HER WORLD Sunday, October 28, 2001, Chandigarh, India
 


SOCIAL CROSSCURRENTS
The unchanging plight of Punjabi women
Gurdial Singh
I
n the rural community across Punjab, the modes of agricultural production have certainly changed but this has not resulted in significant changes at the cultural level. In other words, this has, no doubt, brought all the indices of growth such as ornaments, clothes, utensils and other items of luxury into the village households, but has made little difference, if at all, to the fabric of familial and social relationships.

WOMENSPEAK
Saying a firm no to war
Shakuntala Narasimhan
I
n all the millions of words uttered and written in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, women’s voices seem to be giving out a message that is different: a plea for peace.

High on ambition, they like to play down their achievements
Rajshree Sarda
R
esearch shows one clear common denominator among women who have made it to the top is that they all felt a strong sense of autonomy at an early age. According to Jane Adams, author of Women on top: Success Patterns and Personal Growth; the first stage in the development of successful women is the point at which a job becomes a career. A decision in favour of a career is followed by sustained career investment.
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SOCIAL CROSSCURRENTS
The unchanging plight of Punjabi women
Gurdial Singh

A well-grounded existence?
A well-grounded existence?

In the rural community across Punjab, the modes of agricultural production have certainly changed but this has not resulted in significant changes at the cultural level. In other words, this has, no doubt, brought all the indices of growth such as ornaments, clothes, utensils and other items of luxury into the village households, but has made little difference, if at all, to the fabric of familial and social relationships. This is the reason why there has been no significant change in the condition of women across the villages of Punjab. In order to reflect on this question, one may take recourse to certain linguistic signs upon which the cultural patterns are often grounded. (Words are not simply meant to be spoken, but their meanings and tonal variations, even a special way of pronouncing them, may sometimes be treated as a proof of the mental habits of the person who uses them).

Even today, the words most commonly used for husband are Gharwala (The Man of the House), Maalak (The Owner), or even Khasam (which sometimes carries a pejorative meaning, too). The last two words are borrowings from the Arabic language and both have virtually the same meaning: Swami, Aka (this latter word is from the Turkish language, though). In Gurbaani, the word khasam has also been used for God as in: Nanak Hukam Na Chalhiye, Naal Khasam Chale Ardaasa’ (It’s not your authority Nanak that prevails ultimately, but that of the devotion shown to your God). Before the admixture of the words from the Arabic, Turkish and Persian sources, and the most commonly used word in Punjabi referring to the husband were Pati or Gharwala. These, too, mean much the same thing as Malaak or Swami. Such words often constitute the very substratum of the cultural existence and lie embedded somewhere in the deeper recesses of an individual’s subconscious. Some of these words are often used in Punjabi to express annoyance or anger as well. For instance, mothers sometimes admonish their children, saying, "Let your khasam come back, then he’ll teach you a lesson." Another word, Patandar, is also used for the husband. This is the Punjabi variant of the word Pati-Antar, which means a husband by infliction, one that forces a woman to accept his rights as a khasam, this word, too, is used by women to reprimand the children in such expressions as: "Let your Patandar come, he’ll give you a thanesari (twist so as to bring you to senses)!" This word thanesari, which is derived from a Sanskrit root, Dhaneshwar (Lord of Wealth), invests the husband with such qualities as physical strength, material prosperity, lordship and ownership.) It is through the repertory of such words that the real status of the women in the society; could possibly be mediated. These words give an ample proof of the husband being an overlord, and a woman no more than a dependent subject. (And the one who is dependent is not allowed to exercise his/her free will, as invariably it’s the will of the owner that prevails). All social behaviour ultimately falls within the purview of cultural values. Even law finds it difficult to break the hold of this cultural pattern. For example, law does recognise the right of the daughter to be an equal partner in the inherited property, almost on a par with the son. But in the rural parts, only a small fraction of women ever allow this right to be exercised or property to be divided. If the in-laws start pressuring their daughter-in-law to demand her share in the parental property, their own daughters too line up to demand their share. (For their in-laws, too, in turn start pressuring them as well). And this vicious cycle would perhaps never end, only if it were to start once. If the son-in-law were to move to his wife’s village with the intention of cultivating her land, their own land would go abegging, making it easier for the son-in-law of the family to camp there. Punjabi culture often treats such developments with a great deal of contempt and derision. There is no dearth of idiomatic phrases that drive this point home. For instance, "In the sister’s house, a brother is like a dog, in the in-laws’ house, a son-in-law is like a dog." Such expressions, phrases and idioms are not just the products of wayward minds, but are emblematic of cultural values and signification. This explains why despite the existence of a law, a woman is often not able to claim her share in the parental property. Invariably, she has to depend upon the support of her in-laws or their family. As her claim on the property is generally not honoured, asking her to part with her jewellery or ornaments is considered to be as difficult as milking a lioness. Under such circumstances, jewellery is the only wealth she could claim to possess. Somehow, a woman’s social prestige is inextricably bound up with her personal possessions such as ornaments and jewellery. During a wedding, it’s the woman who is wearing the heaviest of ornaments who becomes a cynosure of all eyes. Even a beautiful woman may find it difficult to attract the attention of other men and women, especially in absence of ornaments. These really have the power to transform the most ordinary and plain-looking women into objects of adoration, even envy. (And behind this phenomenon is always a certain mind-set of the farming community, bred as it is by the cultural norms).

