Sunday, March 04, 2012

Women on my mind

International Women's Day (March 8th) is here again this year and the regular question which arises as always is whether it is just tokenism only, or symbolism has some importance too. My personal take is that symbolism is very important because it not just makes us ask the difficult questions about how pathetic record we have on the women's issues, but also because it ritualizes something very important. And, looking at how religions work, one can say it confidently that rituals slowly form habits, like touching your head with the book if it falls or you just accidentally touched it with your feet. So, it is definitely a good thing if we get into the habit of asking ourselves some difficult questions on the women's issues. It is probably just a drop where a flood is required to "level the field", but it is well worth it.
Along with the question of symbolism, some other issues related to womankind also come to our mind. These include, why we discriminate women (or more generically, discriminate any marginalized group), idea of equality as an ideal, role of nature or nurture in it, moral dimensions of these issues, etc. I am neither a woman nor someone who has given considerable amount of thought, energy and time to understand women’s issues. So I am just putting up my thoughts on three important aspects of women’s issues in general i.e. equality, nature v/s nurture, evolution. This is not a thorough and informed analysis of these aspects too; it is just my personal and CURRENT opinion on these issues. And yes, sorry for the regular digressions - I am just not capable of staying focused on anything.
Equality: The issue of equality is important because it comes up first in any conversation on this topic. This happens because of the existence of exploitative discrimination of women which exists almost everywhere in the world and more so in the poor families and regions with the exception of Middle East.
To say that it is a human tendency to discriminate is not a wrong statement if we were still the competing with the neanderthals. But with the complex society and science we have developed, it feels wrong to say that we haven't yet become open-minded enough to not stereotype or recognize the wrongs done by our ancestors. It is the fear of unknown or different which is typically at the root of any type of discrimination, and though everyone (I hope so) knows that knowing the unknown or open-mindedness (or curiosity) towards new and different ideas, people and everything else is the way to overcome fear and hence (hopefully) remove discrimination or exploitation. Tragedy in this case is that almost all of males live with females in our homes but most know nothing about these issues, because our cultures never let us think that women’s issues are worth that much attention.
In general Gender Equality as an issue has at the least two sides to it, first of this is the equal opportunity side (exactly speaking, the lack of it). This is definitely a highly pervasive issue of our times and has been so historically too. It is a known fact that at best women get evaluated on their performance while men get evaluated on their potential. Add the societal constraints, nurturing and expectations, and a female's dream of achieving something would mostly remain a dream only. Even the women, who do become successful, are often manlier than the men around them. Britishers described Rani Laxmi Bai as the only man they fought in what they call as the 1857 mutiny. Similar things have been said about Indira Gandhi, Golda Meyer, Margaret Thatcher and many of top female icons of current time e.g. Mayavati, Indira Nooyi, etc. So it is always a men's game and in order to win it, women have to beat men at their own game just like any other winner would have done.
It is assumed that flexi hours, telecommuting and maternity-issues, can't go along with serious business. Never will we discuss the issue of properly valuing the taking care of family as a contribution, instead of treating it like a zero-wage thankless job.
Second aspect is the silly argument similar to one put across by the reservation opposing upper caste folks, is why women get reserved seats in Metro or in colleges, jobs and politics i.e. why can't women compete with men as equals if they want to be treated equally? While reserved seats in Metro or a ladies first announcement is just a courtesy, reservation in jobs or politics is a simple means (though not the best) to move in the direction of achieving a somewhat equitable distribution of the opportunities between the two genders given the history of exploitation we have. The real change will start from homes only, when women actually become equally important decision makers in their homes regardless of whether live in cities or villages, or whichever class/caste they belong too.
Obviously there is a moral dimension of all this also, but then the liberal morals and conservative morals are so different that in a country of faith like India, we better keep that topic for a much detailed discussion some other time. Broadly I would just say that the differences between the two sexes are real and can be complementary too, so respecting the differences and making the best out of them should be our guiding or moral principle.
Speaking of differences, there is one very important one which appeals to men’s real (animal) nature i.e. women’s sexuality, and many get accused of using it to their advantage. No doubt some women take advantage of their appearance or sexuality, but then same women are also vulnerable when someone starts using force or vilify them in their communities. Irony is, men can be nasty enough to use the system to their advantage or use their physical power to coerce women, or be praised for their ruthless execution of tasks to achieve their goals or even attracting women (a big goal for them). Use of their charm by women is definitely a much more passive and humane way to achieve their objectives. Therefore, I am all in for women using their smile to make their way. Vidya Balan in Dirty Picture or Cleopatra are good icons on this front, and why forget the Mataharis of the world.
Nature v/s nurture: Are men and women genetically wired to be so different the way they are or it is more epigenetic reasons or nurturing which builds all these differences? As I see things, it is certainly a combination of both nature and nurture. There is no doubt that males are physically stronger in terms of athletic things or fighting, but women also have some advantages which show in their longer average life-spans and their ability to endure and survive labor pains or their monthly issues. It is near impossible to defend if one claims that men are more compassionate. At the same time nurture, which has created so many constraints on women- often in terms of their own mindset too, that it could possibly be blamed for all the issues in this gender debate. As more and more women are entering the workforce, the nurture or to say culture forces them to balance their family responsibilities and careers but just spending more hours working both in office and at home.
