#BreakingTheBias: Women of India on breaking stereotypes and challenges they face in everyday life
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
Subjects pertaining women's mental and physical well-being are no longer the taboos they once were. Yet, there's a way to go before the discourse around gynaecological health, financial autonomy, representation at the workplace, or the right to an orgasm of a female becomes normalised. On the occasion of International Women's Day 2022, we reached out to women across India to find out their 'wish list' for the challenges of womanhood that should be discussed with frankness and honesty in society.
Here's a look at what they said:
Fitness trainer Diksha Chhabra believes the conversation around menstruation is one that needs to be expanded. While the discourse has certainly made menstruation less taboo, it still frames it as an act related to a woman's reproductive ability, and does not take into account the other physical and emotional ramifications that accompany one's periods. "There are multiple factors that come along, sometimes even before the cycle starts," Chhabra notes. "The mood swings, the pain and cramps, the bleeding…just because women don't openly show their pain, uneasiness it doesn't mean that our bodies are built to just take all of that. Young girls and adult women bleed for seven days straight and I want to say that as much as it is okay for society to think that periods are no big deal, I want every woman to start expressing how they actually feel. This will give others a glimpse that periods aren't something which should be taken for granted and that it's completely okay for women to take a break during menstruation."
Arushi Monga, who handles brand solutions at POPxo, feels there should be greater openness around what women want and like in bed. "I mean enjoying sex is not just for men but also for women and I feel asking for that should be normalised. I've come across plenty of women who shy away from talking about orgasms, or how they masturbate. Whereas men talk so openly and casually about what they've 'achieved' in bed. Pleasure for a woman is equally important, having satisfying sex is a really important part of womanhood, it gives a sense of confidence and comfort and the more we normalise talking about it, the more women out there will enjoy it."
In the quest for social and political equality, women face particular challenges. Using the term 'women's issues' to address these barriers or the uneven playing field can help to bring attention to the unique challenges that women experience in comparison to other groups. Women's problems recognise the historical foundations of injustice and oppression that have contributed to the sexism that women experience. At the same time, however, the term "women's concerns" has also acquired an ambiguous and broad definition. Rekha Dubey, CEO of Aditya Birla Memorial Hospital, Pune, observes that the term "redefines issues experienced by women or connected to gender equality as themes that should be of interest to all women (and only women). It also portrays them as obstacles that women must face, transferring both the load and the guilt for sexist conduct to women. Using the phrase 'women's' acts as a qualifier and can often be used to characterise an issue as less important, softer, or superfluous, or to signal that something is not relevant to males. Referring to sexual assault or maternal health as 'women's concerns' diminishes the importance of males being held accountable for avoiding violence or participating in remedies in these situations.
Rupali Sharma, chairperson and co-founder of Okinawa Autotech shares that one aspect of womanhood she wishes was discussed more, is how women nurture balance in life. "Women are subjected to an unfathomable amount of sexism from an early age, which has been normalised by society. One obvious way this is accomplished is by discouraging women from working and pursuing a successful professional career. As a result, women have become even more powerful. We don't let our vulnerability get the best of us; instead, we live life joyfully and purposefully, striking a balance that no one else can achieve," Sharma says. "More and more women realise that working, like motherhood, contributes to the completeness of being a woman. Women's work-life balance differs significantly from men's. A woman can achieve balance in her interpersonal relationships given her inherent ability to bring and nurture balance in all aspects of life. The people around her may or may not support her, but that should never deter her because she has what it takes within herself."
Unrealistic beauty standards
Rhythm Dua, a budding musician says beauty standards set by celebrities and the glamour industry forces women to undervalue themselves. "Build a Bitch' by Bella Poarch is a lyrical beauty, in which she openly conveys that 'there ain't no workshop' where you can actually get a woman with a body according to the beauty standards set in this age," The 21-year-old says, "Everyone has their own definition of perfect, but beauty standards making us hate ourselves. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner didn't always look like she does now... Rather than trying to change people's minds about these false standards, [such celebrities] are constantly promoting them."
Recognition of homemakers
Housewives or homemakers have long been regarded as non-productive workers who do not contribute to the nation's development. But, as Rani Garg, director of Zeon Lifesciences, notes, "The reality is that she works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just so that the rest of the family can go about their business. This is a thankless job, and they do not get any days off. In fact, workloads increase all the more during the holiday season... A homemaker needs to be recognised as a major contributor to society and even have a secured pension as there may not be any security in the future when the husband passes away, or the children decide to walk away."
CEO of Chicnutrix Shilpa Khanna Thakkar notes that there are many health issues that women shy away from talking about, especially those that have a sense of stigma attached, such as UTIs, PCOS, or postpartum hair loss. "I truly wish we could have more open and honest discussions on these as those who are suffering would learn that they are not alone and there are hassle-free solutions to help free them from the shackles of these common concerns," Thakkar adds.