With the farming community, it’s considered to be the primary duty of a woman to look after the household and rear the children. And if she fails to do deliver on either of the fronts, owing to her lack of perseverance or devotion, she loses her prestige within the family as well as among the people outside. If a woman fails to show the necessary discernment to be able to keep her house together, then she is often described with the help of a word "fearless." Both types of women get nothing but outright denunciation in popular imagination: the former earning the epithet of being ‘fearless’ and the latter is accused of ‘neglecting’ her familial responsibilities. About such women, it is often said that using a single needle, they could easily bring the roof of the house down.

It is believed that the question of a woman’s respect and personal honour is closely tied up with the question of her ability to run a house efficiently and successfully. Most people (especially those who are totally oblivious to the ground realities in the villages) tend to think that a beautiful woman often gets much greater respect and honour than an ordinary- looking one. But if a good-looking woman fails to give the house its legal heir (a waaris), then she is often treated with contempt. She has to bear the brunt of such barbs as "What’s the use of such a beauty when it can’t even fructify, is it meant to be poised on the palm and licked?" or "What’s so great about beauty? Even a koortoomba looks good in the barren field." In cultural terms, this kind of comparison between a beautiful, though barren woman, and a koortoomba is not purely incidental. Koortoomba is a huge vine-fruit that often grows on the bank of a river. When it ripens, it looks good because of the black streaks upon its yellow colour, but it is used neither for eating nor for cooking as a vegetable. As per the cultural norms that prevail in the villages, the middle class people living in small towns and kasbas (who come close second to the village population in numbers, at least), have a very different set of cultural practices. Most of the people belonging to this segment had left villages during the British regime and settled down in the small towns, mandis and kasbas, mainly with a view to set themselves up in businesses. During the British regime and even later, this section of society took every conceivable benefit of whatever economic opportunity there was. (This section has benefited mainly because of the petty business, trading and even jobs). By exploiting the small or marginal farmers, labourers, craftsmen and other types of artisans, this class has managed to garner huge profits for itself. This is the reason why this class has developed a materialistic attitude, even a grabber’s instinct. As the women belonging to this class have a much greater access to money than their counterparts in the villages, they tend to spend it lavishly on cosmetics, beauty aids and other related items. Because of the dominant influence of materialism, and the feelings of jealousy or possessiveness it arouses, this particular class suffers a great deal from psychological complexes of a varied nature. With the pervasive influence of modernism, and easily accessible freedom of movement outside the house, women of this class generally refuse to accept the propertorial rights of the men over them. Though the man demands complete freedom for himself, he hesitates while granting the same to the woman, as his mind-set continues to be in the vice-Iike grip of the same cultural patterns that he has inherited or brought along with him from the village. As an upshot, inner restlessness, divisiveness and dilemmas always hamstring the domestic life of this segment of society. Small wonder, that domestic discord and disharmony are almost a norm among this particular class of people.

When it comes to the Indian society, saying something definitive about the condition of women is perhaps as complicated as is the process of class-stratification in cultural terms. If on the one hand, more than measuring up to the cultural norms, what an ordinary man seeks to do is to just get by life somehow, on the other hand he continues to struggle for the fulfilment of his insignificant though intensely personal desires, longings and needs. This is how an average person wants to live, riding in two boats at the same time, something not very easy to attain. (This is largely symptomatic of the domestic life of the middle-class in India). The condition of a woman is not in any significant way different from that of a man. The only difference is that the woman often has to bear the double burden of oppression. On the one hand, there is oppression exercised by the cultural value-system, morality and social code (which is what she shares with man, too ), on the other, it is the subjugation of having to live under the oppression of a man’ s family. Woman’s power of endurance is much greater than that of a man.

