Thursday, October 16, 2014

What's the real story here?

I feel like I live in a world where nuance is dead. Everyone seems to busy taking positions on everything – including me – that sometimes we forget all about reasoned debate, or about actually arming ourselves with all the facts. Take for instance the recent decision by apple and facebook to pay for female employees who choose to freeze their eggs. Predictably, everyone including me reacted with disbelief and mutters about how companies thought the best way to get employee loyalty was to pay for them to put off critical life moments.

However when I thought about it a little more, I realized that I don’t know whether this is over and above fair or generous parental/ maternity-paternity leave policies. Possibly it is, in which case this is an additional move targeted at helping employees find the way that works best for them. Not everyone wants to have a baby in their 20s and 30s, and if some people want to freeze their eggs and wait for the right timing, and the company is willing to pay for it, great!

My sister’s firm in the US, for example, has a health insurance policy that pays for employees who want a sex change operation. Now does this policy mean that the company is encouraging everyone to change from he to she or vice versa? Of course not. But if an employee so wishes, the company is willing to help him or her out. Which is a great HR policy.

My issue with apple and facebook’s new policy would be if this were in lieu of good parental leave policies, in which case these companies are clearly taking a misguided shot at what they think will best motivate talented women to stay on. As of now I don’t know – maybe in the interests of good PR, these companies should make that public knowledge?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On having it all

What with Indira Nooyi’s dukh-bhari dastaan going viral, I can’t resist adding my two bits because the piece had me fuming at multiple levels. Having taken out some of the khunnus on fb. I thought I should resurrect my moribund blog so I could discuss it some more.

First - the fact that her mother expects her to be the one doing both inside and outside the home pissed me off. Yes, yes, she’s from another generation and all that, but you can change, you can see that life today is a bit different than the time that you grew up and raised a family and you can have bigger dreams for your daughter than ‘ensured the kids had milk every day of their life’. I know lots of mothers of IN’s mother’s generation who raised their daughters to be independent working women and have a career, and agreed to be part of the daughter’s village in raising the family. Plus, to me, it’s a basic maternal instinct to want to celebrate with your child when the child so much as gets a participation medal for a 50 m race in school, let along becoming worldwide CEO of a billion dollar firm. So to not celebrate the win at that moment and chastise the daughter for thinking her promotion is more important milk – Pfffbbbttt! And by the way I am highly suspicious of whether the mother would have reacted similarly had the son or son in law come home with similar news. In fact, I’m pretty sure she would have popped champagne in that situation, given that she thought a son in law and father of her grandkids who had come home at 8 pm would be too tired to get the milk but not the daughter and mother of aforesaid kids who got home at 10 pm.

I have to say, I had a Nooyi moment recently and I’m NOT HAPPY with my dad about it. Bojjandi fell sick with high fever late in the night when he was over at my parents’ place. He was asking for me so I went over and carried him back and spent the rest of the night sponging his forehead since the fever was not going down despite medication. Finally around 5 or 6 am, I was too weary to stay up and woke up A and asked him to carry on the good work while I grabbed a couple hours sleep. Later that day when I was telling my dad about it, he looks at me and says, “You could have stayed at our house. Why did you wake up poor A? He needs his rest.” I was completely taken aback. Given that my dad has always been more than supportive of my sister and I having careers and working fulltime, to assume that despite having a fulltime job as demanding as A’s, I wouldn’t need my rest is mindboggling. Dad was probably being supportive of A given the stress about A’s mom’s health but the double standard still stank!

Second, the fact that Nooyi clearly drank the Koolaid that expects her to be and do everything. Why would you do that? Granted, there is a stage of life where you want to please everyone but at some point you outgrow it or your ‘self preservation’ gene kicks in and you decide that the person you need to be most impressed by who you are is yourself. To judge yourself by unrealistic standards set by others is to set yourself up for automatic failure and lack of self esteem, whether it’s in terms of appearance, career performance or what you do as a wife, mother, friend…

Third - Not doing it all. I think IN has actually fallen into the trap of wanting to ‘do it all’, which is a whole different ballgame from having it all, and which is impossible and not required. Why should one person want to do it all or be expected to do it all and then face failure? There are only so many hours in a day and days in one’s life. If you have a partner, then make that person a real partner in the business of life rather than carry the burden of Nirupa Roy-like martyrdom by lamenting what you can’t do. It’s that partner’s life too, it’s their kids and home too, so it’s part of their job to do their bit.

I’m not saying this in a martial or revolutionary spirit, but frankly, isn’t it part and parcel of building a life together with your partner? I can’t remember the last time that my husband or I gave each other home and kids instructions when we were traveling, because each of us expects and is equally clued in or involved.  We pinch hit for each other when one of us can’t make a PTA meeting or when the kids are sick and need a doctor visit or someone to stay home. We don’t run around with excel sheets counting who’s done what how many times but because each of us thinks it’s the only sensible thing to do to co-manage both our careers and the home/ kids, it works well enough for neither one of us to feel hard-done-by.  

I remember when Chubbocks was a baby, I hadn’t gone back to work until he was 6 months old. So I used my stay-at-home mom to derive a sense of superiority by constantly scoffing at A’s efforts to help, berating him for doing it differently – for me it was a sense of validation that I was the expert and therefore the perfect parent. With that as the set up I was doing it all where the baby was concerned, it wasn’t until I consciously figured things out that I realized doing it all wasn’t a viable or intelligent solution for me, when there were two parents or other help handy. Once that realization fell into place, then making our relationship a real partnership became much easier and it continued regardless of how many hours I or A worked or how much each of us earned ( or not).

Fourth, I’m not sure what having it all means. If it means being able to give 100% of attention to your home life and your career, then I’m sorry but no one can do it until cloning comes along. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you cannot have it all. If on the other hand you mean have a successful career and a good home life, that is perfectly possible and I would argue that IN has it all in spades! And that many other men and women that I know are managing to do so quite well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Mob-o-crazy or Democracy

There is a difference between mob-ocracy or anarchy, as Kejriwal prefers to call it and democracy. Mob-o-cracy is rule by the mob, such as the mob is. Democracy means that we elect our representatives, not necessarily people just like us, but those we would wish to represent us– people with hopefully wide learning and exposure, with maturity, with an informed opinion – to do the best thing for us. If that were not the case, 18 year olds would only vote for 18 year olds, women would vote for women and we would have the world’s youngest cabinet, 48% female to boot. If that were not the case, a Cambridge-educated lawyer called Nehru would never have become Prime Minister in one of the world’s most illiterate nations.

If mob-o-cracy had been the governing principle that shaped us as a nation, we would never have a Constitution that guarantees civil liberties and equality to all Indians. Instead we would have had the caste and hierarchy system enshrined in a constitution that reflected the current thinking of that time, and who knows, that reflects even today’s thinking by the masses. Freedom of speech, equal right to vote, inter-caste or intercommunity marriages certainly would not be constitutionally permissible in a country in which Khap panchayats or kangaroo courts still hold sway over a large part.

Given that mob-ocracy cannot be the founding principle of a country, it ill behooves anyone from AAP to try and justify the raid on Khirki village under the guise of what the people wanted. It is a fact that India is a deeply racist country, especially discriminatory towards those of a dark colour. In Mumbai some years ago, bars forbade the entry of African visitors. I still remember the time we shot with a handsome African gentleman for a World car campaign and the client protested “Aapne to hupshiyon ko shoot kiya hua hai!”, as if that fact disqualified the model from claiming to be a citizen of the world. Just the other day I saw a quote from one Khirki resident who stated that ‘these people are all criminals or loose women. They roam around in skimpy clothes’. Here’s something thathappened to a friend of mine who happened to live there for a time for the crime of leading a different lifestyle than the average resident thereof.

What the people want may be very different from what they should be able to have, particularly if what they want militates against the principles of equality and fair play. If what they want is paramount, then colonies in Mumbai are well within their rights to refuse to rent an apartment to people from other religions, as they often do. If what people want is paramount, then 3/4ths of the country’s population is right in believing that a family’s honour lies between its women’s legs and that death is preferable to dishonor. If what people want is paramount, ‘lower castes’ should be beaten up and taught their place.

In a democracy, the key rules are equality and fair play – by design and intent, even if they don’t always play out in execution. Given that, the people complained about should have been heard out, as much as the complainants, before any action was taken. The hearing should have taken place in a non-partisan fashion rather than with a mob baying for appeasement. Kejriwal may well be right in describing himself as an anarchist – so far he has not risen above the mob-o-cracy. And the fact that so many people think of him as India’s big new hope – that’s scary!

