Transcript of my talk at shakTII

Good morning everyone.

I am going to cheat a bit. It is an Entrepreneur Talk. But I am not going to talk about entrepreneurship. I am going to talk about women, which thankfully is not at odds with the theme of this event.

I grew up in small towns of Bihar, never staying in a joint family, technically, but living a life where the circle of extended family and relatives was quite close-knit.  There were usual family spats once in a while, but overall the family members looked out for each other.  They provided board to a young man, a son of a second cousin, who had come to their town for studies or for the first job, and they kept their eyes and ears open to find out how their nieces could get married well within the budget their parents had. The better off ones would also take up the responsibility for more kanyadaan ceremonies than the number of daughters they had given birth to so that the lesser off relatives were relieved of the responsibility of paying for the mandatory gold gift of kanyadaan.

These people didn’t hate their daughters. They kept having daughters until they had at least one son, but they mostly didn’t indulge in female foeticide. Daughters’ weddings would bring entire extended family together. Quite in the style of Rajshri productions’ movies, even though the homes were usually less glamorous than those in the films. At every family function one would be reminded how only daughters can bring real joy in these functions and how everything would be so dull without the daughters.

They were not even indifferent to their daughters. They wanted to raise them right, just like they wanted to raise their sons right.  So… they wanted their sons to study Science and daughters to study Home Science. They wanted their sons to be smart and their daughters to be gentle.

Cut to present day!

There was a discussion going on among some of the IIT alumni, many of them senior, accomplished people, about this event meant for woman professionals. The possible names and taglines were being discussed. A very senior, soft-spoken, well-meaning IITian suggested and strongly defended a particular tagline, because it was humble and sober. I reminded him that the idea of the event was empowerment of women. Why should the tagline be humble and sober? The tagline should portray strength, confidence, shouldn’t it? I was told that humility along with confidence goes a long way. So then I did a quick poll on my facebook account asking my mostly men friends from IITs how often they have wanted their event names and taglines be convey humility and soberness. You can guess the result. The person suggesting the humble and sober tagline didn’t mean any harm. It was, in fact, he who had originally proposed the idea of this event.

Any Harry Potter Fans here?

Do you remember the wise Dumbledore?


It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.

Most of the women sitting here would not have faced the obvious, brutish discrimination. They wouldn’t have been underfed so that men of the family could have their bellies full, they would not have had to give up their studies so that their brothers could study, they would have gone to the best schools, in fact. They wouldn’t have been neglected or beaten up by their families or husbands. They wouldn’t have any villains in their lives.

And yet! Yet, you feel the need to have a separate event for professional women. Despite there being no villain in their lives, they feel like they are falling behind, they are not achieving their potential, they are compromising.


Because impediments do not always come in the form of a villain with evil laughter ready to slay you at the first chance.

Impediments come in the form of well-meaning people.

Impediment comes in the form of that loving, proud father of an IIT girl, who told her that she should go for a Ph. D. after B. Tech. Why? Not because it was suitable for her temperament or aptitude, but because academia is a better place for women to be in. After all they have to shoulder family responsibilities later. Corporate life will make it difficult to handle.

This is a true story.

Do men not have families?

Impediment comes in the form of those nice friends, not only men, but women too, who post pseudo-empowering messages on facebook like “Women weren’t created to do everything a man can do. Women were created to do everything a man can’t do.”

Ummm, excuse me? Apart from getting pregnant and giving birth, what is that? Oh wait! Taking care of the family, kids, cooking, cleaning, washing, is it? Men can’t do it? Right! That’s why women should run homes, and men should run the world.

Hope you see the problem. Sorry! Messages of those kind do not empower or inspire women. They just try to make them happy and satisfied with wherever they are. So that the world can maintain its status quo and not ask uncomfortable questions.

Impediment comes in the form of their “natural” urge to be caregivers, which is “respected” and “encouraged” by everyone around them?

What is this natural urge? Look around yourself. Even with the constant social conditioning trying to make them otherwise, don’t you come across women who don’t feel maternal urges and men who are great with kids, babies included. If there wasn’t this incessant social conditioning about what you are supposed to feel, what would the situation look like? My guess? Not the opposite, but very different.

