names, with a hyphen between both the surnames. I don't agree with that, it doesn't make sense. When a woman marries, she has to blend in with her husband's family. And when she changes her surname it is a step towards complete blending in. It is an affirmation of her commitment towards the guy's family." And then, he asked me whether I fasted, went to temples, or did the puja every morning. And that if I had eggs, did I have them once a week, every day or once a month? There were other things as well that really got me thinking, but I was genuinely surprised and taken aback with his conviction that (a) a husband has to be addressed as tame and that a woman of course, can't expect the same in return. Would he look down in contempt upon couples who addressed each other by their first names or especially towards women who chose to call their husband by their names or tu? (As in, a woman addressed her husband with - "Suresh, tu ketla vage ghare aavish?" (Suresh, what time would you come home?) (B), his firm opinion that women can't keep their maiden and husband's surname together and that forsaking your maiden surname is a sign of commitment. I have come across various couples, in my personal as well as professional interactions. While some women have happily changed their surnames, some have kept both set of surnames, while yet others have kept their maiden ones. I had never thought of any of the couples in a derogatory way at all. But this guy's line of thinking made me realise that not only would he have it only his way, he would probably look at women who choose to retain their maiden surnames as the sort of ones who hadn't "committed" to their husbands!
And these aren't isolated cases. My colleague at work told me about a guy who upon finding out that she was an only child and was helping her parents with monthly household expenses told her, or rather had the gall to tell her: "I really like everything about you. But the thing is, what worries me is that you help your parents with money. After we get married, I am afraid that you might continue doing so and even if it is from your own salary, I wouldn't like it. Besides, what if after a couple of years your parents might want to come and stay near you? What if they buy a house in the city where we settle?" Another friend told me about her experience, this time, it was the mother of the guy who said, "I would like a working woman. These days, one needs two salaries to run a household. After all, how can we buy things or take holidays every year if we don't have a double income? But I would like that the girl also completely takes care of the household. Our neighbour's daughter in law for instance, cooks, cleans, washes up, sweeps and goes to work. I would like my daughter in law to do the same." Yet another colleague told me about how her neighbour treats her daughter in law. The daughter in law isn't permitted to venture out without her mother-in-law's permission and when my colleague had once gone over with a bowl of kheer for the daughter in law, her mother in law had remarked, "Oh, you could have got her the left over tomorrow. After all, daughters in laws can't expect to be served fresh food."
I know that there are countless examples to counter these examples and there are good things happening as well, but I gather that there is a long way to go. We need to raise our sons differently, we need to accept that women are handling many more things than they ever did before, and they need help from their families to be able to do these things with perfection and they deserve to be treated better.