Temperament versus efficiency

After a nice few weeks of vacation, back to writing the column.

The tug-of-war between ‘nice’ and ‘competent’

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He had a sweet word for everyone; sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions; and was ever-smiling. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when he was needed.
He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was because they dealt with each other too much, but mostly it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.
Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy—in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch, I know.
The latest display of this dichotomy is the ouster of Jill Abramson from the top job at The New York Times. Here too, the issue has been framed as a tug-of-war between competence and temperament, with overtones of gender disparity. Abramson has been described as “mercurial” and “unapproachable”. Male bosses who are this way, including her predecessors, didn’t have to take a fall as she did. This is where gender disparity comes in.
Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a newspaper or a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down, however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.
I can see the double standard. And yet I have to wonder: What is the takeaway here—for all those women who are entering college, a new career, or the 16th Lok Sabha? Do you tell them to be as good or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The First Sex: The Natural Talents Of Women And How They Are Changing The World.
According to Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathize, and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems.
Because we expect women to cooperate, we find the ones that are pushy jarring. Because we expect empathy from women, we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt. This tautology doesn’t help the future. How do we go forward from here? Many companies—Google is one—insist that their employees undergo gender-sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking. A man who asks for a raise is viewed as ambitious; a woman who does the same thing is viewed as pushy.
What’s the way forward? While I see the merit in pushing for justice and equality—hiring a lawyer and questioning a boss as to why she was paid less—I’m not sure that it has taken women far enough to break the glass ceiling. So why not approach this thorny issue tangentially? Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy—heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being obnoxious. There is a reason we usually think of men when we use the term “jerk”.
There are two ways to win a battle. So far we women have assumed that the only way is to enter a man’s world and essentially become like them: to imitate. When I was in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, US, the older women enrolled in the Frances Perkins programme, who returned to college in their 50s to get a degree, would get angry when I talked about how women in my family ruled the roost with an iron fist in a velvet glove. “Why should women have to pretend to be softer or to be nice?” was the typical response. But for many women, these are not pretences, but part of personality.
Younger women hopefully will have the confidence to bring in new adjectives that the world can associate with leadership: compassionate, consensus-seeking, kind, great listener, enabler, supporter, and oh yes, she’s a tough boss. You don’t have to be a jerk in order to be competent; and simply saying that men can afford to be that way doesn’t help most women.
In aikido, a martial art that I am interested in, students are taught to use the force and momentum of the attacker for self-defence. When someone punches, you draw in the punch through whirls and circles and flip it back on them. The attacker’s force is used against him. Several Asian martial arts talk about being flexible like a blade of grass rather than breaking like a twig.
Aikido masters talk about making the enemy your friend; to defend yourself without injuring your opponent. Such altruism and niceness cannot be dismissed as idealism in today’s world. In reality, it may be the most practical way forward—for both men and women.

Shoba Narayan wonders where the new government falls in the temperament-competence continuum. Write to Shobha at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Confident Women

A piece that really *really* bothered me and a response.

Opinion
Comment

Don’t listen to the dissenting voices, just carry on regardless
Shoba Narayan

October 8, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2013 18:08:00

Recently, the New York Times magazine carried an article titled, Why are there still so few women in science?

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The piece, which attracted plenty of attention and more than 1,000 comments to its online version, posited that the reason women don’t excel in the sciences is because they aren’t encouraged enough and they lack the self-confidence to forge ahead on their own.

It was an unsettling conclusion. It bothered me because my 16-year-old daughter wants to go into the sciences. How could I, as a parent, improve her odds in that world?

My first thought was to discount the piece entirely.

There are complex reasons that explain why women don’t thrive in certain fields, including the sciences.

In India, for instance, women form less than 30 per cent of the workforce. Scores of women professionals freely admit to being tired of “whining” about this shameful statistic and this self-perpetuating stereotype.

But it doesn’t present the entire picture.

In layered cultures, such as in the East, women may appear traditional but often think about things in the most counterintuitive way.

For example, my mother is afraid of travelling alone by plane but she is not afraid of death. Go figure.

The only way forward, in my view, has to do with how you educate and raise your children.

With this in mind, I have come up with a few observations. Call them rules if you like.

Firstly, my advice is to teach your children to deflect criticism.

This is a key skill because, like it or not, they are going to get criticised. We are often overly sensitive to criticism and the best thing a parent can tell their children is to ignore those dissenting and harmful voices.

When a physics professor is sarcastic, when a boss shreds our assignment, my instinct is to think all of the following: “I suck at this; he hates me; I have no future in this field.” Instead, we need to teach our children to learn how to reframe the situation. Maybe your critic is simply just having a bad day.

Secondly, when your boss doubts your competence, plough ahead. When your professor suggests that you take a lesser course load, ignore him or her and keep going. Make it a habit to ignore the voices of doubt.

This may seem like a big hurdle to jump at first, but once you start regularly ignoring them and doing your own thing, you will gain confidence. Yours is the only voice you’ll trust after a while.

Thirdly, take small steps. Building confidence is a long journey.

You will not cover all the ground overnight. The trick is not to expect that your offspring will turn into assertive, confident superstars immediately. It takes time.

