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.

Uncomfortable Questions

Background: The post below was originally made in IITK Alumni Association group on Facebook.  I am reproducing it as it is except for making language corrections. The context was that IITK Alumni Association president created a IITK-women only Facebook group. And the reactions to those were hilarious until they got ridiculous and finally infuriating. People had too many in-principle and in-practice opposition. Why this discrimination? How would everyone react if men-only group was created? How does being a man or woman make difference to an IITian? What could they possibly need to discuss? Do you mean women should only help women? Do you mean women need more help than men? These women need to understand that they can not become equal with this “ghetto” mentality. Blah, blah, blah. Whether or not a group can be of help is a different thing. 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 (Read this other post about this phenomenon.). So, I decided to throw some uncomfortable questions at them too. Reproduced below because shelf life of posts on Facebook is short. The postscript is a part of the original post itself.

Original Facebook Post

“Hey guys, I am going through a dilemma and I hope I could use the experience of others here. Me and my wife want to have a baby. But we do not want our kids to be raised by others. The only solution seems to be for my wife to compromise on her career. I don’t like that either. How have you all managed? Any tips? Solutions?”

Hang on! What are you talking about Jaya Jha? Where did you read a question like that?

I didn’t. I made that one up. Give how many women do sacrifice their careers for raising kids, does it not sound surprising to you that men hardly seem to need advice or hand-holding about such dilemmas. So, what do you think? Women are just hardwired to give everything up for the babies? They do it willingly, so it doesn’t matter? Ever wondered where does that “will” come from? Is there something abnormal about the women who may not want to give up on their careers for kids?

I am not asking you to answer these questions here. I am not giving any answers either. But if you were to witness the concerns shared in a women-only group, you would realize how real this dilemma is. But it just doesn’t seem to figure in issues that IITians (mostly men on this group) would like to discuss or solve. If the reason is that you do not have a men-only group to discuss this, I would say rush to make one. Although how an insignificant percentage of women (who didn’t even come to speak on a topic of women-only group here) makes it difficult for you to do it here is not something I understand.

The other explanation is more likely. The problem just isn’t as real to you as it is to most career-women. Add to that the ambitions a system like IIT has imparted the IIT-women with and you might just be able to see the conflict.

This is just one of the gazillion issues which women would like to discuss. Another one I remember being discussed was dealing with mother-in-laws who think their sons not getting hot-off-tawaphulkas from their wives is the reason behind all of the world’s disasters. Did I see a grin on your face? How stupid, did you wonder, without even realizing that you did? Wake up! The problem is very real to a lot of career-women. It affects their self-esteem on a day-to-day basis. Imagine being told every day that you are a bad son or a bad husband or a bad father.

There is an experience I had at IITK I don’t like to talk about. I won’t go into the details here either, but the gist was that despite being the strongest candidate I wasn’t allowed to be the coordinator of Megabucks. And the reasons given by the S&T secy and the previous coordinator were by no means subtle or round-about. It was ‘obvious’ that being a girl I couldn’t be expected to have or trusted with the responsibility. When they realized that I wasn’t as satisfied as them with this ‘obvious’ reason, things turned dirty. Questions started being asked about everything from my team-building ability to god-knows-what-else. All the work I had done came to a naught. All the strong credentials did not matter. My reputation did not matter. I figured I didn’t want to fight pigs in the mud and withdrew, even from a concession post I was being given (As an aside none of the people who were involved are entrepreneurs today. I am! I have been a speaker at Megabucks and other entrepreneurship related events in the campus since then). It was extremely disheartening then. It makes me bitter even now (the reason I don’t want to recall it!). I sometimes need to discuss these things. I sometimes need someone to tell me that Yes! What happened to you was wrong. But don’t be disheartened. Life doesn’t end with some morons. People who shrug their shoulders and tell me that ‘they were you know right in their place’ don’t help me. Where do I go and talk about this? In this group, where the majority is made up of the same kind of people who had made me feel miserable then? Again to be told that I am so naïve I don’t see the ‘obvious’.