Impediment comes in the form of the “myth” of “choice”. Who am I to question if a woman chooses to put her kids and family above her career? I am no one to interfere with what she does. But I have a right to wonder if the choice is real for most people. Was the choice between whether the father will stay at home or the mother? Unlikely. The choice was between whether nobody will stay at home versus whether the mother will stay at home. When only one person has a choice, that is not much of a choice.

Impediment comes in the form of outraged question “Are you saying making money is the only worthwhile use of people’s time? Aren’t family and home as important? What will you do with all the money if your family is not happy?” Good question. So long as it is not directed solely at women.

Impediment comes in the form of internalized assumptions about your role.  It comes in the form a women working to empower other women starting her case with “We are women. We have to take care of our families before everything else.”

It comes in the form of harmless jokes that imply men can’t cook and women can’t read maps or that women irrationally have upper hand in the relationships.

Impediment comes in the form of the argument that if there are women who support practices that work against women’s professional advances, there cannot be anything wrong with those practices. No. Just because a woman perpetuates it, a discriminatory practice doesn’t become right.

Impediment comes in the form of all the people you love and who love you, including your family, husband and kids.

What do women need today? More maternity leave? Or more paternity leave? Do they need more time to take care of kids? Or do they need their partners to share the responsibility? Do they need to be deified and installed in well-decorated temples? Or do they need to be treated like real persons who may have the similar career aspirations and similar love for their families as men.

I might already have ruffled some feathers here. Still I will end with a blasphemy. I can forgive Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol for Dilwale. I cannot forgive them for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. The movie that made lots of money while promoting and elevating the patriarchal custom of Karwa Chauth by giving it a romantic twist. There is nothing romantic about it.

I know that I have only raised questions and not given answers. But that’s all I intended to do. There aren’t any quick answers. There are no 5 steps to liberation. We have a tough fight. With people who matter the most to us.

That’s all. Thank you. I am not sure what questions I can answer. But if there are any, please feel free to shoot.

Heroes are a means, not an end!

Note: Please read “hero” in a gender-neutral sense in this post.

Earlier this month, I attended a women’s day event. There were professional men and women there, discussing different issues about – well – women in workplaces (perhaps it was specifically about tech industry, but that doesn’t matter for the purpose of this post).

A familiar phenomenon played out. A lot of chest-thumping by women who have “made it”.


I will come to what the problem was, but before that let me clarify that the chest-thumping was not undeserved. Most women who make it anywhere in the professional world have to do it against the societal expectations and pressures. Sometimes by outright fighting, at other times by at least ignoring the expectations and taunts. If a younger woman asks me for advice today, I will also tell her all these stories to encourage her to do her own thing and not give into what the society expects from her.

But a problem arises here. A problem arises when these stories start overwhelming the larger, real social issues. When you have gathered to discuss the situation of women in workplaces, it is not the time to sweep aside the societal issues by chest-thumping. This is how it typically goes:

Person 1 raises issue X which limits women.

A professional woman who has “made it” jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. I have faced issue X and overcome it. Look where I am today. So why should it stop others? All you need are A/B/C qualities.”

(Replace A/B/C with things like self-confidence, talent, hard-work etc.)

Everyone else claps.

More similar stories are told and it is decided that issue X doesn’t really exist.

To understand what I find problematic in this, let’s consider a parallel hypothetical discussion in a society from middle ages. It is ravaged by constant wars.

Person 1 says that because of the wars, the farmers are not able to peacefully do their work and raise crops. Not only is there a shortage of grains in the country, but the farmers are also poor and hungry. Their condition is deteriorating everyday.

A farmer jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. It’s just an excuse of the coward and the lazy. I am a farmer, but I learned to wield weapons and I can protect my farms. Why can’t others do the same? You just need some resourcefulness, weapon wielding skills and courage.”

Everyone else claps and it is decided that constant wars in the land are not really a problem for the farmers.

Does that sound right? Not to me! We like our current society better than the ones in middle ages because we don’t need to be warriors to be reasonably certain that we will live out our natural lives and won’t be killed by a stray weapon or a raging soldier. Wars create many heroes like the ones in the above fable, but as a society creation of heroes doesn’t justify constant wars.

It is the same with women issues. Or with pretty much any societal issue that involves a suppressed or an underprivileged group.

