Saturday, May 26, 2012

Unequal unions

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 27, 2012

Taking the plunge: Wishes fulfilled? AFP PHOTO
Taking the plunge: Wishes fulfilled? AFP PHOTO
Why should women obliterate their personalities, their lives, once they get married?
Last week, a young man, 24 years old and a graduate, introduced me to his new bride. He comes from a tradition-bound Maharashtrian family. The couple had completed their round of temples in the city. And I was told that after a month, the bride, a girl born and brought up in Mumbai like the bridegroom, would be dispatched to a village in the Konkan to help his mother with the housework.
The young man introduced his wife as Tapasya. I asked the young woman her name. She said it was Usha. “But ‘they' have changed my name”, she said. And both seemed to accept this unquestioningly. As if it was the most natural thing to do. So the girl loses not just her last name but also her first name. In other words, she becomes a new person, apparently with no connection with her past.
This name-changing custom, followed only in some parts of India, is at the extreme end of the continuum that ordains that a woman's identity and independence ends the day she takes her marital vows.

The change of name might seem a minor issue. But it is what it represents that needs to be questioned. Why? We need to ask that. Is it essential? Will it make a difference to the quality of the marriage? Will it make a difference to the lives of the young people entering into matrimony? And why only the girl? Perhaps both ought to change their names so that they start their lives on a completely clean slate!

First in France

A stark contrast is France where the new woman in the Presidential Palace in France, is the first unmarried woman to live there alongside the man elected as President. On May 6, France voted in Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party as President. With him came his “First Lady”, Valerie Trierweiler. The two are not married and as of now have no plans to do so.

Ms. Trierweiler has been married twice, divorced twice and has three children. Mr. Hollande has four children from a previous relationship. And the French do not think this relationship is worth even a comment.

What is interesting about this is not just the non-marital arrangement. Or the ease with which the French seem to accept it, but the fact that Ms. Trierweiler, a 47-year-old political journalist with two decades of experience, has chosen to continue in her profession. She says she has no plans to be financially dependent on her live-in partner. “I haven't been raised to serve a husband. I built my entire life on the idea of independence,” she is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

The idea here is not to advocate an end to the institution of marriage or to debate whether live-in relationships are ideal. But the example of the independent Ms. Trierweiler is interesting not just because she is with the President of France, but because their relationship and her attitude towards it highlights an important question on women and marriage.

Is it essential for a woman to obliterate her personality, her life, once she gets married, or when she enters into a publicly-acknowledged relationship with a man? Does she not have the right to remain her own person?

Is there something sacrosanct about women subsuming their lives in that of the men they marry or live with?

Surely this is one of the reasons girls count for so little in our society.

In India, we are not encouraged to ask such questions. In fact, questioning in general about anything is actively discouraged. Children are firmly told not to be pesky if they question. Girls are put in their place if they do — or called “Maoists” as a Kolkata student was branded by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a recent television talk show.

In our educational institutions, “note-taking” is the norm, not argument and questioning. As a result, there are scores of so-called customs that continue unquestioned by most people except a few who are inevitably called “rebels”. But women's status within marriage is most certainly an issue that needs constant questioning.

Expected sacrifices

Some of this is changing as more girls get educated and follow careers. Many customs have been questioned and have been modified. Yet, the expectation that the woman will automatically and willingly “sacrifice” her independence, her career, her personality, and even her given name at the altar of marriage somehow remains sacrosanct.

What is even more perplexing is how, despite a so-called “modern” education, the majority of girls continue to accept without question that their years of freedom, or independence, are limited to the time they get married.

Some edifices are too solid, too difficult to bring down. But perhaps we can begin by training our young people to ask: Why?

(To read the original, click here )

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Aamir, listen in

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 13, 2012

Business as usual... Photo: N. Sridharan
Photo: N. Sridharan

Everyone is talking about Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate programme. The criticism is muted and much of it predictable. Most viewers have been impressed by it. The first episode was suitably engaging and shocking. It focussed on sex-selective abortion (a more precise and correct term rather than the more commonly-used ‘female foeticide') and the consequences of the declining sex ratio. Even the cynics must agree that every attempt to make a dent in the entrenched mindset in this country, where educated people think nothing of making women go through multiple abortions simply because they believe they must have a son, is welcome.

The actor has probably got all his episodes in place. But here is a subject that he should consider, one that requires the same kind of puncturing of middle-class attitudes that he did quite effectively in his maiden episode. Predictably, people interviewed said only the poor, illiterate and rural people resort to practices like sex-selection. Khan established with effective and simple graphics that the exact opposite was the case. I also liked the simple and clear way he stated that it is the male that determines the sex of the foetus. It's frightening how many people refuse to accept this as a fact.

Helping hands

The subject I suggest is a programme on domestic help. All of us have people “working” for us. Yet, we do not grant them the rights of workers. They are invisible, part of the furniture, taken for granted. With increasing urbanisation, and women stepping out of the home for jobs, the middle class is ever more dependent on such help. Yet greater demand has not led to better conditions for these workers.
Despite articles in the media, some campaigns, and notable documentary films like “Laxmi and Me” by Nishtha Jain, we do not see a shift in attitudes towards domestics. Instead, we read stories of violence and abuse. So, Aamir Khan, how about something on the way we treat our domestic help?
The good news is that finally, after years of campaigning for some regulation governing domestic workers, the union cabinet has prepared a note based on a draft national policy on domestic work that was prepared by the Ministry of Labour in 2009. If the policy is accepted, domestic help will come under existing laws that govern all workers such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Trade Union Act, the Payment of Wages Act, Workmen's Compensation Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act and the Equal Remuneration Act.

Last year, Indian delegates at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) voted for employment standards for domestic workers. The government has extended the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the central health insurance scheme, to cover domestic workers and three members of their families.

In the policy, a domestic help is described as “a person who is employed for remuneration whether in cash or kind, in any household through any agency or directly, either on a temporary or permanent, part-time or full-time basis… but does not include any member of the family of an employer.”
What this means is that you cannot get away with paying your domestic help the pittance that most people do. As the National Floor Level for Minimum Wage is currently Rs.115 per day, a full-time domestic should be paid at least Rs.3,450 a month. She would be entitled to maternity leave, annual leave, sick leave and paid for overtime. The sexual harassment law has finally included domestic workers in its ambit. So she would be protected against sexual abuse and violence.

Syndrome of sorts

A policy like this comes not a day too soon. We shed tears about women who are forced to abort female foetuses or other victims of violence. But are we aware of the daily exploitation under our very noses? We refuse to accept that paying a woman less than the minimum wage, for work that is back-breaking and certainly something we don't want to do, is exploitative. Yet in this day and age, there is simply no justification for the “servant” syndrome to continue.

Of course, in India, rules and laws alone rarely bring about real change. It is the attitude of the people, those who employ domestics, that needs to undergo a revolutionary change. Just as in the case of sex selection, simply having a law, even with strong implementation, is not enough to make people think differently. One hopes that media interventions, like Aamir Khan's show, will begin to make a difference. At least, the issue will be discussed. It will be in the open. And those who continue with the old view will be exposed.

Similarly, domestic work needs to be talked about, the reality constantly exposed, the law implemented. The rules governing domestic work are particularly difficult to implement because contracts are individually negotiated, the exploitation takes place behind closed doors, inside people's homes. How can any government agency monitor this or insist on compliance? A change is only possible if the “employers”, people like you and me, accept that these invisible hands that make our lives so comfortable need respect, acknowledgement and above all a fair wage. 

(To read the original click here)