Paying attention to women’s voices

By Ze Shah
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Paying attention to Women’s voices in the Indian sub-continent

Diversity in most global literature, is noticed not only in customs and languages, but is omnipresent in all aspects of the society.

As an Indian by birth, I have been privy to seeing and experiencing misogynistic culture, especially during my years growing up. Traditionally, an Indian woman was well-defined and had a four fold status-role. These were her role as a daughter, wife, housewife (homemaker) and mother. Kalidasa an illustrated Sanskrit writer, poet and dramatist (4th – 5th century C.E.) depicted female characters also as abiding to the these rules. Women were divided according to Varna, a Sanskrit word for type, order and class. (1) But duties assigned to them differ as they are considered as equal to Shudras, another sanskrit term for a labourer or service provider. Whilst they had no right to initiation and no participation in ritual or social life in Vedic India, being a mother or a wife led the family with highest virtue. The status of motherhood with regard to women in Sanskrit scriptures is unparalleled. There are many glorified stories of women as mother whose narrations should be taught to the younger generations. Jijabai, mother of the great Sivaji, an epic warrior, is the spirit in moulding her son’s character and the prime source behind his victories.

However, in the late Vedic period, the status of women began to deteriorate. Men became the flag bearers of societal culture, educating a male child took precedence and evils like subjugation of women, polygamy, child-marriage and widowhood came into existence.

I can recall in my grandmother’s bedtimes stories and how the female characters were often depicted to be submissive, meek and dependent. My young mind instantly drew parallels with those fictitious characters and the ladies in my own house. Thankfully, my upbringing was quite liberal amongst strong-willed women and equally like-minded men. However, not every girl around me led a free-willed life. One of my best friends at school, would describe her father’s dissatisfaction in every she did and achieved. “Why did you get 89% percent in your exams? Why didn’t you get 90%?” he would ask. Growing up, I would observe how some of my friends would be forced to quit pursuing higher studies and get married off. Another friend was told to sign a resignation letter on the day of her marriage. Over the years, I can see that the traditional views on marriage and having family have changed rapidly. “More Indian women maybe moving out of their homes, seeking employment and carving out a niche for themselves at workplaces, but society sees them more as accomplished mothers and wives in primary role, relegating other roles to secondary positions.”(5)

So, when I was given this opportunity to express my opinion on women’s voices as an aspect of sexism and gender inequality, I couldn’t help but ponder on how deeply its roots are embedded in Indian workplaces, some of them are prevalent in the Western world too.  There is the need for collective action to be directed towards establishing parity in gender roles and women in the workplace. I now live and work overseas, and have seen quite well documented gaps between men and women. The inequality that women face at the workplace is indeed a symptom of a much broader issue.

The Hard Truth:

  • According to World Bank, in 2014, the total participation of women in the labour force was pegged at only 24.2%. Even though the figures were expected to increase, the astonishing reality is that there has been a 23% decline in the female labour force participation in India covering the last 25 years. In a country where women constitute almost half of the population (48%), these numbers present a challenge that we as a society must aim to overcome.
  • One of the biggest reasons why women occupy fewer leadership positions is the lack of support after marriage, both professionally and domestically. (2)
  • Although times are changing and women are slowly emerging from being a “home maker” to that of “bread winner”, they are still facing subtle pressures to make professional compromises for the family.
  • There is documented evidence of workplace violence which shows that violence against women in India is common and high, while not the highest in the world. In one of the study conducted by National Health and Family Survey 2011, every third Indian woman aged between 15 and 49 years said that she had experienced sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. These statistics reveal the extent of female disadvantage in Indian society.
  • Gender discrimination is another problem faced by women in case of pay. Still in the 21st century there is a belief that women are not capable enough to work in some professional fields like transportation, civil construction, electricity departments, etc (3)
  • A majority of working women continue to be denied their right to equal pay, under the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 and are underpaid in comparison to their male colleagues.

Here are some quotes from women who spoke about the workplace challenges they faced and how they overcame it. (4)

“I once went for an interview where I could not make it to the final round because the employers thought I might go on a maternity leave soon because I was recently married. One of my friends too faced the same problem once. So, in the next job interview I made it clear that I should not be judged based on my marital status or a presumption that I might be planning a family soon. The interviewer liked my honesty and I was selected based on my experience and qualification,” said Tara Mehta, a manager at a talent acquisition company.

“My boss once commented that women have good persuasion skills and that was the reason he wanted me to lead the business development departments and head all client meetings. What made me angry was he never considered my other skills but judged me based on a whim he had about women. Just to prove that he was wrong, I worked hard on all projects and ensured that I got good feedback from all. Then I left that job after starting my own venture and told my boss that besides the rumoured ‘female power of persuasion’ I also had other skills!” said Shalini Sharma, an entrepreneur.

“After I came back from a maternity leave, I was transferred to another location. Although the official notice mentioned that it was a regular transfer, one of my seniors divulged the real reason—they feared that having a baby might hamper my performance at work. I took that as a challenge and proved them wrong by performing even better in the new location,” said Aarti Shah, a public sector employee.

“Last year when everyone was discussing the topic of ‘monthly period’ leave and whether it should be implemented or not, one of my colleagues commented that we should think twice before hiring a female employee next time. It was really rude and I asked him politely not to discriminate women based on their physical difference. Some of my colleagues also supported and praised me for pointing that out in a respectful manner,” said Sweta Joshi, a bank employee.

“I have faced this in one of the hospitals I used to work in. Whenever a few male colleagues get together, they end up cracking jokes which might sometimes have sexual connotations. Earlier, I used to keep quiet and feel out of place. But one day I asked them to refrain from cracking such jokes in the workplace. No wonder I made them angry but they eventually stopped doing that,” said Namrata NC, a nurse.

Times are changing:

It’s not all dark and gloomy out there and despite the challenges today, there are many women who have started to come out of their shells and stand up for themselves. A few lucky ones are also getting the opportunity to work with corporates who encourage activities to avoid discrimination at work. I would like to close by citing an example of a quartz watch manufacturing company in a small town in Western India. The company which had more than 6000 employees, specially recruited women graduates in their manufacturing and production department which was primarily a male oriented domain. Besides that the women also helped each other and becoming self-reliant and productive.


  1. Devaky, E S. “Feminist Readings in Kalidasa’s works ,” Thesis. Department of Sanskrit, University of Calicut, India. 2006.

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