Interview: Shaili Chopra, author, Sisterhood Economy: Of, By, For Wo(Men) - “Caste and gender inequality go hand in hand”
The author’s new book attempts to understand, through data and statistics, how women can contribute more to the economy
Former television journalist and author Shaili Chopra quit a full-time career to launch SheThePeople TV, an online platform for women in 2015, to give voice to Indian women, their stories and their issues. Today, it is one of the leading online portals that brings to the fore women-centric topics and also encourages women’s entrepreneurship. For her new book, Chopra travelled across the country to look at the stereotypes that women battle. She spoke to women who are homemakers, politicians, policewomen, and entrepreneurs, and attempts to understand, through data and statistics, how women can contribute more to the economy.
The world we are living in today seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back. The conversation around women’s rights, women’s health is at the centre of all things, and yet we see oppressive laws and perversions of them too being brought back into play. These include the Roe vs Wade ruling in the US and the freeing of Bilkis Bano’s rapists in India. What are your thoughts on these matters?
Our worlds are threatened by women who stand for themselves, raise their voice, question apathy, want equal rights or confidently step into spaces where men have dominated. The resistance comes from men, women who are patriarchal, and the system as whole.
Some recent developments have certainly pushed back efforts in gender equality. This includes the pandemic and its impact on jobs and opportunities for women as companies scale back or rethink strategy.
Abortion rights are compromised in many countries. I mean we were not born into this world to let the governments tell us what to do with our bodies.
This is the thing with revolutions and raising our voice -- and I address it in depth in my book Sisterhood Economy -- that we will all be tested when such incidents happen. None of this should stop us from asking difficult questions, holding authorities accountable and showing up for each other.
According to studies, women are still very behind when it comes to financial literacy in India. It’s one of the reasons financially independent women are still dependent on their partners, fathers, and male friends. Even content creators in the financial space claim that 90% of their audience is male. Why do you think this is so? Why do women still fidget with the idea of what to do with their money?
One’s own money helps women to exit abusive marriages, raise children on their own, live single lives, drive their own careers, get respect in relationships and more. Financial literacy is the single most important thing according to me.
We are conditioned to believe women make bad money managers because apparently “It’s complex stuff”. Men make the money and women spend it -- that trope is fed to us from within our homes and on the big screen.
Look at the media that shows women and money with a little piggy bank, implying they do little and think small. Then, men are shown in suits “raising big money” to drive their businesses. Optics and coverage behaviour matters a lot.
In Sisterhood Economy, I have dedicated a whole chapter to question those who believe women deserve pink credit cards, special shopping benefits, and think women don’t want to make money. When I go to invest, my question to the fund manager is no different -- how much return will I get on my money?
When Sushmita Sen and Lalit Modi announced their partnership, people called Sen a gold digger. Why? She earned her own money and doesn’t need a man to pay her bills. But society believes women can only be a bechari or a gold digger. Shall we please fix this anomaly?
Your chapter on Caste in Stone in the book is enlightening. What are your thoughts about the Dalit tribal domestic worker who was tortured by the wife of a retired upper caste IAS officer?
As I say in my book, caste and gender inequality go hand in hand. While caste inequality oppresses people on the basis of birth, gender inequality oppresses people on the basis of their gender. The worst brunt of caste and gender inequality is borne by lower caste women whose lives become a manifestation of the worst intersection of caste and gender inequality.
Caste is more than just a word in India. It is the identity of a person. It determines the legitimacy of a person. And it carves out the life that the person is destined to live. Our country is marred by the social evil of caste inequality. Practices like untouchability and caste violence have oppressed marginalised sections historically and these practices continue in our society.
In this case, the Dalit tribal domestic worker was tortured by a political woman of an upper caste married to a former IAS officer. The display of caste is gut-wrenching. As someone said, privilege is least visible to those who have it.
As per India’s national crime bureau report of 2019, the rate of crimes against Dalits has risen by 37% in the last one decade.
The women’s movement is greatly affected by both caste and gender inequality. The major reason is that women’s enablement or empowerment is often defined in terms of the experiences of elite women. The views of women of marginalised classes who obviously have different lived experiences rarely get recorded, understood, and addressed. We need to change this and that’s the point I make in Caste in Stone.
