International Women's Day Special: her side of the story

A few days before International Women's Day, four modern Indian women talk about what it means to be a woman in the country today.
Hindustan Times | By Parul Khannaa
UPDATED ON MAR 07, 2014 04:33 PM IST
A few days before International Women's Day, four modern Indian women talk about what it means to be a woman in the country today – and whether all the confusion about changing gender roles is actually an opportunity, writes Parul Khanna.

For many of us, International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, is just like any other day. It's not a public holiday, and unlike Valentine's Day, there are no red roses.

But this time, there is a palpable energy in the air. The Indian woman is on the cusp of change, both inside and outside her home. Her dignity, security and the freedom to live the way she wants, have become burning issues, taking centre stage in the public discourse. So, we got four achievers, well-known, interesting women – trailblazing fashion designer Rina Dhaka; business journalist and managing editor, CNBC TV18 Shereen Bhan; author, yoga teacher ; and actress Swara Bhaskar (last seen in Raanjhanaa), who's known for playing independent feisty roles – for a stimulating conversation to document a woman's dreams, challenges, struggles and the need to celebrate 'herself'.

We met over coffee (it was everyone's favourite beverage), and some nibbles at Olive At The Qutub, Mehrauli. We chatted about some serious issues, how to appear your best in photos, escalating flight fares and some Bollywood gossip. Weight (a topic most women engage in) wasn't mentioned even once. Some things are really on the cusp of change, we think!

What is it like being a woman in India today?

It's a better time to be a woman today, in terms of freedom and opportunities. Women of the previous generation did their bit to break stereotypes, especially as far as working outside the home went. But it's a long road in terms of equal opportunities, to really see women come into decision-making roles, and to see work spaces providing equal chances and equal wages. The great thing is that you can negotiate life on your own terms. There are women who are able to make a whole bunch of choices. If you look at my family, my younger sister is a dancer, she runs a dance school, and here I am doing broadcast journalism. We are not in traditional fields, we have the opportunity and the ability to do what we are passionate about. Or to make the choice of living our lives a certain way. That's a big deal.

It's a great time to be a woman in urban India, especially in the big cities.

Ira: I disagree. It's much harder to be a woman today than in my mom's time. Then, roles were cut out, now we are confused. A survey by the medical journal, The Lancet, said that Indian women were one of the most stressed out in the world, juggling so many things and so many roles. We haven't yet defined what we need to be. I see a lot of working mothers whose moms never worked, so when they came home, their moms were always home. But today, these women deal with the guilt of not spending enough time with their children every day. This is not a few hundred women, but millions of them out there in the workforce, and that too in non-traditional roles. Women are now bankers, in corporate jobs. It is a difficult time.

How do you navigate these issues of self-identity and expectations regarding the roles you are supposed to play?

It's hard. There were years when I was lost and confused. My new book (India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century) is about sexuality. But to write a whole book on sex wasn't easy. I remember people telling me, 'Aise toh tumhari shaadi nahin hogi. Kaise tum likh rahi ho?' When the book was coming out, my editor and I discussed if we should put, 'Marriage, Sex and Sexuality' on the cover. I was like, 'What if my grandparents or parents read this?' It's not easy to let go of this conditioning.

We live in a world that's caught between being traditional and being modern. We're not completely there. I want to wear short skirts because I look amazing in them, and everywhere you go, you get these lovely skirts nowadays, but I am wondering if people are going to think, 'Is she that kind of girl?' Do we live in a liberal enough society to wear a short skirt, even though it's available?

Swara: I am sure she [Ira] has done her research, and knows the reality, but I would choose the chaos, trauma and conflict of this situation where I (and I speak of the people I know, and not everyone) have to juggle between these opposing – traditional and modern – roles. That risk-taking is really important. Things are not going to change on the ground until you actually take that risk, and get into a short skirt and say, 'You know, I am wearing this, but I am still smart'.

You have to also give men that opportunity to deal with the reality that you are good-looking, you are sexy, you are intelligent, and in small clothes and probably, you are going to make a good wife and mother as well.

Ira: That's true.

Swara: So you have to push yourself and men into that space. I know that a lot of us do it unconsciously as well. Their [the men's] mentality will also change if you push them, and not every exchange has to be hostile. Men are also grappling with issues of tradition and modernity, with women suddenly demanding and wanting space etc. We can find spaces where we can negotiate.

Shereen, as a journalist, you are in a profession which has many women, yet men call the shots...

Shereen: At CNBC-TV18, there are a lot of us who are women and are leading teams. I am a managing editor today. It is easier for women to get to the top, but there's a gap in including women as far as key decision--and strategy-making are concerned. We will be given roles where we need to implement, execute, and we do that faultlessly. But when it comes to decision making, it's still pretty much a boys' club.

Rina: The challenge is that men don't like to take commands from a woman, especially if you are the kind who wears a dress! You need to empower them with knowledge and be careful of your conduct. You have to be smarter than them, your knowledge has to exceed the man's. However, the subordinates [men] are alright with taking commands from a man even if he doesn't have superior knowledge.

These are times when women's security has become a burning issue, and an integral part of the national debate. Does that affect your life?

Today, I don't have to travel by public transport, but I have done the usual drill in college – DTC buses, autos, hitchhiking from Pragati Maidan to Delhi University. Were there concerns about safety then? Yes, there were. But when you are young, it's not a consideration, it's not on top of your mind at that point in time. Were there incidents that happened then? Yes, but nothing that scarred me for life. I am lucky and fortunate.

