Impower, not empower

Female empowerment isn’t just a buzz word anymore. Or a fad. It’s a way of life. And a cause one doesn’t not want to be associated with. One that’s found enough takers, for everyone to find some reason to jump on to the bandwagon. The commercialization of woman empowerment, I call it. Ad commercials that propagate the notion of equality repeatedly. Ventures ranging from lingerie, to plus sized clothing to media channels, focusing on women of various segments. Corporate policies across the globe evolving to recognize the biological, financial and social requirements of women. All steps towards empowering more women. Yet, somehow, I have an issue with the term empowerment.

Empower. The dictionary defines the word empower as the act of giving someone the authority or power to do something. And I begin to wonder why one an individual that is talented, capable and high-performing in her own way has to be ‘empowered‘ by another individual. Especially when the so-called ’empowerer’ happens to be a counterpart, except a difference in gender.

Maybe there needs to be a slight tweak to this term. Instead of ’empowering’ women, I’d like to change the term to female impowerment. Allowing more women find their purpose, through self-discovery of their abilities. Where through opportunities and avenues, we assist them in finding what already was within them. I’ve almost begun to associate the term empowerment as a hierarchical notion, where someone at the top allows power to someone below him. And the question that arises in my mind is why the apparent ‘allowed’ party even needed permission in first place. In a world that’s working towards equality and inclusivity,  that’s where we might be getting it wrong. Power lies within. It shouldn’t have to imparted externally.

And maybe that’s what should be our mantra this Women’s Day. To Impower, not empower. 

Women & Entrepreneurship. New best friends? Not really.

In the Bollywood movie English Vinglish, I remember a scene when everyone in the first session of a crash English course is introducing themselves. Sridevi a.k.a Shashi, mentions that she runs a tiny ladoo-making business from within the confines of her kitchen. ‘Oh, so you’re an entrepreneur,’ the English teacher exclaims. And Shashi’s eyes light up, for all of a sudden she’s now learned a new definition of her identity. One that enhances her own self-esteem in her eyes. In the blink of an eye, she’s gone from someone who thought she didn’t do anything exemplary, to an ‘en-tre-pre-neur’, a word she herself has to practice a few times before she gets it right.

As an Indian woman, there’s probably never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. As far as the glass ceiling of entrepreneurialism is concerned, the ceiling hasn’t just cracked, it’s been broken, even shattered. Repeatedly. In a nation that has traditionally seen a male-dominated entrepreneurial scenario, there is no dearth of women who’ve built and led successful ventures And that’s good news.

Yet, if I look back to my growing up years, it does strike me that female entrepreneurship is no new phenomenon. Rather one that’s been around since the last few decades. And there are several instances of this.

A prime example that comes to mind is the cooperative company structures Lijjat Papad and AMUL built. Allowing women to a taste of financial independence through employing household skills that they had anyway learned by default.  A win-win situation for these commercial ventures and for the women. Many of these business models even went on to become case studies at B-schools, for they were pathbreaking attempts at employing latent talent in women that had otherwise been traditionally ignored. And in the process allowing women, who had mostly been financially dependent on menfolk, to earn their own livelihood.

Or, another regular character in my growing up days, the women I called the Tupperware and Avon aunties. The ones who usually were female acquaintances of my mother through her personal network of friends, family and kitty party members. Ones who would come home with glossy catalogues of kitchen ware items and cosmetics, trying to make use of salesmanship trainings they had acquired through becoming representatives of these companies, almost always convincing my mother that the products advertised in the catalogues were far better than their retail counterparts. And each of these women ran her own show as a company affiliate, growing her clientele, and sales volume through her own efforts. Some of them even managed to employ other women under them, creating their own sales hierarchies. And running them profitably.

And then every neighbourhood most likely had a pickle and tiffin aunty. The ones who ran tiny ventures out from home. Making pickles and lunches for those who didn’t have the time to make their own. And becoming indispensable in most cases.

Each one of these women is an entrepreneur. Irrespective of the size of the venture they ran.

And the trend hasn’t stopped, for even today, there are several many women who run successful small-scale businesses, from within their homes. And we’d all probably agree that they are as important as are the women who build unicorns. For they contribute in many ways, to our social economy. And personally, I have an extra element of respect for them. Because even without B-school degrees, venture capital and sometimes even a basic education, they did everything that is included in the definition of an  entrepreneur. Take risks. Create value. Solve pain points. And in the process, earn identity and profit.

Making Feminists, in the kitchen

Misogyny (more laymanly known as an emotion that exudes hatred for women) comes in two forms. One, which publicly brings down, demeans and degrades them. Through abuse. Through objectification. Through inequality.

And then there is the other kind. One that is the silent, invisible kind. Yet, it is also the more dangerous kind. The internalized misogyny.