Your children will stumble and fall and, in turn, will learn to pick themselves up. Your job is to be there to support them and cushion their failures.

Fourthly, single sex schools can help, or at least they can in my experience. For my own part, I went to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Some studies have shown that women’s colleges have an advantage.

Finally, toughen up. This is something that boys have heard all their lives. Maybe it is time girls heard that phrase too.

As the American economist Larry Summers controversially stated, women do fall off the career ladder. Why that happens is open to debate and will take a long time to resolve.

There are two ways to approach it: one is to change the system, which we are all, in our own ways, attempting to do. The second approach is to change yourself. Change your thoughts and you can change the world.

After all, the only person that you have left to work with is the individual: whether it is your child, your spouse or yourself. Whoever it is, make it count.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Shazia Mirza

 
Mirza takes on all the taboos about Islam and flips them around as jokes. She tells us what we are thinking, with a punchline

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Aug 3 2012. 9:13 PM IST

The reason comedienne Shazia Mirza, 36, is important is not only because she is hilarious, which she is. There are many other funny women. Comic Shappi Khorsandimakes fun of her Iranian heritage in her British accent. Kazumi Kusano talks about her breasts and other Japanese unmentionables in her baby-girl Japanese voice. Margaret Cho and Gina Yashere don’t play the obvious race card and joke, instead, about lesbians or psychics. Sarah Silverman uses her Jewish faith as a segue to sex and porn. And Joan Rivers’ routine of an expletive-spewing mother who screams at her daughter for turning down Playboy magazine will make any wannabe-comic mother wish she were that cool or looked that good after menopause.

 

Comic timing: Shazia Mirza, comedienne, shops for a maang tikka. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Comic timing: Shazia Mirza, comedienne, shops for a maang tikka. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

 

Mirza is different. She takes on all the taboos about Islam and flips them around as jokes. She tells us what we are thinking, with a punchline. She pokes fun at stereotypes that link Muslims with terrorism and she does this with razor-sharp comic timing (no pun intended). She became famous in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings when she said: “My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.” Today, she goes all over the world doing routines about how no Muslim man will marry her “because I speak”, and about how her mum walks five paces behind her father “because he looks better from behind”, and about how Muslim women now walk ahead of their husbands “because of the landmines”, and about how a Muslim vagina is different from a normal one. You’ll have to watch her live for that. She doesn’t like putting up her shows on YouTube, because “look what happened to Russell Peters. All his material is on YouTube and now he can never repeat his jokes on live shows.” 

Mirza and I are buying bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. She is in town for her India tour, organized by Bangalore-based Ajit Saldanha as part of his ongoing effort to bring quality comedy to India. Mirza has played to packed houses in Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, but curiously, not in Delhi or Mumbai. She opened her Bangalore gig at The Park hotel, where 185 screaming fans enjoyed her ethnic identity jokes that questioned everything from atheism to arranged marriage.

Of Pakistani heritage, Mirza was born and raised in England. She has a high forehead and the clear skin that comes either from good genes or frequent glycolic acid peels. Her eyes are wide and inquiring and look delighted when she smiles. A prolific columnist, writer and comic, she began her life as a science teacher. Comedy was an accident, she says. She was in a humour-writing class and the teacher saw her material and suggested she do stand-up. She now makes it to top 10 lists and is viewed as a veteran.

The first place she wants to go to in Bangalore is the post office. We wait in line and talk about her method. Writing comedy is serious work, she says. Most comics aren’t funny in real life. They are observant and have a gift for connecting disparate dots and quirky occurrences into a cogent routine that ends with a punch line. “Good comedy is about telling the truth about your life,” Mirza says. “Are you angry about something? Sad about something? That’s your material. Comedy is about feelings.” And sex.

 

Shazia shops for bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Shazia shops for bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

 

“Five rupees,” says the post office cashier. 

Mirza takes the stamp and sticks it on the envelope. It is addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. Why, I ask, is she writing to the prime minister of India? “It’s an appeal from one of the charities I support,” she replies.

Wastu (waste), madam,” says the spectacled cashier, glancing at the envelope.

We post the letter anyway.

At Commercial Street, a beggar hobbles on a cane with a cycle bell on top. Mirza hams around in a maang tikka, which makes her look like a Mughal princess. Later, at Woody’s, over some mango lassi, she talks about being a woman comic. “I don’t hold back,” she says. “For example, Varun (the man who opens her act) will talk about how men will sleep with anyone. That’s a man thing. I give the view from the inside. And the women in my audience love it. They like to see someone who reflects their lives.”

Stand-up is gaining ground in India, admittedly with very few women comics. Neeti Palta is funny—her writing more so than her delivery. Aditi Mittal can be funny. Outlets such as The Comedy Store and The Bombay Elektrik Projekt allow amateur comics to practise their material. In Bangalore, clubs and restaurants such as Urban Solace and Kyra host comedy nights.