But 'security' is a consideration today. My mother calls me every single night, as I finish work late, to make sure I have reached and locked the door. I wish we didn't have to, but you learn to live with it. You navigate and find your way, be smart about it. You can't stop living your life. At the end of the day, life has to go on, you just need to be careful: if there's a late night, you go out in a group, you would much rather go out with two or three people, as opposed to going out alone, or make sure you have a driver.

Ira: The public discourse on safety (that started after the Delhi gangrape protests) is a good thing. We didn't talk about a lot of issues we are talking about today. As a result, I do feel a little unsafe, even though I live in central Delhi, which may be the safest area. When I come out at 8pm, I see only women. When I went to smaller cities like Lucknow to promote my book, I couldn't see any women around. A lot of fear has been generated with the public discourse.

Rina: I see people behaving a little differently now because of it. The same guys in Chandni Chowk who one had to be careful of once, now maintain their distance and say 'sister' or 'behenji'.

Swara: Women have always been vulnerable to sexual violence. It's the unfortunate reality in our society. I don't believe any city is more or less unsafe. I have lived in Delhi and Mumbai, I have been molested in public in daylight in Mumbai more. And, it's not just the migrant labour that is to be blamed.

Misogyny and violence against women is universal. It happens across the world. The discourse around safety is huge. Now, women are able to say, 'I am scared', which you always were. Even to articulate that is liberating. There was a statistic that after the Delhi rape case, three times the number of rapes were reported.

But that's because girls started filing complaints. For women, some amount of risk-taking is necessary. Otherwise, society will never give you that place. That anger that is around safety is precious. I want to hold on to it and do something productive. Indian women forgive too easily. We should take risks, and fight whatever it is – fight your family, wear the clothes you want to wear, fight at your workplace. Until we do that, nothing will change.

What are the social pressures you face today?

There's pressure to get married. A lot of traditional forces haven't gone away, yet we have grown up being empowered. You have to be a good daughter, a good daughter-in-law, we also want to be financially independent, we want to marry for love. Extremely confusing times.

Swara: But isn't that great? These are the kind of problems that come with choices.

Rina: I would say there is opportunity in such struggle. I was courageous even in my 20s. I was avant garde even then.

Shereen: My mother worked too, but if my mother was living away from her parents, I don't think it would have been accepted. But I live by myself today, that's accepted. Today, no one would ask me, 'How come you live on your own when your parents are in the same city?' Incremental changes have happened over the years. Ten, 15 years ago, it would have been a big deal, but it doesn't matter anymore. These are the changes that have crept into the social fabric.

Workplace challenges… how do you navigate them?

The way out is to really fight for your own space, and fight for your voice to be heard. As women, and I speak for myself, there's a natural tendency to walk away from confrontation, or to say, 'I don't want to be seen as pushy and aggressive' because a man is never seen as being pushy or aggressive when he asks for what he wants or what he believes he truly deserves.

But if a woman does that, we are conditioned to believe that somehow we will be seen as domineering. The natural response is to pull ourselves back. We do ourselves a big disservice by not asking for what we rightfully deserve or asking for what should be technically be put on the table for us.

Women need to make their voices heard not just within organisations, but outside of the workplace too. I have never said 'no', because I would feel that will be seen as a reflection of my commitment to my job. Whereas a male colleague would say, 'It's 4pm, I can't do it', but that would not be an option for me – in my head.

And it continues to be more in my head that I have to ensure everything I do has to be done to the best of my ability. The sense of over-commitment is because you feel you are being evaluated all the time, that is the subtle way we are conditioned.

Swara: Being an actress, I am struggling with different kinds of expectations and roles. That my looks are more decisive than my actual acting talent, but also a whole lot of other things are important, my image, my networking, my ability to push myself, to be perceived in a certain way.

When you date or meet men, do you think they have come to terms with all these changes?

For men to understand these new changes is incredibly difficult. They want it all. They want this bad girl, who goes out and parties, smokes, and then also the good girl, who is traditional, goes to temples. Indian men are stuck in between, they still have that image of a girl like their mothers, someone who is a virgin. And then they see these girls around them. They are beginning to realise that women are changing.

Swara: When you push people, they also find and discover newer things about themselves. I have dated boys from very conservative backgrounds, I have also dated men from very liberal backgrounds. It's a process of education for them as much as us. That discomfort is education for the both of us. When you push and demand, and say, I want this and this, they will also learn to give it to you. Of course, there are extremes, wife beaters, abusers, but there are always signs.

The conflicted times we live in, it's most important for women to fight with themselves, their obvious sense of duty, and finally say to themselves, 'I deserve better'. I think the Indian urban woman is moving towards that. At least, my generation is. When you demand, men will relent.

What is it that you cherish about being a woman?

The fact that we are extremely adept at multitasking, that is something every woman is good at. You can balance work with home, your parents with friends, responsibilities, your obligations, and also take out a little time for yourself. I also cherish the fact that we are able to be soft and harsh at the same time, we retain our humanity and sensitivity, yet we can be tough leaders. It's not that we are soppy or we fall apart when things get tough. We are extremely resilient and strong. Women inherently are stronger than men, they can deal with adversity and tough times much better.

Rina: One, this is the intention of nature, there's nothing I can do about it other than to accept what I am meant to be. Being a mother is great, it has added a lot of dimensions to my life.

Also, the clothes are great; women get to definitely dress better than men. I wouldn't want to ever dress like a man. I enjoy being a woman, and I wouldn't ever want to change my gender.

Follow @ParulKhannaa on Twitter

Photographs by Sanjeev Verma

From HT Brunch, March 2

Follow us on

Connect with us on
Story Saved