Whether masculinity as we know it, is an acquired trait or inherited one is a debatable question when you find that only the likes of India Gandhi making it big in our Men's world. But rather than worrying about its origins, I would like to focus on systemic changes which decrease the importance of masculinity in progressing as a civilization. Changing the "Nurture" at a systemic level makes sense because that's all we can do, and we have enough evidence to say that nurture can overcome the barriers of nature.
As per my limited understanding of nature, evolution and everything else, the phenomenon of Path-dependence is a very important one. Putting it in this context, just like we say that “Rome wasn't build in a day”, so will be the case of women finally getting their rightful place and power. We have such a long evolutionary and then our social history of exploiting women that we can't get rid of it a short time frame. Most probably this process will take a few generations before we as a civilization reach anywhere close to the utopia of gender equality in terms of opportunities and no exploitation. Good news is that these changes are under progress everywhere though at different paces. In rural areas we have many women empowerment programs trying to do some good though TVs might be more effective. Without these also, we had (rare) women resort to taking charge of the family when the husband has been incapacitated by hard-luck or bad habits. Urban females are definitely doing relatively better as their opinions do matter in their homes in varying degrees though not as much as would be their fair share for their contribution or consequences to them.
The changes required could be mandated through laws or social norms but the hard reality is that those ideas won't derive any legitimacy and hence acceptance among the majority unless it becomes an evolutionary inevitability for our society as a whole. We are now somewhat of a democratic society because of the commitment of our country Founding fathers towards the ideal of democracy. This indicates that today's lawmakers and reformers can certainly provide the guiding direction if we want a world where our daughters get their rightful place. But the difference between authors of our constitution and our lawmakers is that while the former had both luxury and courage to be bold on social issues, the later have both too much of populist pressures and a total lack of courage to be bold on social issues. This is assuming that lawmakers too believe in equality of opportunity for both the genders, which is not true of at least a significant number of them, if not majority. On most fronts e.g. technology, this translates into policies lagging behind the reality whereas ideally it should be otherwise if we want to really realize the future we want and not reach some alternate future by accident as it has been almost always throughout the history.
Evolutionary case: Having mentioned the word evolution above, it seems right that we discuss this aspect. As per my layman like understanding, males dominate because most of the struggles of survival in our evolutionary and social history favored physical strength a lot. At the same time factors contributing to stability were always underplayed because of the perception of equating physical strength and its derivatives as bold and praiseworthy. Childcare is definitely not valued as much as it should be and maybe that would be the case till the world population keeps on growing. Achieving economic growth from having more people does have some correlation with lack of women's empowerment because it forces us to price childcare responsibilities as low as possible. Same holds true of other intangibles women typically provide for too.
Anyway, the point I want make by bringing in evolution is that we as a society are becoming much more feminine at an accelerating pace. Everywhere we are seeing working systems of law and order, and democratic institutions come-up, and economy is being driven more and more by knowledge, not the control of resources. More knowledge means not just increasing complexity but also increasingly co-operative ventures and systems. All these things reduce the importance of physical strength and I am quite sure that if not earlier, by the end of this century we will have machines for doing everything which requires physical strength or anything mundane or repetitive. Medical sciences would have progressed to the level where use of artificial wombs would be the norm and 80 might as well be called as the middle age (this might be a a slight exaggeration but I guess you are getting my point). Nature of work in the future would be very different and humans will have only creative things to do only for their livelihoods. It means if a waiter can't charm and keep her/his customers engaged every time better than a machine, they wouldn't be needed. Entertainment (sports, restaurant and other experience based offerings included) and research would probably the only broad professions left for humans. This also means that the nature of work as we know from our industrial age experience will change drastically. Work would become much more sporadic in nature for a large fraction of the population. Rule of law would too become much more pervasive, in fact evidence is abundant that violence is reducing in all forms almost everywhere on the planet and rule of law is gaining more acceptance and legitimacy.
With so much more value given to the human life and creative abilities than to the material stuff we own, childcare and other family responsibilities will both get distributed well among genders and valued rightfully. Given the pace we are moving towards such a society where physical strength will become almost irrelevant, I don't see men as a group being able to adapt fast enough. At the same time, women both because of their inherited traits and exploitative nurturing effect of our cultures so far have adapted to, or are normally stereotyped as more compassionate, cooperating, disciplined and sincere towards work and able to manage complexities better or balance work, family and other interests much better than men. All these traits are a huge competitive and hence evolutionary advantage which men in general have not adapted as of yet. For the advocates of attributing females being subservient to nature or genes, this is more scary scenario for then it is for the nurture advocates as it means men would take centuries to adapt (even with the availability of medical/genetic engineering options for doing so) to the new environment. Add to this the charm of a women’s smile and men certainly don’t stand much chance.
To put it simply, in future women would be the dominant decision makers. If we accept the above mentioned future is as a realistic or a highly likely scenario then we will also have to accept that nations which make lives better and fairer for women would prosper and be competitive in the future we have envisaged. So it is in the real interest of nations of take care of their women if they want a good future and the nations which don’t realize or act soon will have to pay later.
I am not quite hopeful about India doing anywhere close to enough on this front even when we are so much behind the other big and important countries. But still there are some elements of hope e.g. women in Computer Science is not an uncommon sight in India, maybe because on one hand we like the fact that it is not manual labor while on the other hand our society doesn’t think that women are by nature not good at math and sciences. This translates into saying that creative thinking is not an exclusively male domain in our view. Probably this is something which would play to our advantage, but only if we are able welcome the rise of women in all other senses too. Spreading this message is important, because the case I want to make is that sooner we accept this better it would be for us as a nation, for it is an evolutionary inevitability or the destiny.