Freedom and Women

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What does freedom mean to you as a woman?

Freedom can not be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.                         --------- Nelson Mandela

India celebrates its 74th independence day on 15th August this year. In the last 73 years, India has become one of the top ten economies in the world. We have made great strides in space research, science and technology and many other sectors, leading to enormous growth.

Yet, with all these achievements, one area that has consistently been a black spot is women’s rights and safety. I recently asked a cross-section of women in my network “What does freedom mean to you as a woman?”

Some of the replies that came back:

  • Freedom to me, means to be able to decide for myself
  • To be able to say “No” when I want to say “No”
  • To have financial independence
  • Freedom to me is to walk out in the dead of night if I want to, without feeling scared
  • Freedom means to be able to leave everything behind and go somewhere backpacking, and not being harassed or molested…
  • To me, being free is to break all taboos such girls cannot do this, girls cannot do that….
  • Freedom to be me

In short, you could say that there is more to freedom than the freedom granted on paper by our laws. If we want true freedom for Indian girls and women, we need to aspire to and hold our leaders, role models and our families accountable for a far more expanded definition of freedom:

  1. Freedom from dependency:

My father was in the Indian Army and I was fortunate to receive a balanced upbringing. We are two sisters who never had to face any gender bias within our family. We were raised as independent individuals. My father insisted that we learn martial arts before we learned how to dance. My mother ensured that we were athletic and sporty before she allowed us to worry about our looks. We were encouraged to aspire to academic excellence and professional independence before we settled down with our life partners.

Yet, when I look around, far too often, women are moulded into domesticity from an early age, in stark contrast to the male child. There is limited willingness to spend on educating girls and as we grow up, we are encouraged to make educational or professional choices that may be prejudicial to our growth but are seen to be better aligned with our marriage prospects.

We need more parents to step up and encourage their children, regardless of gender, to aspire to personal and financial independence via educational and professional achievements.

  1. Freedom From Violence

Looking back, I often feel that the freedom that I found within my family was a shelter from the harsher truths of our society. When I started my career in Kolkata, I realised coming back home after work was only safe as long as I had a company car or a colleague coming home to drop me off. There was a detailed protocol to be followed if I was travelling outstation for office work. Travel was to be limited to vehicles provided by the officially appointed and vetted company car vendor for fear of any untoward incident in a regular cab.

As any woman will be able to relate to, women are held accountable not only for their own behaviour but also for that of any miscreant that may choose to attack them. In the aftermath of any rape or assault, questions inevitably turn to what was the woman wearing or what was she doing, choosing to go to the place where she happened to be attacked. Perverse as it might seem, women are seen to have a duty not to give men the temptation or the opportunity to attack.

Nor is the threat only outside the house or only from strangers. It can equally lurk inside the house, in the form of domestic violence or in the office in the form of sexual harassment.

Women cope with all this by trying to be as watchful as they can; by measures such as not venturing out alone after the sun sets or by keeping pepper spray in their handbags. These may help maximise our safety but do they really maximise our freedom? Of course not! We live in a society where the threat of physical harm to women is ever present and it lives, seeped into our conscience in a thousand corrosive ways.

Yet other realities are possible. As a traveller, I have seen single backpackers in other countries, travelling alone and boldly enjoying their freedom. Will I be ever able to do so in India during my lifetime? Somehow, I doubt it.

  1. Freedom from inequality

Across the world, India included, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts. While diversity and inclusion have made welcome strides onto boardroom agendas and corporate governance in recent years, much remains to be done. In particular, while legal redress may be available for the most egregious offences such as very blatant discrimination, much of discrimination takes the form of micro-aggressions that eat away at our self esteem and professional growth gradually over time.

In my own career as a banker in London working for a bank with progressive policies on paper, I have seen discrimination take the form of client accounts arbitrarily taken away and reallocated just before deal finalisation, after I announced I was pregnant. I have received unsolicited suggestions that I should step down to achieve a better work life balance on return from maternity, despite my previous role being guaranteed under UK law. I have had to fight battles for appropriate pay increases in face of arbitrariness that deemed my achievements retrospectively insignificant and my misses retrospectively critical and non-negotiable. I have been told that I should temper my salary hike expectations since I was not the main breadwinner in my family, whereas my male colleagues were (often in spirit i.e. their self-image rather than in actual fact).

I picked and won some of these battles, even as I let others slide. The point though is it can be intensely wearing on the spirit and too often women choose to grin and bear it.

Studies show a sharp drop in pay equality after motherhood. Getting back to work after having a child is often the reason why many women drop out of or fall significantly behind in their formal careers.

The motherhood penalty is deeply unfair and morally untenable. As women, we want freedom from workplace discrimination and want recognition and remuneration based on the work we do and the skills we have, instead of our gender. 73 years after independence that freedom is yet to be achieved.

  1. Freedom from stereotypical genderisation

We live in a patriarchal world where a woman’s identity is defined as someone’s daughter, wife or mother. Her achievements as a professional or as an individual are always secondary to her societal status. Meanwhile too often, men are brought up (by women who, it must be said, have internalised patriarchal norms to the point of passing them on their children). Sons are brought up without basic domestic skills, with a sense of entitlement that holds all domestic chores to be the woman’s problem. Men are often brought up with shockingly poor sensitisation towards women’s rights; exacerbated in no small measure by the amplification of gender stereotypes by media portrayals and poor role models in public life who often get away with abusive statements or acts with utter impunity (one of them I am told, even managed to become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth!).

Patriarchal straitjackets lie at the heart of the unequal world we find ourselves in. I find it difficult to envision true freedom unless we have evolved to a less patriarchal society.

I could go on but I think the points above will suffice to underscore that no country can be truly free, if its women have to live in shadow and fear.

Laws are not enough. Harsh sounding penalties are not enough (unless backed up by empathetic policing and meaningful conviction rates). Fine words and speeches are certainly not enough. The change needs to begin inside our homes and our schools and roll across our institutions, our workplaces and our organisations. Women need more than lip service. We need meaningful change and a culture of respect that extends into every sphere of personal, political and public life.

I don’t know how soon and when will we get there but as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. My husband and I are doing our best to bring up our son and daughter in a spirit of equality and un-gendered possibility. I hope you are all doing the same. Here is hoping that a generation from now, when somebody like me contemplates freedom in India, they will not need to reflect on the unfairness of gender discrimination. They will be able to enjoy the gift of India’s freedom, truly free of bias or prejudice.

On that happy note, I wish you all Happy Independence Day. May we all keep rising to ever greater, shared triumphs!

Piyu Dutta is a career banker turned entrepreneur. She has worked with global banks for more than 17 years across the UK and India. She provides her domain expertise in Corporate & SME Banking to various clients. She advises boards of mid-sized companies in the UK and in India. She is passionate about gender equality at workplaces and has founded a platform called Leadhers for mentoring professional women. Mother of two kids. Brown belt in Karate and a fitness enthusiast.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author.

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