Women– conformists and rebels

It gave me a lot of pleasure to write this piece. I think my mother in law is fascinating. She stayed with me for six months recently and it was a learning experience. She, like many of her generation, inhabits her identity so firmly and easily, without much angst or internal conflict. She does Varalakshmi puja, cuts fruit every morning, observes all kinds of Hindu rituals and calls herself a “housewife.” But she is so much more. Either she compartmentalizes really well, or she sees no contradiction between doing ‘womanly chores’ as she calls it and being a feminist. Maybe compartmentalizing is the secret to success– got to think about that.

I usually don’t show pieces to my husband but I showed this one before publication. He told me that my first draft was too hagiographic (it was). So I added all the other feminist woman names. My original last line, which I really liked went like this: Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family. Her son, Narayan, is to paraphrase Mint columnist, Natasha Badhwar, my daughter’s father.”
My husband didn’t want his name in the piece. He said that the point of the piece was not the personal connection but the fact that some women of the previous generation were achievers without the “encouragement” that the NYT piece describes. So I toned down the piece in general and took out that last line.
Then came the search for photos within our boxes. I have included the three contenders here.

A conformist and a rebel
A phenomenal achiever who became the ‘first woman chief secretary of Kerala state’ in 1991
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Fri, Oct 11 2013. 04 44 PM IST
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Padma Ramachandran was the first woman chief secretary of Kerala. Photo courtesy: Shoba Narayan
Updated: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 12 28 AM IST
At the time of Partition, in Rawalpindi, lived a family of five sisters and one brother. The youngest, Padma—“how my parents wished I had been born a boy”—had received a Briar Cliff scholarship to study in New York, US.
But her father refused to send her. It was enough, he said, that she had been allowed to study beyond high school, unlike her sisters. Young Padma studied, not in New York, but at Presidency College, Chennai, where she is still remembered by her generation as being an excellent debater. When she returned home after university, her brother, Mani, who was an IAS officer, dared her to pass the IAS. Everyone knew it was hard. There were very few women in the IAS at that time: Anna George being the first. Padma had no role models—not in governance, and certainly not within her vast joint family. She took the IAS exam, and to her family’s utter surprise, passed it. At the training academy—Metcalfe House in Delhi—Padma learned to ride a horse with the boys and shoot a rifle. Parallely, she submitted to an arranged marriage to a fellow IAS officer, and began her career in Kerala, overseeing tens of thousands of people at age 29, as collector of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). She travelled the world, Mexico to Denmark, the US and the Far East, working on women’s issues for the UN, always clad in a sari, and traditional nose-rings. Had you run into her at an airport, you would have dismissed Padma as a typical south Indian housewife. If you met her today, you would think that she is a traditional Indian aunty: feeding people, singing bhajans and keeping in touch with nieces and nephews. The weird thing is that she is—traditional, that is. Padma, like most Indian women, is both a conformist and a rebel. She is also a phenomenal achiever who became the “first woman chief secretary of Kerala state” in 1991. How did this happen?
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Recently, there have been a slew of articles questioning why women are so under-represented in a variety of sectors, including science. The reason given is usually lack of confidence. In a recent piece in The New York Times, the writer suggested that the reason many girls didn’t pursue the sciences is because they were not encouraged. They were told that they were not good enough. This is something that Indian women have heard all their life; and yet, some of them (like wine grown under harsh conditions) age beautifully. Telling them that they cannot do something only dares them to.

This is certainly true of the previous generation. Besides bold-faced names like poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu and cultural activist Pupul Jayakar, there are scores of achievers such as feminist writer Devaki Jain; sociologist Zarina Bhatty; writer and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Vina Mazumdar, a pioneer of women’s studies in India; educationist Mary Roy; theatreperson Vijaya Mehta; scholar Kapila Vatsyayan; schoolteacher Sushil Narulla; and feminist scholar Jasodhara Bagchi. What makes these women who faced conditions harsher than those that we do today, thrive in the workplace?
What made them confident when their whole world belittled them in ways large and small? What gave them grit and resilience?

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, it would be to figure out how to help girls develop a thick skin. I used to think this was about resilience and inner strength, but it is not merely that. It is about perception and how you receive messages. It is about learning to deflect and do what psychologists call “reframing”. When a well-meaning physics teacher asks: “Are you sure you can do this?”, the average boy would receive the message quite differently than the average girl. When a father says: “Be careful how you approach that problem”, the girl will more likely back off from the problem instead of tackling it head-on. When the concerned boss says: “I have no problem with you taking on that assignment”, the average woman will hear the doubt in his voice and turn it down based on this perception. These are signals and women—for better or worse, in this instance—are more tuned to hearing signals, both stated and unstated. Women are also more likely to concede to the negativity implied in the signals, even if they were not intended. Men, bless them, won’t have a clue.

So the first thing is to make everyone aware of this “unconscious bias” in their signalling. In a famous experiment, two identical CVs were sent to university professors. One CV belonged to a fictional “John”, and the other (identical) one belonged to a fictional “Jennifer”. John got more job offers and a higher starting pay. Just based on a male name. Jennifer was more “likeable”. It wasn’t just the men who succumbed to this bias. Women bosses offered John a higher pay too. So don’t tell me you are a feminist as if that makes it all okay. No matter how concerned a father you may be; no matter if you are a feminist—man or woman; no matter how evolved you think you are, the way we all react to girls is fundamentally different from the way we react to boys.

Teachers are key in this process. They need to be aware of how they treat their girl students with respect to their boy students. They may think that they are treating every one equally without even being aware of the tilt towards boys; without being aware of their unconscious biases. The only way for girls to deal with this bias is to not “give a damn”, as it were. Be less sensitive. View put-downs as pick-ups. And realize that women have walked this path before. That young woman, Padma, for instance: After a stellar career in government, she became vice-chancellor of MS University in Vadodara. Her last name is Ramachandran. Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family.

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Padma Ramachandran is Shoba Narayan’s mother-in-law.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns