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HeforShe and SheforHe

Nirupama Subramanian

Updated: October 31, 2014, 3:45 PM IST
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Sometimes completely unrelated things that happen around the same time get you to think about one single thing. There might be some greater cosmic significance or it could be random coincidence but these things happen.

I saw the movie Mary Kom.

In a stairway leading to a shop, I saw a poster that said My wife does not Work with a picture of a multi-armed multi- tasking woman.

Someone posted a link to Emma Watson's 'impassioned' speech on Facebook and because I like Hermione Granger, I saw it instead of skipping to the usual family and friends having a great time pictures.

So I started thinking actively about gender equality. UN has recently launched the HeforShe campaign in India. It is all about men pledging support for women and removing gender inequality. Hollywood celebrities have tweeted about it. Bollywood celebrities may follow suit. Magazines will write about it for a while and men will go online to pledge their support for the campaign.

As someone who believes in gender quality and writes about issues facing women, I think this is a great thing. The case for gender equality has been made several times. I don't think equality is about thinking that women and men are the same. It is about equal respect and equal opportunity. I know we can't have gender equality without the support and participation of men. As someone from a country which ranks amongst the lowest in women's empowerment and gender equality, I am all for any initiative that seeks to remove disparities and correct injustices.

My concern is that something like HeforShe, might fizzle out and become another Ice Bucket Challenge or Dieting fad that does not lead to lasting significant change. Gender Inequality is not something new. It is the ghost in the room that everyone knows exists and pretends not to notice. Doing something about it can be scary.

It is easy to sign a pledge. As of date, about 5000 Indian men have signed the HeforShe pledge. It is probably a good start because putting your name down for something like this is better than not doing anything at all. Events, articles, twitter mentions are all reminders of the cause but in a country like India, I think we need real mindset change at a fundamental level to lead to significant social change. What moves us, changes us are stories, examples and scenes from our daily life.

What stayed with me after watching Mary Kom is not the story of how Mary Kom became a boxing champion but how she came back to the ring after marriage and motherhood. I was not surprised that her father did not allow her to take up boxing. We are used to that. I was not surprised when her coach was upset at the news of her marriage. We all know that marriage takes precedence over work for women. I was not surprised when Mary Kom was torn between her passion and her babies. It happens all the time. What was surprising was her husband Onler putting his carrier and life aside so that she could go out and follow her dream- their dream. And I should not have been surprised. After all, isn't this what most women do? If a man does it, it becomes news, it is an anomaly.

If we see a woman doing a man's job, she is praised and admired for it. The sight of a woman auto driver, a petrol pump attendant or welder is unusual. We marvel at the woman's courage and ability and so we must.We are not only respecting the woman but the work of a welder or auto driver. However the sight of a man clearing a table, packing lunch for his children or knitting a woolly sweater for a loved one elicits sniggers or comments of " He must be gay!" During family gossip sessions, I have heard aunties speak disparagingly of an uncle who chopped vegetables and washed dishes. The Poor Thing had to do unpaid woman's work. No one praised his wife who held a job in a bank for several years. According to a research study by Healthbridge, a rural woman does 33 tasks every day, all of them tedious and time consuming. The men would be aghast if they had to pay for this. The woman has to do this out of love and duty and those two things have no price. None of the women would dream of asking for compensation for this work. If we women do not respect our own work, it is difficult to expect men to do that.

We can't bring about gender equality through economic or legal means alone. We have, to some extent, overcome racism and casteism but gender equality is even more difficult since most of women are also complicit in it. If we want men to change and support us, it is important for us to be proactive as well. Feminism as Emma Watson says is not about hating men. It is more about co-opting them. It is about the little things that we can do at home and outside it. I know it is more difficult for the uneducated woman in rural areas but I can talk about the world I know where gender inequality is more insidious. We may not be able to immediately change the minds of our grandfathers and grandmothers but we can start with our sons and daughters.

We can tell our boys that it is okay to cry.

We can praise their efforts in the kitchen as much as we cheer their prowess on the soccer field.

We can send both girls and boys to school.

We can lay down the same curfew times for sons and daughters.

We can put our daughters in karate class and send our sons to art class. Both are cool.

We can tell our daughters to get a job before getting her a husband.

We need not insist that the daughter-in-law cook for the family before leaving for work.

We can give the son or son-in-law some household responsibility apart from buying groceries and fixing electronic equipment.

We can praise the son who clears the table instead of telling him "Why are you doing that? Let her do it."

We can stop insisting that a prospective daughter-in-law quit her job after marriage.

We can admire the rare househusband instead of making him feel emasculated.

We can avoid watching rampantly sexist movies.

We can take pride in cooking, cleaning and ironing and bestow the dignity that is due to the job.

We can pay our maids a little more.

We can call out someone who we see doing anything that smacks of gender inequality and gently remind them of the consequences.

Some of these are easy, some are not. But someone has to do it- If not me then who, If not now, then when?
First Published: October 31, 2014, 3:45 PM IST

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