Monday, July 5, 2010

Thats My Girl!

I received a note from an on-line friend today, asking me if there were any gender stereotypes that I went against, and to celebrate the stereotype departures.

Stereotype departures? Hmmm, have I done those? As I look back, look at the gender stereotyping, and compare my life with it - oh yes, there have been many of departures. Most of them done unconsciously though, since I did not know what “girls” were expected to do. That’s not to say that I was/am a tomboy. No, not that. I have just been me. You see, I was raised to be just myself, thanks to a doting father and mother, who never told me to not do something because I was a girl. They wanted me to follow my heart and my sinews, and believed that I could do whatever I wanted to.

So, with no gender specific expectations given to me, what kind of life did I carve out for myself?

Well, to start way back when I was a kid, I was not one of those “Seen, but not heard” types. I was a talkative child, and a very opinionated one, normally the first and the loudest to express my opinion, never mind if it was not politically correct. I could argue with other kids and adults, and sometimes even with teachers, with a bristling manner, which caused many eyebrows to be raised against my parents and the way they were raising me.

When not playing verbal duels and yakking incessantly, I enjoyed wrestling with my brothers, muscling myself into all kinds of street games that they played with their playmates – Gulli danda, Gada gadi, Sitauliya, Langdi, Catch Catch – I was game for everything except cricket- which I hated for some reason. I caused much exasperation for my mom, who had to work hard to keep me in bounds, for I was constantly breaking rules by coming late, collecting smelly bones and feathers and reading books that were forbidden – some of them hidden under my frock and carried inside loos to the read in private, away from the prying eyes of my brothers.

Things become much more fun when I turned into a teenager. I loved sports and I quickly became a part of the school basketball team, and also joined a football club. Our sports coach spotted me and got me engaged in multiple teams – Volleyball, kabaddi and kho kho, as I was one gutsy player. I could run fast, had tremendous stamina and thought much of myself, even going so far to challenge the schools Boys team for a match – which we girls unfortunately lost. I still bristle when I remember that one!

For the record, I was never a cheerleader. Our class mate boys would often come out and cheer for us when we played the school matches, and later treated us with samosas and chais!

My mother tried hard to teach me feminine work – such as embroidery, crochet, tailoring and even doll making. She was very skilled in these arts, and she worked hard on imparting some of her knowledge to me – and though I did learn how to put down a cross-stitch, I still tremble when picking up a needle. I would rather give away a torn hem to a tailor than to stitch it myself. Ditto for cooking. Mom tried hard to inculcate culinary skills in me, and made sure I stood beside her when she did her cooking, but it never interested me. Even at the ripe age of eighteen, I did not know my daals. Tuvar dal, Chana dal, Moong dal – they were all was the same to me. Sometimes, my moms friends would give her a talking-to, and she would force me to go through the culinary skill building exercises with grim vengeance. I had to then burn rotis and create burnt sabzis to escape those sessions! I did learn to cook, but till date, have remained a half-hearted one. So much so that even today, when my daughter wants to eat her favorite dish, she is more likely to ask her father to make it, rather than ask it of me.

In studies, I was equally good in languages, maths and science, though maths was clearly a favorite. I enjoyed the beauty of mathematical equations and atomic physics as much as I enjoyed the intricacies of my favorite dance, Kathak. They both moved me in similar ways. After my high school, when I opted to study engineering, nobody was surprised, even though this was in eighties, when barely 5% of an engineering class comprised of female students. I did not even know what I could do after I graduated, did not know if women engineers were hired at all. Heck, no one in my family, or for that matter, our family friends, knew a single woman engineer! But it seemed like the natural progression of things, and nobody really objected to my choice. The objections came from a different fall out of the decision.

Not only did I opt for Engineering, I hankered to go to a top notch Engineering school, which was away from my hometown, and one which had a hostel, tucked away miles away from civilization. I wanted to be on my own, on my own two feet, forging out a life for myself. Now, sending a girl child to a hostel was not an easy decision for my parents. In fact, it was the only time when I heard the gender issue being considered as a fact during the family decision making process. Several friends of my parents and respected members of the Jain community, when consulted, expressed fears about raising a girl child in this manner. My parents were warned that they would not be able to find a mate for me if they sent me away to a remote school, where they could not directly supervise me and protect my virginity. They were warned that I would turn too independent and would not get along with my future mother-in-law, warned that I would not be able to create a home with my future lord and master with this kind of upbringing etcetera.