India and Pakistan, says Mirza, are the last frontiers of stand-up comedy. She talks about her shows in Lahore and gives examples of her routines: about how her mother set her up with a 51-year-old Muslim man with six children who agreed to “consider her because she was a comedienne and therefore ‘bottom of the barrel’”. She has a whole routine about this arranged meeting with the elderly racist Muslim gent. Her delivery is casual but her comic timing is instinctive and precise. Her Muslim identity is the butt of many of her jokes.

Doesn’t she get death threats? “No, because I don’t make fun of religion, only people,” she says seriously. Her eyes wander. She takes photos. That afternoon, she is being taken to the races. What advice does she have for budding comics, I ask. “Write about your life,” she says. “Obviously make it funny because otherwise everyone will be crying because everyone’s lives are quite sad.”

Shazia Mirza, ladies and gentlemen.

Shoba Narayan admires Shazia Mirza. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Women and careers

What irritates me about the comments below is not the hate-mail bit but the fact that people didn’t “get” that I am a flagrant feminist.
  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 2 2012. 9:28 PM IST
Why doesn’t Priyanka Gandhi reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people. It is much more than empathy—every good spiritual guru has empathy. The currency of campaign politics, however, is connecting to a crowd and giving voice to their dreams. It is the ability to deliver the same feel-good factor to a crowd that empathy offers to an individual. This emotional connect combined with force of personality equals charisma. Indira Gandhi wasn’t born with it but she developed this quality. Her granddaughter has it in spades, and yet, she doesn’t use it nearly enough. What is Priyanka afraid of? Why doesn’t she reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that women aren’t ambitious enough. They compromise before they need to. They opt to be dentists rather than surgeons because dentistry offers more work-life balance—this at age 20, before they’ve met their spouse. They put off their childhood dream of starting a school or a restaurant because they are busy helping their husband fulfil his dream—and holding the family together while he does. Women rein in their ambition because they believe success will come with costly sacrifices. Worst of all, many women don’t even try; they don’t “lean in”, as Sandberg says. They compromise from the get-go. Why?

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Bangalore-based Sujata Keshavan, founder of Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s top design firms, believes that it may have to do with economics— and perhaps genetics. She talks about how difficult it was for her to persuade young women to continue to work after they got married. These weren’t women with constraints. They were talented and highly educated. They didn’t fit the conservative stereotype in which the in-laws forced them to resign from jobs to become homemakers. What’s more, they had supportive husbands and were not planning to have babies anytime soon. “Even so, if their husbands could support them financially, they chose to stop working,” says Keshavan. “This leads me to believe that women are wired to be homemakers, perhaps because of centuries of social conditioning that is now embedded in their psyche.”

The fact that Keshavan believes this is particularly damning because her career is testimony to the fact that women aren’t “wired” this way. She founded Ray+Keshavan, ran it successfully and sold it to global brand company The Brand Union. Perhaps she is an anomaly. Or perhaps early financial exigencies forced her to work. So what’s the way forward? I ask her. What do we tell our daughters if we want them to be strong, successful career women? “Tell them to marry a poor man,” she says with a laugh, voicing exactly what I have been thinking.

After 50 years of feminism, it has come to this. Or has it? Are women the resilient gung-ho crusaders who have broken glass ceilings? Or are we escapist homemakers (and I do say this pejoratively in this context) who don’t have the courage to pursue our convictions—or our careers?

Human resources adviser and Mint columnist Hema Ravichandar disagrees with this analysis. “There are two types of women—those that take a job to find a life partner; and those who take a job to make a career of it,” she says. “Sujata’s take might hold true for the former but not for the latter. Of course, even those women who are not quitters may fall into the Mommy trap, or the transfer trap, or the H-4 visa trap, where they cannot work and have to compromise.”

I was raised by a mother who believed that women ought to be like “creepers” that hold the family tree together. I came of age at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where strong successful women taught me the trenchant politics of feminism. I am married to a man who believes that nurture can trump nature; that women can trump the “wiring” that may cause them to be like creepers or homemakers. My personal belief is that we women have a fear—not of failure but of success. We are afraid to reach for the stars because we are worried about what it will cost us— and our families. We are biologically and psychologically more invested in our children. So we don’t reach; we don’t push forward because we are already calculating the costs, before we need to. When the going gets tough, we compromise and pull back.

Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, sees something similar in women entrepreneurs. “I often see women start businesses and the moment it starts to scale, and they think they need outside money, they rope in their husbands. Why don’t they have the confidence to do it on their own?” she asks. Put another way, why is Robert Vadra (Priyanka’s husband) involved in her campaign?

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who authored The First Sex: The Natural Talents of WomenAnd How They are Changing the World, disagrees that women entrepreneurs cop out. Rather, she says, “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Women’s natural talents: networking, people skills, connecting, nurturing and “web-thinking” are more suited to this information age. Women will start businesses, she says, and get ahead in the fields of medicine, education and philanthropy. With fascinating anecdotes and hard science, Fisher links the part of the brain that will help women fly—quite literally (Fisher is an identical twin, and her twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot).

That said, even Fisher admits that women will not break into the top levels because they are more willing to strive for work-life balance. That doesn’t matter, she says. There will be a few men at the top, a tonne of women in the middle, and a lot of men at the bottom—construction workers “too drunk to zip up their pants”, as she says.