AAP and its brand of local activism

I admit it, I have been a skeptic of AAP and its manifesto from day one. While I would like governmental fairplay and I would like a political party that has woken up and smelt the coffee and realized that government is supposed to be for the people and not above them, I found myself deeply disturbed by the kinds of poll promises made. I found distasteful Kejriwal’s call to arms to Delhiites asking all of them not to pay for electricity. It’s one thing to say that if you have evidence of doctored meters or of mismanagement hiking up the rates. But to say that any citizen has the right to use and not pay for resources is asinine. The promises of free water and electricity I found as gimmicky as those of any other party. But when it comes wrapped in a thick muffler of self-righteousness, it’s more dangerous than when it comes as the typical self-aggrandizing of a mai-baap dyed-in-the wool politician, because by now the Indian public has learnt to see through it. 

But now the Khirki incident has taken the muffler off and the public can see the truth that’s out there. Any minister who, when he receives a complaint from some disaffected factors in his constituency, decides to act on it like a vigilante and refuses to follow procedures even when someone is advising him of it, is not to be let off easily, even by those who desperately want to believe in the new party. What makes a further mockery of it is that this is the Delhi Minister for Law. What on earth prevented him from listening to the other side – the people complained about – rather than getting them dragged out of their homes? Why did he decide to override the police who advised him on due process, regardless of whether or not he suspected them of being hand in glove with the alleged criminal elements? Why did he decide he was above the constitution and the basic notion of justice, which is fair play? 

Why did Kejriwal the righteous decide that it was his job to stage a dharna asking for the cops to be suspended rather than suspend his Law Minister during the enquiry? Why did AAP decide that no enquiry was required into Somnath Bharti’s action? How did the party decide that the complainant’s word was above that of the victims of the Khirki raid? Is the party unaware of the deep, ingrained racism of India, particularly against people of colour or anyone with a non-mainstream lifestyle? If they are unaware maybe they have lived in a paper bag for the last several years. If they are not unaware, they should have been all the more determined on seeing justice and fairplay rather than a one-man show of vigilante justice. Added to their plans for a citizen force, it sounds like vigilante justice coupled with Kangaroo courts will replace the constitution if they have their way. 

If they are truly ‘the party with a difference’, they, like ‘Caesar’s wife’, need to conduct themselves with a higher moral compass than other parties. They cannot storm people’s homes like a lumpen mob, stating ignorance of the law and procedures as an excuse. They cannot be one-sided in listening to the public, they have to listen to all sides. And they cannot let their own members off the hook for ignoring the law, while expelling those who have dared to disagree with the party leader. That’s paving the way for this to turn into yet another political party without a difference.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I don't know

The other day, on my way to work, I passed a flyover under which there are usually a few poor people clustered, many of whom rush out and start begging as soon as the traffic lights turn red. That day, there was a bigger crowd than usual, several families in fact, men, woman, children and babies. One of the babies, a girl between 7-9 months old was rolling about on the brick floor of the space, howling at the top of her baby voice, loud enough for her voice to pierce through my closed car window. She was crying as if in agony for something, rolling from side to side across that floor. And not one of the many adults clustered around her so much as turned, paused their conversations to even look at her. One of the ladies had a bamboo pole about 10 feet long and used it to nudge the baby farther away from her. The many children under that flyover didn’t blink an eye, didn’t turn to look. No one seemed to have felt an urge to pick up that baby, to hold her close and comfort her, to find out what she wanted. I don’t know what to think about the incident, it keeps haunting me. I used to think my kids were pampered because they have a nice home and good clothes, toys and books…but maybe they are pampered because they have people in their lives who will listen, who will hear them crying, who can’t bear to see them in pain. I think back to the juvenile in the Dec 16th case and wonder if he grew up in a similar environment, whether he grew up in a home that never taught him anything but self preservation and survival by any means…whether he never knew what it means to have compassion, empathy because he had never experienced it himself. I don’t know if …contrary to whatever claptrap the movies sold us about the nobility in poverty, it leads to such a dominant survival instinct that you only care about yourself and no one else, maybe not even your own children.. …this weeping child was even theirs or was it just a convenient orphan picked up to ease begging… …I have turned cynic or biased onlooker…

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Dove ad and the Beauty Stereotype

The interesting thing about human beings is that they have the mindspace for the intangibles…like beauty. What an abstract concept, and yet, every day, human beings have the capacity and desire to appreciate beauty in myriad forms – in nature, in other people, in architecture and so much more. I don’t know another species that does so, except in Disney cartoons. So why does the new Dove commercial, which talks about women being more beautiful than they think, bring out mixed emotions?