Incidents like these must be widely reported and debated, and caste violence must be questioned and criticised in mainstream media.
The chapter on Beauty Parlour Economics is also very interesting. Every other celebrity from Rihanna to Priyanka Chopra, Gwyneth Paltrow and Katrina Kaif has launched a makeup / skin care brand. And Falguni Nayar’s Nykaa dominates the e-retail space for these products. More and more young girls are becoming skin care / make up experts on their Instagram pages. Thanks to this trend, do you think women now have more career opportunities in the beauty space?
The chapter Beauty Parlour Economics is a look at how women can participate in the economy but deserve to be counted. People want to look good, and that industry is vast and continues to grow as more people earn and add to their income at different economic strata. To me, while the beauty business broadly will continue to create opportunities for women, what we need are similar trends in many other industries.
Health is one example. Financial conversations and literacy are another. Social media and digital tech are instruments of change and of opportunities. We need to normalise the opportunities in sectors like health and money, among others, and get women to take notice.
What’s clear to me is that women will be a force of revenue and market decision making for the next many decades. The economy needs to gear itself to their demands and needs and ensure that they join the supply side forces as well -- after all, if India intends to become a five trillion dollar economy, it can’t do it with half its population.
Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play talks about the “invisible work” done by women including such things as restocking the toothpaste in the house. Men never have to think about how the toothpaste never runs out. In the Measuring Housework chapter, you bring up the topic of division of labour at home, especially during the Covid 19 lockdown. Do you see this gap getting bridged at all? Will men ever proactively take up home chores?
It’s not going to be easy to bridge this gap but we are at least starting a conversation. Decades of conditioning cannot be wiped off in a short period. What COVID 19 did was to give other people in the home a good sense of how much work women do, unconditionally. It also showed women -- in many instances -- how much more work comes onto their plates when others just don’t bother to help out.
To me, valuing housework is intrinsically linked to how we project the idea of that work. It’s really hard work; it has to be done; it shapes people at home; it raises children; it keeps families together and puts food on the table. If women can do it, so can men? If we start a conversation perhaps we will normalise the idea of a house husband.
Bread winning should not be about gender. But it is.
You started out in television journalism when it was still a very male-dominated space. Women’s stories were hardly ever told. What were the challenges you faced?
When I began, women’s rights were neither spoken about nor covered. We knew feminism as defined by the classical definitions but it was a “remote” subject. This wasn’t the 1950s, it was simply the early 2000s. Fortunately, I was raised to be a very independent thinking person and so when I grew into a career, I ruthlessly went out for opportunities building my own trail.
Yes, the environment was male dominated and it took me some time to navigate that by identifying men who could mentor and champion my career. Few women did business journalism and even fewer made a national mark. But those like me who did, wanted to fire the dream into young girls who aspired to work in media.
What was harder was telling stories of women. They were not considered “headlinable” enough. We spoke of farmer deaths but never those they left behind. We spoke of suited CEOs but scrutinised the female CEO in a saree. We left women’s issues -- from rights to rape to the few success stories -- for the inner pages. Worse, we circulated 10 female leaders in every magazine for nearly two decades. Until SheThePeople emerged to focus on women-first stories, we truly never thought women would lead the story.
A line in your book reads “Women are expected to be likeable”. Aparna Shewakramani, who features in the Netflix reality TV series Indian Matchmaking, wrote a whole book, She’s Unlikeable: And Other Lies That Bring Women Down, on this earlier in the year. What do you have to say about this “unlikability” with reference to the modern Indian woman who is stereotyped as “a bit too feminist”?
Sima Aunty (Sima Taparia) always wants girls to sit properly, talk nicely, dress appealingly and be likeable. She is not alone. Girls are raised to be like that by parents and then, at workplaces, are expected to be demure, “nice” and not loud. A cartoon I recently saw said the difference between aggressive and assertive is your gender.
In the book this topic is addressed across many chapters in different ways. The pressure to be liked has led many girls and women to dumb down their ambitions, choose different careers because her husband or in-laws “may not like it”, and to undermine their skills and capabilities.
If a girl does pick career over other things, or believes that women don’t have to conform, she is she tagged “the feminist types”. It happened with me while growing up because I would dare to question. It happens with many other women.
We need to break this benchmark.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.