What women need are role models who shifted the paradigm; who played the game, not by men’s rules but by their own. Sarojini Naidu stands out as a shining example of this paradigm shift. She wasn’t born to dynastic power. Yet, she navigated her way through the male-dominated Congress party and held her own with style and substance.

Priyanka seems like a woman who is trying hard to strike this masculine-feminine balance. Should she decide to take the plunge into full-time politics, she has a role model in her mother. Should she choose to ignore the salacious Jawaharlal Nehru-Padmaja Naidu link, she might also be well-served by studying the style of this “Nightingale of India”, and imbuing it with a charisma that is all her own.

Shoba Narayan is neither creeper nor career woman. Like all women, she tries to be both, and therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Showing 13 of 13 comments

    • Suchitr_desai

      This is really ridiculous, under-thought piece. Women who have never worked shouldnt be calling themselves career women. It really is offensive to most working women. Mint should rethink its columns. It owes its readers some integrity. Does anyone not question such columns before running them? Last I checked people needed some qualifications to hold a job. I am sure in a country like India, the labour market is not that tight that Mint is forced to run such columns. Really irresponsible to the reader. So tomorrow if she wants to write a column on Middle East politics, should the readers have to read that too? On one hand you have the likes of Anthony Shadid, who upheld all that was right about journalism and reporting, and on the other you have this lame excuse for a column. Some things never change. Progress in India is to remain stationary.

    • Medtio

      Wired to be homemakers? Nice excuse. Basically, women, especially indian, like to believe they are sacrificing themselves on the altar of family. The truth is they dont want to work, they are taking the easy way out. Just like our lady author here. Ladies, honestly, Are you telling me, your husbands are where they are because of you? Most indian women are busy living the good life, pun intended. Getting fat, inept At housework, general high nuisance value. This column itsekf is proof that Too much time is a punishment

    • Vidya

      H-4 visa is given to women who travel with their husbands. If they are qualified and have recognizable, meaningful degrees they get an H-1. It’s a separate matter that in true Indian ghetto style the likes of Infosys etc clog up the system by using up H-1s while their ” engineers” warm the benches, but if you are with a reputable enough firm you really shouldnt have a problem.

    • aarvee

      What makes the author think that she is “not wired” right? It is also possible that Priyanka is not taking the plunge because she is simply incapable. What has she achieved so far to prove her potential to hold high office?

    • abhay chawla

      shobha this is a strange piece as it titles about priyanka and talks about women in general. i disagree with
      Sheryl Sandberg “that women aren’t ambitious enough.” if they wern’t sheryl wd not be where she is. most of the conventional tags for women wd not apply to priyanka considering she comes fm a political family that has see almost continuous power since independence. maybe, just maybe you cd have let priyanka tell this herself n then  analyzed.

    • Very good article. Echoes my sentiments…loved the part about..neither a creeper nor a career woman. I have come across so many women..strong, ambitious with good careers ahead of them..suddenly give it all up for all or some of the reasons mentioned in the article above. The frustration mounts especially in the mid- thirties and early forties..when you suddenly realize..is this all there is to life? These same women, who have daughters, are suddenly sceptical aout getting them married when they grow up! Time for a change, maybe?

    • Manish Prasad

      There are wars being fought, central banks trying to respond to recessions, politicians battling it out in the world’s largest superpower, and all Ms. Narayan can think of are silly, housewifish issues. Really, Ms. Narayan, what profession were you really qualified for had it not been ALL the support you had to provide your husband? Maybe you should have married a poor man, and then we would have seen whether Mint would have carried your column, or for that matter, whether Random House would have cared to print your silly, little cookbook. Mint, granted you probably can’t afford to pay your columnists, but having people like Ms. Narayan write garbage like this is killing what until recently used to be a decent newspaper.

    • Skyent

      Why glorifying Priyanka Vadra? What are her qualifications other than being the daughter of the chair person of a political party? What are her educational credentials? Is she a visionary who has made a difference in any constituency she campaigns in? Is she serving people in any capacity? I am not sure what charisma you are talking about, but any “tamasha” can be a crowd-puller especially when it involves to have a glimplse of a  gori chick! That does not necessarily translate into votes. This is amply evident from exit polls in UP where party she was campaigning for is trailing at the bottom! Anyways, good article/story sunk due to bad example and und0ue emphasis on a bad example! More apt title to this story, could have doen better job to convey the message of the story!

    • Sailiverma23

      The real question is why is shobha narayanan not afraid of putting her idiotic thoughts out there? Why do we need to hear about women and careers from a woman who has never put in a day’s worth of work? Why should we listen to women or men, who aren’t where they are on the basis of merit and merit alone? Is India ever going to be a meritocracy? Or are we doomed to sub standard columns and poor qualith columns for life?

    • namah

      one difference i have noticed:

      woman entering a job thinks: am i good enough for this job as a woman

      man thinks: am i good enough for this job,

  • V Anand

    You will know how media-friendly or charismatic Priyanka is when you ask her difficult questions. Then the dimples will vanish.