Being a ‘mother,’ she is, undoubtedly, one of the best miracles of nature as well. Without her, man is incomplete, nothing more than a violent though vulnerable being. It’s the presence of a woman that ushers spring into the sullen, wintry life of a man, offloading a gift of plentitude, of rich and multi-coloured fruits and flowers. But the tragedy is that owing to the predominance of money-centred cultural norms, man often walks through this plentitude with his eyes completely shut. There is a folk story in Punjabi that tells us of a farmer who simply walked over a bagful of gold coins, trying to figure out for himself just how blind men walk on the roads. It’s this kind of materialistic culture that has made the society what it has become: Blinded by its own greed, and without wisdom. So strong is the grip of tradition that even if one wants to use commonsense to wriggle out of it, one often fails to do so. Caught between the pincers of orthodoxy and traditionalism, the people of India have, for centuries now, put up with an enormous amount of suffering, albeit without a demur. So long as the qualitative changes don’t come about in these cultural norms and forms, perhaps man and woman would continue to suffer -and woman, of course, much more than man.

An eminent Punjabi novelist, the writer is a Jnanpith Award-winner.

(Translated into English by Rana Nayar)
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WOMENSPEAK
Saying a firm no to war
Shakuntala Narasimhan

When men go to war, women weep
When men go to war, women weep

In all the millions of words uttered and written in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, women’s voices seem to be giving out a message that is different: a plea for peace.

Public opinion polls conducted soon after the attack reportedly found that an overwhelming majority (83 per cent) listed "anger" as their dominant reaction rather than fear or sorrow. We do not have gender-disaggregated figures within this 83 per cent, but we do know that when the American Congress voted in support of President Bush’s call for a war of revenge, the sole dissenting vote came from a woman.

Take a poll around the world, anywhere, any time, during peace or war, and you will find that compared with men, women are far less in favour of armed conflict as a solution. "The men start warring, the women weep" is a popular saying in many cultures. A random survey conducted two weeks after the WTC event, while the media splashed headlines about an imminent "war" with pictures of sophisticated planes readying to attack a small, mountainous, poverty-ridden country believed to be harbouring a suspect, produced some interesting comments.

"We are shocked at the devastation and loss of life," says one American woman, on e-mail, "But does it make sense to send out war planes to bomb Afghanistan and talk of cave-busting to ‘flush out the suspect’? Would we not end up killing thousands more innocent civilians?" Another woman adds that though there have been repeated references to Pearl Harbour, no one seems to recall that America killed tens of thousands of civilian Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Wasn’t the destruction of those lives just as despicable as the destruction at the WTC, especially since reports say that the Japanese were ready to surrender and the atom bombs were unnecessary?" she asks.

What do the men have to say about this gender-divide in reactions to violence? One man retorts, "You think women are all goody-goody pacifists? A woman led India in the war over Bangladesh. Margaret Thatcher led England into the Falklands war. Women even bicker over buckets of water at the roadside tap, they can be just as quarrelsome as men."

Women counter this by saying that, "Bickering is one thing, cold-blooded bombing to kill is quite another. If there were more women among the political decision-makers, there would be less of a knee-jerk reaction of an eye-for-an-eye, less of belligerent warmongering and less flexing of muscles."

"How many female fundamentalist leaders do you see around the world?" adds another respondent. In Nicaragua and Bosnia, Cambodia and Kosovo, it was women who cried out for a cessation of hostilities. As one Palestinian woman comments, "We women are the greatest sufferers, our husbands and sons get killed, what good is war?"

In Africa, it was women who came out with the Windheok Declaration last year, forcing warlords to come to the negotiating table. "Women are half of every community, shouldn’t they be half of every solution too?" remarks a Namibian leader.

But in America, as everywhere else, decisions about war are taken by men. Women carry out orders, even if they take part in battle.

A few men have, to be sure, added their cautionary voices to the battle cry for "war", urging saner responses, but the overwhelming response among the political bigwigs is in favour of aggression. "Had George Bush been female, would be have reacted differently?" wonders one woman, while another quips, "If he had been female, he wouldn’t have become President."

