A woman's world
She started her career in journalism in 1960 when women reporters were unheard of. Sixty-three year-old former journalist Gita Aravamudan not only forayed into a male bastion but started reporting on gender issues at a time when politics, international relations and crime ruled the headlines. Aravamudan understood early on that gender inequalities colour almost every aspect of our society and thus began her lifelong commitment to gender issues. In her latest book Unbound: Indian women@work, she paints a paradoxical picture of today's urban Indian woman, empowered with a BlackBerry and breast pump, who doesn't just walk but runs up the career ladder, yet simultaneously battles the same old demons of dowry, work-life balance and harassment in various forms at the workplace. It is the capability of the individual that should matter, not gender, emphasises
Aruvumudan in a conversation with Dhanya Nair Sankar
What made you report on gender issues at a time when no one really thought about it?
I started as a mainstream journalist in the late 1960s in Indian Express. I was the first woman reporter in Bengaluru. At that time, woman reporters could only do stories like covering a flower show or fashion. But the really passionate journalists stood their ground. In 1970, I got married, moved to Thiruvananthapuram and started freelancing. One of my first assignments was to do a feature on nurses and nuns in Kerala. That assignment was an eye-opener. I realised that my gender helped me access critical insight from this world. I also realised that women can highlight an issue more humanely. I learnt early on that there is a gender angle to every story and decided to focus on that in every story that I did.
What is the essential difference between working women of today and those of the previous generation?
Today's women are more confident in whatever path they choose but it is because of the previous generation of working mothers that this generation can access these workplaces with more confidence. Previously, women were made to believe that 'work' and 'career' were privileges bestowed to them. Many did not speak out against exploitation because of years of conditioning. But today's women are confident that they deserve to be where they are; they are able to take care of themselves much better. Yet some of the old problems persist. For instance, why should an educated, working woman have to pay a dowry? Thankfully, things are changing.
When did you think about writing a book on working Indian women and changing gender roles? How exhaustive was the research?
The idea took shape in my mind when I wrote my first book Disappearing Daughters on female infanticide. I felt very depressed during that time because foeticide was committed even by the middle and upper middle classes. I wanted to show that with education and employment women can be economic assets. So I first explored the earlier generation of working women and their issues. The challenge was to find a focus for the book. Today's working women largely fall between the demographic of 25 and 45. I also wanted to focus on jobs like media, software engineering, cosmetology and even acting. I interviewed 200 females from various working as well as social backgrounds.
Is there any difference between problems of rural women and urban women?
There is no real urban and rural divide except for a social divide created by money. For instance, dowry is prevalent in both rural and urban areas. Child marriages are an urban reality as well; they are still practised in many slum areas. Domestic violence exists in villages and even in highly educated urban families as does sexual harassment in the workplace, whether in urban or rural areas.
Do you think today's women juggling both career and home are more stressed out than ever before?
Previously, women did not even have to think about the outside world. But then would you call a caged animal happy and not stressed? Even inside their households they had challenges to deal with. They did not have any access to the outside world, even if they were subjected to violence. Today's women are free but there is nasty competition out there and women have to prove themselves twice as opposed to male employees. The 'fairer sex' is still denied certain jobs. Workplaces have to evolve because women bring a lot more culture and discipline to the table.
How important is a man's role in a woman's success?
Behind every successful female is not just a supporting male but an entire family. Of course, marriage and childbirth are important and help evolve a new personality but these changes should not be forced on to a woman. We certainly don't want marriages dropping like a pack of cards but that doesn't mean a woman has to put herself and her aspirations on the back burner. I am glad to see some truly emancipated families where men don't mind letting their women go out and achieve their dreams while they look after home and kids.
Today, feminisation of ageing is a significant concept. What can be done to make ageing a pleasant exercise for the very aged women?
Today's very aged women belong to the previous generation of women who had no or little exposure to the outside world. Many of them have children who live far away and when they lose their spouse they go into depression. So we need more support groups that encourage them to develop newer interests and go out to experience the world. There should be a thrust from the state to give them quality healthcare, which includes physical and mental health.
After covering gender issues for almost 27 years, what does feminism mean to you?
I have always been a feminist and through my writing have stood up for the feminine cause. Feminism for me is to have a sense of person and strength in the female gender, and never to undermine the two. Female empowerment means to have pride in one's gender, to never regret it and to experience equality in every way.
So has the glass ceiling broken?
It has not broken but women have learnt to ignore it. Today's women have also decided not to become a clone of their male counterparts and have a distinct feminine pattern of achievement. Not all of them want to become CEOs but each one of them wants to be financially independent and have a sense of freedom. They choose not to have children or postpone the process. We have very good laws also in place but we still have a lot of inhibitions and taboos that women, finally, are willing to speak against.
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