  • Amused

    “turn to the husband for capital….” that holds if your business is dhokla classes for the neighbourhood housewives, or tupperware, or baking classes! Mount-what-college?!snigger, snigger, snigger! The reason priyanka is popular is because she is white as a sheet, something we indians love.

    (Edited by a moderator)

  • Womenslib

    Oh my god! This is the height of hypocrisy. And what career were you planning shobha, a rocket scientist, prime minister, engineer, doctor, pizza maker?creeper shreeper!Ask woman out there who really have to mange work, home, everything. Qualified women. They arent dropping out of the qorkforce because it is some whim, some luxury, some baby on the horizon.It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgement, having never really worked for anything. And i cant believe that lame conclusion,” marry a poor man.” what has marriage got to with anything? Spoken like someone who marrried into security, who was husband-hunting, this really flies in the face of independence, independent thought, independent women. The reason there arent as many women out there, is not because they dont push themselves(speak for yourself lady) , a big part of it is its a man’s world. Women are dropping at an average rate of 9% on wall street, ask your husband how many women he has worked with, or for that matter how many has he hired? These women are not dropping because of “work-life balance,” an outmoded thought for qualified women, these are changing times, nuclear families, the old saas bahu excuse doesnt fly here. They are dropping out because it’s a boy’s club. Sit on the sidelines and talk about shattering glass cielings-conviction really is a luxury of those on the sidelines. Just because you went husband-hunting, dont generalize. And trust you to fawn over PG, IG, useless women who got everything on a platter. Look at the mess The gandhi legacy has left us in. But you wouldnt know that sitting in your ivory tower. O and by the way, there are women who are fighting against the steroetypes all the time, so before commenting on them just think twice. It really is not your place. And also, the right husband can help you acheive much more than you dreamt of, so the reason girls fashion themselves into “creepers” are looking for husbands who wouldnt be challenged by them. It’s a different type of man really who marries a woman who he knows wont threaten him. So honestly girls who look to do this are the ones who are looking for the easy ride, they are the ones who are coping out so to speak

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Why we hate our girls for Mint Lounge

This was a tough piece to write because you had to get the tone right. Many rewrites; many inputs from editors. Here it is at Mint’s site and pasted below

Culture
Why we hate our girls
The 2011 census reveals our abysmal child sex ratio. Is it poverty, deep-rooted cultural conditioning or our ignorance about what it means to be a woman? An IAS officer may not have the remedy, because India needs to convert minds subliminally for a real change
Shoba Narayan

Some stories find you. This one began with bags—1,000 unbleached cotton bags, to be specific. My sister-in-law in the US needed them to hand out to guests at a new Hindu temple in Southwest Florida. I started trawling online sites and spamming friends for recommendations. Days later, a stranger named Namrata Vora emailed me. There was an orphanage for girls named Aarti Home in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, she said, with a tailoring unit that could make the bags. After discussing shape, size, price and design, we ordered 1,000 bags.

A 2007 BBC documentary titled India’s Missing Girls, which can be found on YouTube, features Aarti Home. Its remarkable founder, Puchalapalli Sandhya, speaks about India’s gender bias with understanding and compassion. She cradles a beautiful two-year-old girl whom they have named Harshita—abandoned at birth in a basket with a feeding bottle. “We don’t know who her parents are, or her name or her birthday. But since today is an auspicious day, we are celebrating her birthday,” says a smiling Sandhya in the documentary.

There are many poignant moments. A grandmother walks into Aarti Home and hands a day-old girl to Sandhya. The baby’s mother, her daughter, is missing, she says, and walks out. Thirty-six hours later, the premature baby dies. Sandhya speculates as to whether the mother tried to abort the baby using crude methods or eating poisonous herbs. The foetus survived the womb to die just after birth.

The case that spears your heart is of a pregnant woman who once worked at Aarti Home. She knows she is pregnant with a girl and wants to abort her baby. “I’ve had such a tough life,” says the woman. “Why should I subject my daughter to it also? Maybe I will give up my baby to Aarti Home.”

She eventually doesn’t abort her daughter or give her away to Aarti. “Once I saw my daughter’s face, all my love came pouring out,” says the woman in Telugu. “How can I give her away?”

The 100 girls at Aarti Home range in age from a few months to more than 18 years. Many have been abandoned at birth; some have been rescued from brothels when they were seven or eight years old; some of the older girls have found jobs and moved out. They return occasionally and are received with joyous cries of “akka” or elder sister. The Home invites young men to become elder rakhi-brothers to the girls. Sandhya posts advertisements on Telugumatrimony.com, trying to marry off the older girls on the condition that no dowry shall be asked for or given. The Home has three grandchildren, says the website proudly, and it will remain the “maternal home” for every girl who passes through it.

The 2011 census has brought forth India’s abysmal sex ratio, something that even our vaunted economic growth has been unable to stem. The number of girls per 1,000 boys has fallen 13 points, to 914, in the 0-6 age group in the past decade. Authorities admit that the programmes they had initiated to stem female foeticide and infanticide are not working.