UNIFEM, the gender-empowerment wing of the UN, has endorsed the General Assembly’s resolution calling for "urgent action to enhance international cooperation to prevent and eradicate terrorism". But significantly, it was a woman, UNIFEM Director Noeleen Heyzer who called attention (in the endorsement) to the need for "recognising women’s critical role in building peace and advocating for transformational leadership". The need to heed women’s voices, she adds, is more important than ever, if future violence of this kind is to be prevented.

The latest issue of ‘Communalism Combat’, a magazine brought out from Mumbai, carries a statement issued by the American War Resisters’ League. Of the seven signatories, five are women; and they urge that ‘Gandhian non-violence is the only method for creating a society free of war and racism’. Contrast this with the strident belligerence of the rhetoric that demands, "Whose side are you on, America’s, or the terrorists?" ignoring the inconvenient fact that whether it is 5,000 Americans killed at the WTC, or 50,000 Afghans (or Iraqis, or others) killed in retaliatory warfare, the victims are innocent civilian human beings, most of them women and children.

According to some psychologists, women give birth in pain and therefore value life more than men whose biological responses are less intense. If progress, development and civilisation are all about valuing life, this comment is worth pondering over in the wider context of the marginalisation of half the global population in political policy decisions that affect millions of faceless men, women and children.
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High on ambition, they like to play down their achievements
Rajshree Sarda

A successful woman often faces a psychological backlash
A successful woman often faces a psychological backlash
— photo Gaurav Sood

Research shows one clear common denominator among women who have made it to the top is that they all felt a strong sense of autonomy at an early age. According to Jane Adams, author of Women on top: Success Patterns and Personal Growth; the first stage in the development of successful women is the point at which a job becomes a career. A decision in favour of a career is followed by sustained career investment. The third stage is that of reassessment, which releases enormous energies for renewed dedication to their careers. After reassessment, the successful woman enters a period of integration, in which the central issue remains independence while the focus of energy is on establishing a balance between responsibilities and rewards. The next stage is that of consolidation and expansion, wherein successful women utilise their professional gains to build on areas of personal importance, get involved in voluntary work and act as mentors in their organisation.

Women who have ventured out to take the dual responsibilities of being both a wife-mother and a careerist have to learn how to cope with a great deal of physical and emotional stress. The emotional stress is due to the cultural ingrainment and childhood conditioning about the tasks, roles and functions of women. Women have always been encouraged to be more compliant, nurturing, and sensitive in their actions, thoughts and behaviour. In every culture — although in varying intensities — a girl child is brought up to believe that her primary responsibility is to taking care of her husband, raise healthy progeny and manage household responsibilities efficiently.

There are, of course, many women who have dared to loosen (to a certain extent) the shackles of rigid cultural and social norms. They have climbed steadily upwards on the ladder of success and achieved positions as high-ranking officials and executives. These successful women continue to experience emotional stress, guilt and turmoil because of the positions they occupy. The independent, dignified lady, a perfectionist, superwoman as portrayed by the media is not the reality. It seems true then that "the better off one is, the worse off one feels" and it is equally true that the level of satisfaction keeps fluctuating according to the changes in lifestyle.

Academic studies reveal growing discontent among working women; they face considerable disadvantages throughout their working life. Furthermore, the emotional stress is compounded when the successful woman begins to dissect herself in distinct, separate identities, as a wife, mother, and careerist. She does not view herself as a fully functional, integrated whole. While marriage and motherhood still dominate lives of working women, they choose between career and family. They accept "dead-end jobs" because they do not want the responsibility, visibility or inconvenience thought to accompany career advancement. Against the backdrop of accomplishment of economic independence, a sense of discontentment and grievance seems to emerge. The dual role they play demands 16 hours of hard work, per day. There is an attitudinal difference between simple, low-profile working wives and ambitious high profile women executives and professionals. The latter seem to be more conscious about job satisfaction, work conditions, stagnation and sex-discrimination.

Men work for career and money and that they are the breadwinners is still the popular belief with most women. It still lives on, quite subversively deep inside our heads. So when the woman brings home the bacon, family dynamics sometimes take a turn for the worse over injured identities and gender role expectations. In the traditional order, money brought authority — recognised by both partners. In the changing order, everything symbolised by money — value, status, power, and the potential for independence becomes a hidden issue in the household when money switches gender. Working women report that their ability to bring home a pay cheque increases feelings of power, improves self-esteem and gives them fulfillment and independence. However, they also sense that society as a whole has yet to embrace female earning power as positive. Even according to the cultural stereotype, a powerful woman is less feminine, desirable and attractive than one who isn’t. While a successful male is lauded for his achievement, the successful woman fears losing the love of her spouse, of her children and of her parents if she appears too financially strong. Heaven forbid she earns more than her husband or, worse, her father.