However, I knew my father to be a sensitive fair parent, and knew that despite his fears, he would never let my gender become an issue with him. I appealed to his sense of fairness, citing example of my brother who was sent to the same remote engg school. If my brother can be sent, then why not me, I argued. Did he really believe that since I was a girl, my claim was inferior? My parents could not but agree. After having raised me as an equal child, they could not - indeed, did not want to hold me back. Gender could have mattered, but it was over-ruled. In the final decision, gender did not matter. I was ecstatic!

The engineering school that I went to reinforced my belief in being an equal sex. This school had no reservations for female students, and things were the same for all students, male or female. Competition was intense, but girls could do as well. The topper of our batch was a female, and so was the topper of the batch before us. At least, in the professional training part, Gender did not matter.

On the other part, of being the 5% female population out of the 95% male student community – Ah, there it did matter! And all for good! It gave all us girls a surfeit of male attention, so much so that even now, years later, I have never really felt the need to attract any male attention, unless it was more than a casual lust. This engineering school taught me that all I needed, really really needed, to attract a guy I wanted, was – well, I just needed to be - a female. That’s all – I just needed to be myself. No artifices were really needed. Nature has bestowed women, at least at that age, everything that is needed to attract a man. Gender does matter, but here, women really have the winning hand!

The entire cosmetic industry, I concluded back then, was based on thin air. This relieved me a great deal because I could never stick putting nail-polishes, brushing my hair, and putting mascara, etc – I found the entire beauty rigmarole irksome. The beauty skills were very difficult for me to master, for one, and for the other, I could never really get my colors right. Added to this, I hated spending money on these things. I could never really bring myself to spend money on a color cosmetic or a piece of jewellery, preferring to buy a book, or a samosa instead. Over the years, I have thought about this industry, indeed, it was one of the ways one of my employers made money, and have now agreed that it meets a need. But not to attract and retain men, as it commonly believed, but it feeds on the fears of scared women, who want to buy the belief that they can. It is sad that many of us women need to buy this confidence – if we only look deep enough in our bones, it is right there, within us and never really goes away.

So, while my parents decision to allow me to fly away from their nest made me a young girl from a child and made me confident of my abilities, my engg alma mater, gave me the confidence and awareness of my own feminine power to deal with the other gendered part of the world. And, after that, I never looked back. Never doubted that I was equal. Equal not just to the male sex, but also equal to face anything that life would throw at me.

As I graduated and walked into the professional world, I found myself absolutely at home in the factory and workplace. There were no other women engineers in the company I worked for, as it was a mining company, located in Rajasthan, a state known for its repressive practices against women. But being the only woman engineer never bothered me, and I can also say with certainty, it never bothered anyone else who worked with me. Responsibility was thrown at me by strict uncompromising demanding bosses who cut me no slack, and I delivered. I built control systems by myself, built a brand new department, negotiated with the ferocious mining workers and traveled with my male colleagues, staying at moldy rickety hotels, wherever needed, intent on what we were building and creating together. It was exhilarating, to be a part of a team, who was creating and building. It felt good to be an engineer. Though I must have been a rarity, and perhaps the only professional woman they had worked with, none of my male colleagues ever made me feel like an outsider. In fact, looking back, I think I got more respect and opportunity than I deserved, as I was still a chit of a girl, and very raw professionally. It was here that I really earned my professional spurs.

Professionally, I have since then changed multiple jobs, till the time I now find myself as an entrepreneur, leading my company, my all-male team and my business. During the journey, I have never doubted that I could not do this as I was “only” a woman. That I am a woman, and that I am an engineering entrepreneur, are two unrelated facts.

In my professional life, I doubt that I can say that I had to work 10 times more than my male colleagues to be where I am today. I had to work hard – very hard at times - every professional has to do that, but I do not think that I worked the hardest. There were many of my male colleagues, who worked harder, and just like me, their progression was governed by the market exigencies of the time, the kind of clout the bosses carried, and I, along with them rued the multiple slips possible on the corporate ladder. For as many gender related slip-rungs on it, the corporate ladder has many more which were otherwise. In a long career, gender does not really matter.

Ah, but that was the professional side of it. But how about the personal side of it? Was I not subjected to gender stereotypes here, in the great Indian Marriage, bound by the most intimate and lasting relationship of it all, the often-called stifling relationship where the men rule over the women with a iron fist?