It’s not just among the poor. The latest census figures show cities don’t fare too well either—in Delhi, for instance, the ratio is down 2 points, to 866. In the BBC documentary, a rich woman in Ahmedabad left her husband because he forced her to abort her five-month-old foetus when they discovered it was another girl. In 2007, more than 90 female foetuses were found stuffed in polythene bags and dumped into a well near an ultrasound-scanning clinic in Odisha, even though sex determination is illegal.

Why do we kill our daughters?

Economists have long tried to explain the “missing women of Asia”, first noted by the Nobel prize-winning Amartya Sen as early as 1990 in a seminal paper he wrote for The New York Review of Books. In it, he tried to wrap economics around biology and explain why 50 million women in China and 100 million women in India were “missing”. At birth, he said, boys outnumber girls everywhere. But women are hardier than men. They live longer and have a higher survival rate. Women outnumber men in much of the developed world. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged as it is by calamities and enervating poverty, women outnumber men. In Asia, however, particularly in India and China, the opposite is true. Even within the countries, there is a difference in sex ratios. Punjab and Haryana have a lower sex ratio relative to Kerala. “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women,” writes Sen in an oft-quoted line. Two explanations, one cultural (the East is more sexist than the West) and the other economic (women fare better in developed economies) have been “implicitly assumed”, as Sen says, to account for the lower number of women. Sen dismisses both explanations—read his paper for reasons—and lays the blame squarely on gender discrimination, suggesting that employment, literacy and economic rights, including property rights, are factors that would help right the wrong.

Later, economist Emily Oster questioned Sen’s view and suggested that the prevalence of the Hepatitis B virus in Asia would account for the higher survival rates of boys. Oster later publicly admitted that her hypothesis was wrong. Hepatitis B, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the survival rates of girl babies.

The most hopeful research, and the one that interests me the most, is by Monica Das Gupta, a senior demographer at the World Bank’s Development Research Group. In her paper Is There an Incipient Turnaround in Asia’s “Missing Girls” Phenomenon?, Das Gupta and her colleagues use data from South Korea to show that the son-preference reduces as societies develop, not simply because of economic improvement but because of “normative changes across the whole society”. Normative—I looked up the term—means a complex conglomeration of values, standards and judgement. It is what society thinks of as “normal”. Son-preference is strongest in patrilineal societies such as China, India and, until recently, South Korea. They viewed having sons as superior and normal. As patrilineal societies modernize, they develop political, legal and social tools that recognize “patrilineages as a threat rather than an asset to society”. This is slowly happening in India. Second, urbanization and industrialization will render women as valuable as men, both in their own minds and in society at large. The norms, in other words, are changing, even in India (I’d like to think). The modern state, says Das Gupta, has “unravelled” the underpinnings of a society’s son-preference.

Unlike Das Gupta, who views the world in wide swathes, I am not a demographer. I am a storyteller. I am interested in the psychology of India’s son-preference; about why we value sons more than daughters; and how we can change this.

The home front

Aloma Lobo and I are sitting in Bangalore’s Caperberry restaurant sipping wine and nibbling on canapés. Lobo is a medical doctor who used to be the chairperson of Cara, or Central Adoption Resource Agency. She continues to work with the Karnataka chapter of Cara and has six children—three boys and three girls. “Must you say that my girls are adopted?” she asks before giving permission.

I meet Lobo once a month at foodie events in Bangalore. With her slim frame, short hair and Herve Leger-type bandage dresses, she cuts an elegant figure. Her youngest daughter, Nisha, is visually impaired and has ichthyosis, a genetic condition that causes the skin to become scaly and flake away. Adoption specialists say that girl-babies with special needs are the hardest to place, something Lobo knows first-hand. “You know, our daughter didn’t come from a poor family,” she says. “Nisha’s parents were well-off but they still gave her away because she was challenged. The other day, she asked me, ‘Mama, what will you say if you meet the people who gave birth to me?’ I said, I would thank them because they gave you to us. I asked her: ‘What would you say?’ My Nisha said, ‘I would ask them why they weren’t there for me when I needed them most.’”

When my second daughter was born, I have to admit that I felt a pinch of disquiet. It would have been nice to have one child of each sex. I’d like to think that I would have felt that same disquiet had I given birth to two sons. But now, it is hard to fathom life without my little Malini. Could I adopt? I didn’t think so. When we contemplated adopting before my second child was born, I told my husband that I was worried I would treat the adopted child different from my own. Worse, I would treat the adopted child as more special, just to overcompensate. My husband was more sanguine. He had no qualms that “after the first few hours, your heart will embrace the newborn—any newborn—like it was your own”. Then I got pregnant and we didn’t do it. But I think to myself, why don’t we place adoption centres and orphanages beside IVF clinics so that people who try so hard to have a child know there are other options? Why don’t we build orphanages in districts such as Jhajjar, with India’s lowest sex ratio? The irony is that there is a waiting list for people who want to adopt girls and across the psychological border, there are parents who abandon or kill their daughters.