If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by this, I urge you to watch this commercial. A father visits his married daughter’s house, only to realise that the son and husband play no role in the household chores. While his daughter juggles a demanding career and domestic responsibilities simultaneously. And the realization hits him, that her husband is not to blame for this. It is he, who by never helping his wife in household chores, set the wrong example for his daughter. By allowing her to believe that cooking and cleaning in only a woman’s job. A social norm she probably never questioned. A classic instance of internalized misogyny. And sadly, there are many more.

Look around you. When you think of abusive language, pretty much every abusive word is targeted at mothers, sisters and their private parts. Every poem we learnt as kids taught boys to be ‘little men’, and girls to be ‘sugar, spice and everything nice’. Every 90s kid growing up in India will remember a handful of popular Bollywood songs and lullabies, where parents sang different dreams to the children, based on gender. The boys would make their parents proud with their accomplishments, and the girls would grow up to meet princes, who would come on horses and take them to castles. Possibly things are changing, but even the ideal portrayal of what how certain objects, colour and actions have been segregated into sexes, making us categorize them as masculine or feminine.

Blue for boys. Pink for girls. Toughness for men. Crying for girls. Guns for boys. Dolls for girls. And the list goes on.

In the era we live in, if a more equal, tolerant and inclusive world has to be promoted, it cannot be only done through posters, social media hashtags, or commercials preaching women empowerment. Like charity, it too must begin at home. Possibly beginning in the kitchen. By working on instinct, not bias. By telling our boys that cooking and cleaning is as must their job as it is of their female counterparts. By telling them that even they have a right to tears, for there is a reason both men and women were born with a tear duct. By telling them that the next time to hurl an abuse directed as somebody’s mother, they might as well abuse their own, for rarely does slang language not meet with something equally crass in response.

And as for our girls, for us to be able to take them from the kitchen (a domain traditionally expected to belong to them), to the boardroom(a domain that traditionally excluded them), that confidence has to be imparted to them at home. Where they have to to be made aware of the world that lies beyond the confines of domestic life. For this is not at attempt at reverse migration – make more men stay at home, and make more women go to work. The core idea is to make both worlds accessible, and accepting of all people, irrespective of gender.

This is not me romanticizing what the ideal world should look like, but being optimistic about it. For I know every long journey starts with a single step. And creation of feminists (which includes both men and women) in the kitchen is possibly the first.

 

 

 

Hashtag feminism – yay or nay?

I grew up in an era where a working woman wasn’t commonplace. Most women were educated enough to be able to help their children with their homework, but not have full time jobs. It was the time when stay-at-home moms ruled. Women were not exactly subservient, but yes, financially dependent on their spouses. In those days, I remember a business model that took flight successfully, at least in urban India. The Tupperwares and the Avons.   A model designed to employ not regular full-time employees, but homemaker women. When they sold whatever they were selling to friends, family, neighbors, earning incentives on their sales without having to physically go to work everyday. This allowed these women to gain something they’d probably been longing for, but weren’t able to openly demand, thanks to other responsibilities that socially required them to stay at home. Financial freedom. A sense of empowerment. And sometimes, even a route out of domestic boredom.

Would you then, call these women feminists?

I think I would. Because almost silently, they challenged the status-quo. And they stood up for themselves. By inculcating an entrepreneurial spirit of sorts. By creating their own identity.  And since most of these models had a strong referral program ingrained in them, by motivating other women to do so, too.

Fast forward to my generation. The scenario has evolved. As 21st century women, the fact that we can do it all, doesn’t even remain a question any more. We’re at par with out male counterparts. We’re questioning every practice, ritual and tradition that was designed to restrict us socially, professionally and culturally. From menstruation to maternity leave. From #MeToo to Lean In, a flurry of support systems have sprung up to allow women to prosper and progress. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say, it never has been a better time to be a woman.

Yet, there are times when I wonder if we’ve chosen to voice an opinion, and call ourselves feminists only because its easier today. Because when my timeline is inundated with women folk posting #MeToo, why shouldn’t I too. Right? I wonder where the fine line is, where one crosses over from chiming in, to actually being the doer and change-maker. When my being a feminist actually makes sense because I’ve actually, physically done something to uplift the position of women. Not saying that you have to prove the fact that you’re feminist. Or that you can’t be one in beliefs only. But in my humble opinion,  it’s when you become one in action, that it truly has an impact.

I support feminism. And voice my opinion regularly. Yet in my opinion, the solution to feminism lies in beginning the charity from home. When you opt to contribute towards your domestic help’s daughter’s school fees. When you choose to stop sneaking that tampon through the work aisle on your way to the bathroom, as though you were carrying drugs. When you encourage your girlfriend to start that business she’s always wanted to.

Because the solution to the problem lies in doing something about it.