Well, as in the other phases of my life, I am blessed to be helped with the males I find myself with. I am wedded to a man who is as committed to running an equal-opportunity marriage, as I am. In all of 22 years, going on 23 years, of my marriage, both my husband and I have pursued independent careers, and each of us has provided opportunities to each other in every way we can.

We have both taken turns at being the primary nurturer and being the primary bread winners, and everything in between. There have been times when my husband has been the dominant (read making more money in the job) bread winner, and times when I have taken on that role. There are times when he has taken on the mantle of being the primary nurturer (read keeping house, baby sitting), and times when I have dropped everything to nurture our daughter. I am both mother and father to my daughter, and my husband is the same. Each of us have a life of our own, not necessarily inter-wined with the marriage, where we have individual friends and interests, which we both enjoy with or without each other. The number of invitations we get, addressed to Mrs with spouse, are as many as the ones we receive as Mr. with spouse.

That said, over the years, we have realized that I am more suited to do the home bound nurturing, for our daughter and our close relationships, and he is more suited to doing the outside oriented fix-it jobs, and the tough negotiation jobs. It is basically a role distribution with emphasis on innate capabilities, standing on the bed rock of unflinching commitment to the family unit. In our home, Gender does not matter.

My slate of life as I have led till now is wiped clean of gender roles. It is not that people have not heaped me with gender specific expectations, but whenever I have resisted these expectations if they were not in line with what I wanted, most have had no problems in accepting the role that I did decide to play in that situation. It was not that difficult for people to accept to my “No, I will not do that.” statements, and from what I can tell, I have lost no relationships or opportunities because of it. Gender does not matter. I am just me. I do things because I can and I want to, and not because I am a woman.

Being a woman, it is expected by most people I meet that I must have been subjected to stereotypes, and I must have chafed against them. Indeed, when I meet any member of the press, this is one of the standard questions, and I normally have a ready made “politically correct” reply for it, so that it is keeps my feminist friends and listeners happy. But I realize that I must, at last, speak the truth. It would be a disservice to all the people in my life, if I did not acknowledge the truth that I did not face much gender discrimination. Perhaps I was lucky, but not really inordinately so– since I know of scores of other women – fellow engineers, mothers, home makers, professionals, matriarchs, who have succeeded in being themselves and have not been stopped by the men, and women in equal measure, in being equal.

The feminist world insists that women face a bias, and that they get the raw end of the stick from men. Not necessarily. Not much in the educated middle class India. It happens, but not all the time in ones life. It depends. The world is a rough place, for men and women both, and almost as many men get the raw end of the stick than women do. My feminist friends will not like my saying so, and accuse me of being a gender traitor. But I am not. I do not believe the world owes us equality. We owe it to ourselves to find it.

But, my feminist friends scream, how come many educated middle class women have these issues? Are all of them wrong? The propensity to blame their gender by women for all the problems faced by them is a tough one to deal with. I have as seen as many women take advantage of their genders, as many being beaten up due to it. It is just that the women who get beaten up about it speak about it. The ones who take advantage of it, well, they probably snuggle up with their predatory advantage and gloat over it.

That said, how about the women who do get beaten up due to their gender? After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that wherever gender discrimination occurs, and it does occur, I believe that the responsibility lies as much as with the perpetrators as with the receiver. Women who cow down to conform at the first hint of the gender expectation, who do not insist on being equally capable and gritty, are equally responsible for the gender issue as the perpetrators.

Gender is an issue if one makes it so. I believe that reasons for women making the gender issue important one in their life, goes back to the way they were raised by their fathers and mothers, rather than the bosses and husbands they face in their adult years. If there is a bias, it is more likely to be at home as a child, as a daughter - than the one at home, as a wife or a significant other. The bias a girl child suffers at home, can make her believe that she is not equal and blight her future in ways not imagined by the parents and care givers. If a girl child is raised as an equal child, she is not likely to settle at being anything other than an equal employee, an equal employer, an equal parent and an equal partner.

How can I be so sure of what I am saying? I can, because I know. For, in the final analysis of what caused me to become what I am today, the one thing that stands out in its contribution to me is the pride that shone in my fathers face when he saw me doing things I liked doing, and exultingly cried, “That’s my girl!”

That’s all I ever needed. This one is for you, Papa, for making me the woman I am.