Jyothi S Pappu, CEO and co-founder of NutreatLife, opines that women tend to "shrink" themselves in a way that best fits their families, society's expectations or life circumstances. She says this tendency stems from an idea that women must be the ones who compromise in every aspect of their lives, and this idea has been passed down from generation to generation, across communities. "Women have been led to believe that whatever her parents or society say is good for her, be it in her education, her dressing, her food, her mood, her social activity, her presence, etc. After marriage, she is made to believe that her family's health, status, respect, activity, interests are important," Pappu notes. All of this means that women rarely prioritise themselves or place much value on their self-worth, which must change.
Gender differences become apparent to most women early on, says Shweta Tanwar Mukherjee, a photographer, digital creator and mom. "One aspect of womanhood that still needs to be discussed and normalised is that we are not equal when it comes to household work. Just because we gave birth doesn't mean we should be shackled to the kitchen and daily chores. From childhood on, women are taught to do things single-handedly: take care of their homes, of their families, and whatnot! Even if you are a working woman, you are obliged to be competent with all the household chores. But, in reality, none of us is a superwoman." "As women, we also have aspirations, passions, and the right to follow our career without the guilt of leaving our children at home or relaxing on Sundays, just as men do," Mukherjee adds.
Amplifying women's presence in the corporate world
Amrita Pandey, senior VP and group head for HR at Tenon Group, tells us that in spite of the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, women's representation has improved across all levels of the corporate world in 2020. This is an encouraging sign, Pandey says, and worth celebrating after an incredibly difficult year. However, "while it's been thought that once industries achieve gender balance, bias will decrease, and gender gaps will close, simply adding women into a workforce does not change organisational structures," Pandey cautions. "This is a battle that women continue to fight silently, although in recent times we have seen more and more women speaking out for their rights and also in hopes that other women will gain the confidence to raise their voices too," she continues. "While gender-based challenges at the workplace can be difficult to talk about openly, I encourage all women who have had the misfortune of encountering direct or indirect bias or mismanagement, to confide in or inform someone instead of battling these issues alone."
Talking up women's contributions
Alivia Mukherjee, a 22-year-old Hisar resident, says that women rarely talk about the sacrifices they make in order to meet the many expectations that are placed on them. This in turn leads to the idea that it's all too easy for women to accomplish their myriad tasks and responsibilities. Their abilities and traits are then undervalued because what women do is seen as "par for the course". "I believe that women should be more open about their sacrifices because people do not comprehend the worth of their sacrifices and achievements unless they are highlighted. Their dedication, effort, and abilities are taken for granted, whether it is in their homes or at work...They work hard every day without any conditions, and it is something they should be proud of and honest about," Mukherjee avers.
PR professional Ragini Singh points out that sexist slurs are all too common for women online and on social media. The kind of responses women trigger merely for having an online presence, leave alone those who articulate their opinions on a variety of present-day issues, is vituperative, toxic and emotionally damaging. "Anonymous trolls think they can pin us down with sexual overtones. In return, we stand up to them daily with utmost dignity and pride, never backing down. My message to the woman around me is to stay upright against what's wrong and gather the courage to be overt about the things we are not comfortable with," Singh concludes.
Ideals of perfection
Sushmita Roy, senior counselor and psychotherapist at Medall Mind observes that traits such as nurturance, sensitivity, warmth, tenderness and devotion have long been stereotyped as "feminine". This in turn places "the moral compass on women so tightly, that there's tremendous pressure to be perfect and constantly keep up. Deviations from the accepted norms are quickly labelled and seen as sacrilege," Roy notes. "Various unrealistic expectations have been placed on women throughout history: that they have to look a certain way, act a certain way, and think a certain way in order to qualify as an 'ideal' woman. Many of these expectations are still in place, and they can be detrimental to a woman's mental and physical health," she adds.
"Women are often conditioned to believe that ... it is not important or necessary to be financially independent," says Sonia Notani, co-founder of BrainGymJr Education Private Limited. However, Notani states that financial independence is the one single attribute that can change the lives of women. "It is never about the absolute amount of money or the 'need' to earn. It is about perspective, exposure, confidence and freedom that comes with being financially independent," she adds. "There needs to be pride in earning, contributing to home and society and taking financial decisions. In India, many pockets of society are embarrassed if the women of the house are 'out earning money' or worse, are primary wage earners. While this is not discussed, it is evident with many girls topping their classes in school but we see an adversely skewed percentage of women in B-Schools, medical colleges, Engineering... and eventually a trickle of women contributing to the economy. "
Tanushree Ray, HR head at Shadowfax Technologies feels that career development and women's leadership across sectors need to be promoted widely. With various sectors opening paths for women's employment, openly discussing it is the need of the hour. "It is crucial to address the gaps in building progressive thinking and culture [at workplaces]," Ray asserts. "By building an inclusive and progressive workplace culture and narrowing the wage gap, industries can provide equal opportunities to a wide range of talent."
Celebrating one's achievements
The resilience of women must be encouraged, recognised and appreciated. At the same time, women themselves must learn to draw boundaries when it comes to their wellbeing. "Learn how to say no and celebrate your achievements by conquering your fears," says Shanmugapriya Gnanasekara, assistant vice president of Operations at Enquero, a Genpact company. "It is difficult to practice this trait, but it certainly can be pursued!"