On the minus side: I don’t know whether it was the editing of the ads or the way that the strangers these women interacted with actually used only these terms to describe the women, but the overuse of the word thin had me cringing. Thin chin, thin face, thin this, thin that. Why weren’t more of the descriptions phrases like ‘strong chin’ or ‘smile-creased face’ or ‘intense eyes’, apart from the fact that the strangers may not be Mills and Boon writers in their spare time? Did they not use these types of descriptors? Did the editing cut these out? Are there more ads showing a wider demographic of women – Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, African, younger, older? Are there more Dove ads on the anvil which have different types of descriptors? I don’t know.

On the positive side, it is a good message to send that each and every woman is more beautiful than she thinks. Women are conditioned to expect impossible standards of beauty from themselves, from the time they are little girls buying into Barbie’s unrealistic curves or the Princess trope. As they grow up, the beauty and fashion industry, with its emphasis on almost anorexic figures and extensive airbrushing works to further enhance the anxiety and drive us to the arms of the nearest beauty counter.
My husband commented the other day that I have a space in my brain where compliments go to die. When it comes to compliments about my abilities - cooking, work, public speaking - I'm fine. But when it comes to compliments about my appearance, he's bang on. I either don't hear them or my inner self-critic comes out to meanly spit on the nice thing I just heard. It's a social construct- it begins from childhood, where girl babies or children are routinely commented upon from the perspective of beauty, while boys are commented upon from the context of ability or intelligence. There are Tshirts for girls that say 'Too pretty for homework', as if that were an empowering thing for them to hear. And these early messages set in in some primeval part of the brain that's hard to reprogram.

I still remember my father's colleague meanspiritedly telling me when I was seven that I was wearing a very pretty outfit and what a pity I wasn't pretty myself. Or my aunt saying that my mother cried for months after I was born because I was so ugly. Or the myriad friends of the family and relatives cooing over my sister as a baby because she was so fair with beautiful, curly hair and then pointedly staying away from the topic when looking at me.  Years later when a close friend described me as glamorous, I had to rub my ears in disbelief, because beauty and glamour, in my mind, were things to which I couldn't even aspire, because my standards or the images I carried of beauty were so different to my own appearance.
This level of unrealistic expectations, followed by constant underrating of ourselves is consistent with what Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In. Women at the workplace constantly second guess themselves, underestimate their own abilities and therefore end up settling for less. It seems to be a running theme in the lives of women – the setting up of impossibly high standards of perfection, be it in appearance, as mothers, as workers - which are almost designed to make us feel inadequate, with the consequent impact on self confidence. You can see it in public spaces in any Indian city, where women have made the effort to turn themselves out well, dressed in whatever represents fashion or style to them, impeccably groomed, but walking with shoulders slightly hunched, next to a man who struts in, Tshirt stretched tightly over a paunch while his jeans hang loose over spindly legs, hair combed over to hide the bald spot, convinced he’s looking like Adonis. With that as the context, it’s an extremely empowering message to send to the wide swathe of women out there, that they are more beautiful than they think.

Should Dove or any other brand still be focussing on women and their equation with beauty? Well, it merely reflects the truth of society. Women are not only judged by society on beauty, they also buy into the beauty myth themselves and scrutinise themselves with a harsher lens than others do. Women are more prone to doing this than men, metrosexuality notwithstanding. If the brand uses the current context to send out its message, as a former advertising professional myself, I don’t have any quibbles with it. Dove is a beauty brand, not an NGO that works for women’s welfare or world peace. What did you expect them to promote? This ad and the brand do not owe it to society to overturn expectations that are centuries old. The ad’s job is to position Dove as a beauty brand in a way that differentiates it from other beauty brands. The fact that they have been using real women in their campaigns for years now, instead of airbrushed, size zero superhumans who live on a lettuce leaf a day, alone is enough to make me applaud them, as compared to other beauty brands.