The heroes are good as an inspiration. They should be the means of proving that the discrimination is uncalled for. They should be the means of bringing about changes. They shouldn’t be used for brushing the issues aside. It is good to have women who make it against all odds. But as a society, we need to move in a direction where someone doesn’t have to overcome an odd just because she is a woman. Such a society will not consider a successful career woman any more of a hero than a successful career man. But despite fewer heroes that is the society we want.

Next time, please think about that before using a heroic story to sweep an issue aside.

You’ve got it all wrong, Ms. Aravind!

In reaction to You’ve got the wrong villain, Mr Kashyap.

Let’s do a quick refresher of deductive logic. A statement like “If A, then B” does not imply “If not A, then not B”. Let’s contextualize it. “If women are physically strong, then unscrupulous men won’t be able to rape them” does not mean “If women are not physically strong, then of course unscrupulous men should and would rape them.”

See the problem with your criticism? You have seen the meaning you wanted to see, ignoring all logic, and then gone on to criticize it. Create a problem so that you can solve it?

What we see in the movie are characters, who respond to a particular situation; not the newspaper columnists who must present an all-rounded solution or be discredited. What do people do until the core of the issue is addressed? Until the ultimate and the right solution is found? They do whatever they can do to protect themselves. One of the things they can do is to make themselves physically strong and capable so that they can fight back their attackers. That was all there was to it. What exactly did you want a non-cigarette-smoking Sandhya Mridul to say? “Let’s leave our jobs and start protesting in front of (Insert you favourite venue here)?” Nothing wrong in protesting. But after those protests, until that ultimate solution is found, those characters will still be taunted, laughed at and molested.

No! Women having to become martial arts experts to feel safe in a civilized society is not good at all. But while they do feel unsafe, if they do want to learn and protect themselves, it doesn’t mean that they are advocating against a societal change. Nor does it somehow translate into victim-blaming.

I hope you didn’t think everything depicted in DevD was some kind of prescription for how the life should be lived. But I am glad you liked it. Because I am a fellow-fan of Anurag Kashyap too. I liked his lesser-known Gulaal even better. But no! There is nothing prescription-worthy there either.

The Married Women’s Special…

Karwa Chauth, Teej, Jitiya, Var-savitri…

I am sure every community and region is India has one or more of these festivals, where through some fastings and rituals married women are supposed to have ensured the long life of their husbands and children (sons?).

I don’t think that celebrating some festivals makes me a religious fanatic (or even religious). I don’t mind going to temples once in a while; or doing some pooja on Vijayadashmi and Diwali to refresh the memories of childhood or just to feel festive. But I don’t like these fast-for-the-life-of-your-loved-ones festivals meant for women. Not even when the deal is sweetened by making them romantic DDLJ style (men also fasting). Because to me the entire purpose of such festivals seems to make women feel important, when they don’t really have any importance. It tries to make them believe that “so what if men are the rulers of the world, we are the ones who decide how long they live”. Excuse me? No, we don’t! It’s just a bone thrown our way to keep us smug and satisfied, even when we don’t get much say in the world. In 21st century, please don’t try to make us believe that anyone’s life is tied to our jewelry, our costumes, our fastings and our singing and dancing!

I don’t see why we should seek smugness and satisfaction in these meaningless rituals, when it is possible to gain importance in real sense. By doing, by achieving, by being equal to men! And for someone really interested in saving and extending people’s lives, there is a very respectable profession of medicine.

Cluelessness + Overconfidence

Quoting from my previous post (Read the post for the background to this one).

What made me uncomfortable was how clueless many of these people were about the concerns of women and yet how confident of knowing-it-all.

A comment by Mayank Mandava on the same discussion hit the nail on head. Reproducing with permission.

Guys, seriously, stop telling women how to deal with women’s issues better. That is exactly the problem. A women’s group totally makes sense because when you won’t stop telling women what’s best for them when it comes to an issue as simple as a new facebook group, you certainly won’t stop from offering all your man-wisdom when something more serious issues. We don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, we don’t know how they should deal with their issues, our opinions are frequently biased, irrelevant, and plain wrong.

Now I shall take my own advice and leave.

And this is not something that only women-related issues face. We all are prone to falling for this. Whenever we find ourselves deciding what is good for others (say poor, minorities, even our own children etc.), we might need to step back and see if we are suffering from this cluelessness plus overconfidence.