You are More than a Vagina

If there’s one thing I’d like to tell my tell my daughter (and even more, my son), and all the women out there, its this.  You are much more than a vagina. You are more than the damsel in distress. You are more than the color of your lipstick, or the size of your bra, or height of your heels.

You are a life, waiting to be lived to the fullest. A story, that deserves to be told. A legacy, that must be passed down generations.

You are a dream. A passion. An individual who has a right to her own individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, because you are unique. Irreplaceable.

Yet, you will be objectified. More than once. In boardrooms. In films and magazines and music videos. Reminded that you are nothing but a vagina.  Which is when you must remember that you are so much more than that. And make sure others do too.

From someone who’s experimented, flown, fallen yet survived and thrived to tell the tale, if there’s a few nuggets of wisdom I could impart to my daughter, or any woman who’d be willing to listen, they would be:

1. Be the seeker, not the settler : Follow your passion, and follow it with all your heart. No one I know died from an overdose of passion. Even when they tell you that you’re being a tad bit too adventurous. In fact, even more, then. Because if there’s one message the world needs to get, it is that passions are not gender specific. Be a fire-fighter if that’s what you want to. Go scuba-diving. Climb mountains. Swim oceans. Do them all.

Following your passion is a gamble, yes, but not following it at all, an even bigger one. To passion, add purpose. And to purpose, perseverance. Because the journey isn’t going to be easy. But it’s going to be worth it, I promise. Never, ever, ever settle. You deserve to have everything you desired. Don’t let anyone guilt-trip you in believing that you should be compromising. When in reality, you should be climbing and striving fearlessly to make your way to the top of mountain.

2. Why even try to be a male ?  No, you don’t have to emulate a man. In an era where we want equality of the sexes,  you do not have to become the ‘man of the house’, or ‘wear the pants in the family’ in order to demand power or respect. Your title or position isn’t a function of your gender. You can do it all, even in high heels and lipstick, if you want. And if make-up and jewelry isn’t you, you shouldn’t have to stick to that either.

3. Damsel-in-distress is so passe – You are not entitled to an easy ride. And don’t demand it either. Because there is absolutely nothing that is outright a man’s task or a women’s job. If you want to be an independent, confident, power woman, you need to stop expecting knights-in-shining-armours to spring out of nowhere and come to your rescue. If we expect men to learn housework (which traditionally was believed to be a woman’s responsibility only), then we also should be ready to take on the so-called ‘tough’ tasks – change a flat tire, replace a fused bulb, carry those bags, and yes, even take the check at that fancy restaurant. This segregation of tasks by gender has to stop.

4. Break stereotypes. Everyday – Often times, society, sometimes even your own friends, colleagues and family will try to box you into roles that apparently you are supposed to fit into. You will often be given labels like ‘soft’, and ‘ladylike’, and ‘feminine’, that have no objective meaning, yet you will be expected to adhere to. ‘Soft’ need not mean submissive, it could also mean compassionate. ‘Feminine’ need not mean ‘shy’, it could also mean vivacious. Your labels, and definitions are your own. Create them, adopt them, even alter them, if you must.

5. Respect for other women is key – When one woman rises, another does. And a group of empowered women is all it takes to make other women rise. So if we have to rise collectively, respect for each other is key. We cannot rise if we judge, criticize and bring down each other.

In the end, what I’d also say, is that just like how charity starts at home, you can only expect respect from the world, if you choose to respect, honor, and protect yourself first. Because you  deserve it. So demand it. And don’t settle until you get it. Simply because, you are so much more than a vagina.

 

 

 

What I’d like this Women’s Day.

“So, what would you like this Women’s Day?”, he asked me.

And here’s what I told him.

I’d like….

1. A world that’s more ‘woman-friendly’ – safer, cleaner and more conducive to women being ‘out there’ rather than staying in indoors. Less crime, rape, abuse and violence against women.

2. A country where women are seen an a potent force, and equal contributors to the financial, social and economic well-being and advancement of the nation.

3. A legal system where women are empowered enough to stand up for their own rights as well as others, and fight for them when needed. On their own.

4. More workplaces that allow, encourage and support women excellence, viewing women as strong components of their organization.

5. More corporations and companies where women occupy core positions, as Chairwomen, CEOs, mentors, leaders, guides….the list goes on. The world needs more women leaders.

6. Governments that empower the women in their economies, particularly the underprivileged ones – through education, financial and social security and equal rights.

7.A society that doesn’t judge a woman by what she wears, does, eats, drinks and does for a living. And yes, what time she comes home

8. Families that encourage their girls to hold their own amidst their male counterparts. Even more families that teach their boys to behave with the girls. Lessons learnt in childhood go a long way.

9. More ‘good’ men – ones who love, respect, honor, support and encourage us. Because we know not all men are bad, and we can use more good ones.

10. More strong women – because if we don’t build each other up, who else will?

Too much to ask?