But the message in this campaign is  that the standards aren't nearly as unrealistic and impossible as you have defined for yourself. Does the ad say that the women are to be judged by beauty alone? Does it say that’s all there is to them? No.  If Dove's campaign helps women be more self confident about how they look already instead of waiting for that elusive last five pounds to drop, or the right dress to come along, good. If it does so by painting a more empowering, inclusive idea of beauty, that’s great.
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Monday, January 14, 2013

A Patriarchal Mythology

I have always cordially hated the Ramayana, even as a child. My C. Rajagopalachari copy of the Mahabharata is in tatters from frequent reading whereas the Ramayana lies pristine. In light of the recent gangrape in Delhi, and even more, the spate of violence against women which seems to be spiraling upwards, I am increasingly convinced that the Ramayana was a text written to enforce the patriarchy. Rama, the ‘Maryada Purushottam’ whom all men must strive to emulate is either misogynistic, a disrespecter of women or a spineless coward. Beginning with blind obedience of a father’s unjust command, to humiliating Shoorpanakha whose only crime was that she desired him, to killing Vali by foul means because Sugreeva coveted Vali’s wife, to making Sita go through an Agni Pariksha because she had the misfortune of being captured – where was his agni pariksha for having remained sans spouse in the forest, may I ask? – to his final rejection of Sita because of what an uneducated man said, rather than showing intelligence, compassion and a better sense of equity by rebuking the washerman for his attitude, what is there to emulate in this man? And Sita too does not cover herself in glory, with her final sinking into Mother Earth – I would have thought better of her if she asked Rama to undergo an agni pariksha too or gave him a stinging slap when he dared question her again. But that would never happen in a text written for the purpose of enforcing a patriarchal worldview, would it?

What are the lessons that can be drawn from this mythology?

1. To blindly respect and obey elders no matter what they command. Well, our elders today include Shiela Dikshit who says women should not be adventurous and Asaram Bapu who thinks that appealing to a rapist’s compassion and saying, “Bhaiya, Bhagwan ke liye mujhe chhod do” will prevent rapes (PS. That line didn’t work in countless Hindi movies, why would it work in real life?), and Sushma Swaraj who thinks rape is a fate worse than death.

2. To understand that ‘good women’ should not feel desire or they will get their noses cut off (Naak kat jaayegi – just understood the origin of this phrase) a la Shoorpanakha, and that it is the right of ‘good men’ to humiliate such women.

3. To not cross the Lakshman Rekha – lines in the sand drawn by men that tell women where the limits of their freedom lie – or else there will be a Raavan waiting in the wings.

4. That it is the fault of the woman in such cases and she must pass an agni pariksha (or the 2 finger test) to prove herself innocent.

5. That even if she is innocent, her husband has the right to reject her, because…please read learning #4.

I’m not surprised that so many of the politicians and godmen and such like crawling out of the earth right now espouse such views. They are wedded to the patriarchal view, a) because they are older, and hope the Ramayana rules about blind respect and obedience will work in their favour, and b) because many of them are men and see the Ramayana as a salutary way to teach women what happens when they step out of the boundaries drawn for them by men.

In the Mahabharat, written later than Ramayana going by the chronological order of the Dasha Avatar, and set in the beginning of Kalyug, by the way, women have a much better role to play. First of all, they are not passive doormats who say “Jo aagya” meekly to their lords and masters. Even while they do not actively participate in the war, they are catalysts, opinion-makers and take decisions in their own right. From Kunti who has a child out of wedlock – and then is catechised not for that but for keeping it a secret and giving away the child – to Gandhari who voluntarily binds up her eyes to keep her husband company and eventually, is the only one who curses Krishna, to Amba who vows revenge on Bhishma and becomes a warrior, Rukmini who takes the ‘bold’ step of writing to Krishna asking him to elope with her, Subhadra who similarly chooses Arjuna against her elder brother’s wishes, Draupadi, of course, who is the only one to fight back against the Kauravas while the entire court full of men sits silently, who later goads the Pandavas into fighting the war – the Mahabharata is full of women who dare to live and think and breathe freely, rather than cower meekly in corners. No wonder that the familiar trope in our society is to advice women not to read the Mahabharata when they are pregnant. No wonder no one in Indian society tells women to follow Draupadi or Kunti’s example – that would upset the patriarchy, wouldn’t it?