The oft-quoted, and very real reason why daughters are not desired is dowry; but it goes much deeper than that. To even begin to address India’s skewed sex ratio requires vision, extraordinary empathy, and a leap of imagination. Simply quoting numbers, getting on the moral high ground and condemning the parents who kill their daughters is not enough. “Indian women have been raised to devalue themselves and we perpetrate this on our daughters,” says Lobo. “I get very irritated when women tell me that they won’t eat before their husbands. Do it if it’s important that you have a family dinner. But don’t do it because he is the man. Till we learn to value ourselves, we won’t value our daughters.”

Valuing ourselves has to do with self-esteem, but it also has to do with the psychological burdens that women bear. Before you condemn the woman who kills her daughter, think about the sleep-deprived despair and fury that you have felt at whiny, cranky babies night after night. Were there moments when you wished the child would keep quiet; wished the child away? Now transpose that quiet rage to a different self. You are dispossessed; live in a hut in arid interior Rajasthan; work like a farm-horse; are malnourished and barely literate. You have never experienced maternal love (your father killed your mother in a drunken fit when you were a child), let alone the milk of human kindness, and civilization’s little courtesies that we city dwellers take for granted. In this morphed form, your body and mind have hardened like the land around you. You are already on edge and you know that you are carrying a girl. You dread the eyes that will view you with pity and censure when your daughter is born. You have no food for yourself or your first daughter. And now another? What are you going to do?

In Usilampatti taluk in Tamil Nadu, women give the newborn milk laced with erukkam paal (sap of Calotropis gigantea). The infant sucks the milk greedily and dies within an hour. Penn-sisu-kolai (girl-baby murder), it’s called. Mothers did this, but more often, mothers-in-law, by mixing pesticides, sleeping pills, rat poison or saps with mother’s milk and feeding it to the newborn girl.

It is not true, what they say, about maternal instinct gushing forth when you see your newborn. That happens in movies where the heroine sheds tears of joy and violins pierce the high note. In parts of India, the fierce, protective maternal instinct that those of us sitting in comfort feel for our children, is submerged, staunched and often runs dry—especially when the newborn happens to be a daughter. Maternal love is a luxury for poor, despairing women in Usilampatti, Jhajjar and other areas. They have no control over their lives or destiny; they lack individual identity, let alone self-esteem, education or financial independence. Most important, they believe they have no choice but to kill their daughters. If there were street plays or television campaigns in these villages with images of smiling, well-off parents who look these desperate mothers in the eye and say, “I will take care of your daughter,” they wouldn’t kill her. They’d give her up instead.

Many state governments, including Tamil Nadu, have attempted solutions for women teetering on the edge. They leave cradles outside orphanages for mothers who are ready to dump their daughters; have caseworkers monitor pregnant women.

While easier access to adoption agencies and orphanages might address the problem of female infanticide, it doesn’t prevent female foeticide, which requires step-by-step checklists and engineering solutions, along with a good dose of female psychology. Make sex determination illegal? Done. Shutter ultrasound clinics that violate the law? No. Slap fines on ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex? No. The PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act needs to be enforced because seeing an infant daughter’s face can change a mother’s mind.

Psychological issues are more complicated. Women feel like failures when they give birth to daughters; they feel victorious when they bear sons. The son is the carrier of the family name and business; the daughter takes away the family wealth. Sons take care of you in your old age; and they can light your funeral pyre. But all that is no longer true; not even in traditional or rural homes. As numerous microfinance institutions that lend mostly to women have figured out, it is the women who earn and save money. If you’ve ever employed a maid with a drunkard husband, you know that he is the burden and she is the financial provider. The problem is that this anecdotal evidence doesn’t apply to large swathes of India where women are painfully dependent upon and dominated by their fathers, husbands, and then sons. Among middle-class or wealthy families, the son-preference has to do with passing on businesses. Even here, daughters like the Paul and Reddy sisters have shown that girls can run and elevate a father’s businesses just as well as any son and they too keep their family name, even after marriage. You can make logical arguments like these to convince women to keep their daughters, but at the end of the day, they just aren’t enough. India needs to convert minds subliminally to displace centuries of cultural conditioning.

The problem is that this bias is so culturally ingrained and so complex that it is hard to know where to start. People say the oddest things. When my second daughter was born, an educated feminist sympathized with me because she came from a family of girls. My conservative mother, on the other hand, rejoiced over my daughters because she comes from a family of four brothers and one sister (my mom). She didn’t have the baggage associated with being a girl. A close friend in New York told me to try for a son who could light my funeral pyre. I expected this statement from a Brahmin priest, not from an investment banker. It is moments like these that make you a revolutionary.

Bollywood can help; as can our cricket heroes. If Sachin Tendulkar or M.S. Dhoni urge fathers to cherish their daughters, would it change minds? I love masala movies, but I cannot think of a single one, either here or in Hollywood, where a woman does Mission Impossible or is a Don. Why can’t Farah Khan or Kathryn Bigelow make women-centric movies? For that matter, why can’t Vishal Bhardwaj or Rajkumar Hirani change the paradigm, by using heroines as the “3 Idiots”? Easy to say, but in order for successful directors to embrace this concept, you need one runaway women-centric hit. Would that J.K. Rowling had written her series using her own daughter as heroine, instead of Harry Potter. That would have changed the minds of countless young girls, who currently have fairy tales in which the prince “saves” them as opposed to stories where they take charge of their destinies and save others in the process.