"The societal norms still say that there is something wrong with a man if a woman is making more money" says psychologist Dorothy Canter, co-author of Women and power. A part of this problem lies with men. Working women have reconstructed the definition of womanhood, but men have been slower to respond to the change in women’s role, because it challenges the notions of male privilege and entitlement. They are not ready to give up their advantage in terms of earnings and social power. The idea of a woman having the upper hand in any way threatens the traditional male identity and he feels ‘less of a man’. It violates the image men have of themselves as providers. When the woman earns more, he feels unimportant and often anxious — so much so the marriage may be threatened.

It takes a mature man with a strong sense of self to feel comfortable with a who is spouse earning more. More typically, a man begins to compare himself to his wife and that brings with it the tendency to "want" to diminish the other. He sees the partner as "the opponent". He finds fault with her to feel better about himself. He starts acting hostile without directly attributing his anger to his wife’s earning power. He refuses to do his share of housework or childcare.

The psychological backlash takes many guises when a man does not make an appropriate response to his spouse’s success. There is failure to offer congratulations or support. A woman’s identity gets shaken and she faces confusion and resistance from her partner as well as a deep struggle within herself.

The woman is also not pleased about earning more. She is angry and feels exploited. She is bitter. She feels he should be earning more. The woman who is earning highly may also harbour feelings of guilt. If it doesn’t arise within them, it is often thrust upon them by outsiders, parents, friends and co-workers. Many of them assume a patently disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities.

The upheaval in male identity helps to explain why successful women often go to great lengths to downplay their salaries. It is an attempt to conform to the belief that women are born to be homemakers, but yes, money gives power to make decisions. Sometimes such women also gets relentless in her criticism. She is mad at the husband for not earning enough and tries to make him better. he gets furious and plays out his sense of loss of power by being resistant. She feels abandoned and withdraws, while she feels betrayed. Of course, a high-earning partner has always been free to choose to share power. But it is not easy for even the best-intentioned couples to escape the powerful field of gravity that cultural stereotypes still exert.

Nonetheless, marital counselors (including myself) report an evolution in men’s attitudes toward female earning power over the past decade. More and more men want to marry a woman who is strong and ambitious as many of them are tired of being cast in the role of provider.

For a successful woman executive who has a meeting to attend and who is also needed to be present at home to attend to her sick child, the guilt and anxiety is effectively reduced only when she realises that she cannot demand a perfect performance from her self in all roles that she has to perform in her life. She has to base her decisions and course of action to handle the crisis and the need to the present moment, on the basis of priorities. She should not struggle to make a choice between expectations and reality.

To pressure oneself to always perform at peak levels is highly stressful. Therefore, when a woman can learn to view herself as intuitive, caring and creative with her share of weakness, she can be relieved from the physical and emotional pressures of being an "intelligent executive" and a "loving wife", and a "caring mother" — all at the same time.

According to the Chicago-based psychiatrist, Irwin.H.Gracer, women are better able to cope with job-related stress than men. This is because women are less ashamed to display emotion and find it easier to verbalise their frustrations to peers and colleagues.

There are certain lessons for both men and ambitious women to learn which can effectively ease a lot tension from their lives and perhaps even bridge their differences by bringing them closer to each other.

* Both partners will have to reframe each other’s worth as individuals and not as wage-earners. The key for couples is to view each partner’s contribution to the relationship as valuable, be it child care or career— regardless of the monetary value attached to it. Money is not the measure of a person’s worth. It is their value as a human being that matters.

Marriage should be viewed as common ground on which both partners have an equal standing and play as a team which may be divided up differently at different times, depending on interests and opportunities. They have to look upon themselves as collaborators which involves a lot more negotiation and negotiation is hard work — a lot harder than staying resentful.

Both partners should discuss marital roles. It is essential for them to develop the same vision of the partnership and to discuss problems as they arise. If one partner is uncomfortable with the arrangement, it is much better to talk about it rather than hold it in and build up resentment. To achieve success, one has to be equipped with clarity. Having your needs met without harming others requires clarity of perception, thought, and behaviour.

So when money begins adding up to less love, what’s the couple to do? One should borrow a trick from therapists. In therapy, we reframe a person’s worth and help partners see each other’s worth as people, not for what they make.

(The writer is a city-based psychologist)
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