Yes. I would like to fight all of this. I would like all women to fight this. But tell me something. Are all IIT-men some sort of superman? No, right? So, why are all the IIT-women expected to be superwoman? Why are they supposed to be able to manage it all and not seek support, advice or even just a shoulder to cry on, especially when there are systematic problem that they face being women?

I don’t have a problem with men. In fact, I am lucky to have such men in my life who know and understand exactly what I am talking about. And who ensure that I am not solving such dilemmas in my life alone. It is because of these men in my life that I am able to voice out some of these things so openly. Because I know I am not going to start a war with people close to me. And those men do not get offended by women-only groups on Facebook or elsewhere.

But I also know that percentage of such men in negligible. As negligible as the number of women at IITK. Most women are left to solve their problems on their own. I would like to tell them to get their asses out of a marriage if their husbands do not share the responsibility of housework and children equally. But that would break far too many marriages (are any of your fidgeting in your seats at the idea?). Plus not everyone wants to keep fighting all their lives. They want simple pleasures from life. So, most of them want to find a solution less radical than breaking all their relations and going alone. And they need help of others. Unfortunately not many men qualify to help. Not only do they not qualify, they create an environment filled with ridicule that doesn’t let women discuss these things freely.

Why aren’t more women writing about it here?

  1. Look at the percentage of IITK-men who participate in the discussions here. Look at the percentage, who are vocal and articulate enough to speak on topics like these? Apply those percentages to total number of women and see what the number looks like. You don’t need exact numbers. You know the answer. In a cinema hall filled with IITK students, when some character on the screen mouthed a dialog like “tumhare yahan ladkiyan nahin hoti hain kya?”, the students had shouted in chorus “IITK mein nahin hoti hain”.
  2. The kind of things I have said are very close to a lot of women. It is personal. They are not comfortable announcing them here.

Why didn’t I reply seriously in the original thread about IITK Women-only group? It was already too muddy, filled up with pointless ramblings from self-appointed experts on the issues ranging from women-empowerment to world-hunger (man-made boundaries??). I have an aversion to fighting in the mud.

And by the way, if you care about equality and women-empowerment, you are really wasting your time wondering about women-only Facebook groups. It’s a free feature on a damn platform created for college-goers. Not some privilege granted to anyone by the government, IITK or Alumni Association. If it matters so much, go create an IITK-men group and if someone creates a raucous, throw your reasoning at them. Point is – it doesn’t fucking matter.

If you do wonder about women empowerment, start with this simple question – do you share the housework with your working-wife equally? (Not just as a weekend romantic favor!) If you have maids and cooks and servants to do that work, count dealing with them also in the housework. Do you share that? What about children? If not, step back and think for a moment. Can you empower your wife more than she currently is? It will mean some uncomfortable things to do in your day-to-day life. I can tell you from personal experience. If you are unmarried and plan to go for arranged marriage, it will start with telling your parents that you don’t want dowry! If you are married, if might mean telling your Mom that you are fine with sabzi that comes out of fridge and roti that has been cooked in the afternoon by the cook. And that it’s perfectly all right for her son to go into the kitchen and make the bed. It would mean telling your guests that I am the host and it is okay for me to be in the kitchen. The female guests are not obliged to join my wife for that. It would mean telling your daughter to not feel obliged to do everything and go after the dreams she has. And it would sometime even mean dealing with the women you are trying to empower, because they have been brought up with some stereotypes that are ingrained in them, and they act according to that even if their mind tells them otherwise. It would mean assuring them that they are not expected to be superwoman, telling them that you know they would also be tired after a hard day’s work and you would cook the dinner and do the dishes together.

Sounds doable? It is, if you ask me. If it does to you, stop bothering about Facebook groups and start acting on these. If not, spare the rest of us your intellectual masturbation. Stop pretending that there is no problem. Women have lots of problem to solve in which you are not being helpful.

Thank you.

P. S. I know there is no guarantee that this post will also not trigger another muddy intellectual battle of nothings. So, I may not come back to defend whatever I have said. Especially not to repeat the disclaimer that it is not a post against men. Of course, I would be happier if it triggers some introspection, rather than debate.