Reimagining realities is a central component in the fight against female foeticide. If I were Sonia Gandhi and I were serious about rebalancing the sex ratio of our country, I wouldn’t just hire a politician or an IAS officer to head this effort; I would hire a crackerjack team of demographers, caseworkers, implementers, ad men (or women) and media people. Lest I sound self-serving, let me add that in her paper, Family Systems, Political Systems, and Asia’s “Missing Girls”: The Construction of Son Preference and its Unravelling, Das Gupta concurs. “Studies of the impact of the media suggest that states can accelerate the resultant decline in son preference through media efforts to help parents perceive that daughters can now be as valuable as sons,” she says.

We are all stakeholders in this battle to save the girl child. Census 2011 is the tipping point beyond which the pendulum should not swing. If Indian society doesn’t save our girls, we will spiral downwards into the realm of science fiction decades later in ways that boggle the mind: inflicting sex-change operations on effeminate-looking boys in Nayagarh, Odisha, for instance, simply to provide a bride for a family of brothers. Holding Mahabharat-like swayamvars in families who have the daughters that society suddenly finds valuable; and killing off those boys—Greek-mythology style—who don’t qualify. You think this is impossible? As the country prospers and birth rates drop, who will be wives and mothers if there are no girls?

India needs to save our girls. The future of our boys, and indeed our civilization, depends on it.

Till we change our minds, we cannot change our world.

Shoba Narayan writes a popular weekly column The Good Life for Lounge.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

Men who listen to their wives for The National

Here is the article on The National site.
Here it is below.

Untold riches await those men who listen to their wives
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Mar 29, 2011

Lucky Shyam Shewaramani. He won a Dh1 million lottery by listening to his wife. If only the same were true in my household.

I’ve tried many approaches to get my husband to listen to me but to no avail.

It didn’t use to be this way. When we first met, we finished each other’s sentences and echoed each other’s thoughts. Now, we barely listen to each other’s words and shut off the other’s thoughts that can be read all too well.

As a new bride, when I said handbag, my husband would think “Hermes”. If I thought of sesame seeds, he would make me tahini. My wish, in other words, was his command.

As the years passed, the speed of his execution declined, until one day, it stopped entirely. Worse, it became the reverse. He began expecting things from me. The man who couldn’t do enough started asking for what seemed like more than enough: morning coffee, an unwrinkled newspaper, can you help me iron a shirt, dear?

I longed for the fiancé of yore. After watching the Bourne Identity, I decided that simply wishing it was no use. I had to practise some behavioural modification on my husband. Put simply, I had to get him to listen to me. Just like the old days.

Try positive reinforcement, said my mother-in-law. It used to work when he was a boy. Whenever he does something you like, compliment him profusely and ignore his flaws (of which there are many, I might have added, but couldn’t say that to the woman who bore him).

My husband has this irritating habit of wanting to be punctual, for instance, which is great in theory but a nuisance in practice.

I like punctual people, too. But not those who stand beside your dressing table as you are applying mascara and rap their knuckles on said table with irritating continuity.

If that doesn’t work, my husband will start gathering my things together, while muttering under his breath: “Come on, come on. We are late.” What he doesn’t realise is that he’s picking up the wrong-coloured pashmina.

So I tried positive reinforcement. The moment I opened my closet to begin the long process of choosing a dress, I said: “You know, one of the things I really appreciate about you is the fact that you are so patient with me.” But he had started tapping his feet already. I had caught him too late.

Every time he put away his things, I complimented him profusely, and ignored all the razors and shaving creams that he left in the oddest places – in a pot in the garden, for instance.

Once upon a time, I would have taken out the offending item, waved it accusingly in his face and asked: “Guess where I found this?” In my new avatar, I quietly put the object back in its original location.

“Mornings have become so peaceful now,” my husband commented after a few weeks. “I can find everything and there is no yelling and screaming.” He looked at me approvingly.

Frankly, positive reinforcement is for the dogs. It doesn’t work on humans. Not my human, anyway. He hasn’t changed one bit and I am working harder than I did before.

There is one silver lining, though. My husband doesn’t listen to me – that’s a fact. I don’t mean that in the sense of taking in the content of what I say and not acting on it. No, his ailment is more basic. He doesn’t even hear me, particularly when the cricket is on.

After moaning about this to all my friends, I am trying a new approach. I tell him things that I don’t want him to hear during the match and he always nods. “Honey, remember that giant cuckoo clock that you stopped me from buying? Well, one has come up for sale on eBay. Do you think I should buy it?” Stung by my accusations that he never listens to me, my husband will actually look me in the eye and say, “Of course, darling,” without having the faintest idea as to what he or I just said.

Nowadays, I don’t discuss anything important with my husband while we sit around our dining table, wondering what to say to each other.

I only ask him permission when he is watching cricket. The beauty is that he always agrees. “Whatever you want, darling,” he will say, reminding me of my sweetheart of yore.

Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based journalist and the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes