Some of us grit our teeth and send polite thanks to the well-meaning Happy Women’s Day messages that pour into the inbox. Inevitably, the day of commemorating women’s struggles has been turned into an extension of Valentine’s Day, with men being exhorted by advertisers to buy jewellery, cosmetics, clothes and kitchen gadgets for women. There are women empowerment ads too, and they are a welcome change. After all, it was a cigarette commercial that gave the women’s movement an enduring slogan: You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby and captured the spirit of the times, when women were battering down doors of patriarchy. Though the 'Baby' would be erased today for infantilising women.
It is impossible, time-consuming, exhausting and ultimately pointless to remind people that the day started out being 'International Working Women’s Day', and "its purpose was to give labouring women a focusing point in their struggle for fair working conditions and pay” (source: smithsonianmag.com). Not the class of women who got, or even expected, flowers, designer outfits and trinkets on the day; they would have been happier with better working conditions, decent payscales, shorter hours, and a less exploitative environment.
On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten-hour day, and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, March 8, 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honoring the 1857 march, demanding the vote and an end to sweatshops and child labour. The police were present on this occasion too. (Source: https://graypantherssf.igc.org)
The most annoying Women’s Day Message this year, was the one that said: W: Wonderful Wife, O: Outstanding Friend, M: Marvelous Daughter, A: Adorable Sister, N: Nurturing Mother. This reduced women to a narrow circle of family and home (barring the friend). Even men (and many women), who consider themselves enlightened, see no irony in constantly defining women with their relationship to men. Today, in most urban areas, women are excelling in academics and picking challenging careers, but their work is perceived as a hobby, while men have important careers. Domestic work, child-rearing, elder care is still the woman’s domain and men can shirk, without guilt.
Domestic drudge model
There is an ad for a cooking oil that asks “Mummy hamesha kitchen mein kyon rehti hai?” and claims that since this oil takes less time to cook 'Mummy' can come out of the kitchen to do something for herself. The accompanying visual is of a woman’s face substituted with a dosa. Whoever came up with this ad, did not even think how obnoxious it was, that the solution to reducing women’s drudgery is not chipping in to help, buy buying her a faster-cooking (whatever that is) oil.
There is a marginally better oil ad, in which the man is cooking for a change, and the woman is sitting by, making that thumb-and-forefinger gesture of appreciation. How many men enter the kitchen to understand, forget appreciating, the boredom of daily cooking. For them trying out exotic recipes once in a while, is a stressbuster. One can bet the cutting and chopping before and clearing up after, is done by a woman or helper. Only a man who never has to slave in front of a stove will say, "You must always eat freshly prepared food, not reheated from the fridge."
What do you make of the ad for a health drink modelled by a glamorous movie star couple, in which the man is sitting with a glass of the drink, and the wife is standing behind him, her hand placed near his heart. So, only men need to be healthy? It could easily have shown both holding with a glass, and it would have made no great difference to the messaging.
Indian web series and the occasional film (TV series exist on their own dumbed down planet) that want to show a modern Indian women, portray them as smoking, drinking, cursing, scheming, promiscuous viragos, which may be one facet of the urban woman—and her choice entirely—but surely a very narrow one. Very rarely do you see women-like-us, who live by their own rules, but don’t feel the need to shout it out from the rooftops.
For a fairer vocabulary
Our vocabulary is changing very slowly, so you see a cringe-worthy headline to a positive story, 'More Women Manning Auto Assembly Lines'. The odious 'eve-teasing' is still routinely used. A woman is still referred to as “widow of”.
Many sexist terms, thankfully have been eased out or are on their way out—flight attendant instead of air hostess; healthcare professional instead of nurse, office assistant, instead of secretary. Human as far as possible, instead of man and woman, common citizen instead of common man, chairperson instead of chairman, and the by now accepted they, instead of he or she. So it need not be assumed that when a group of people are referred to, women will come under the umbrella of men. Many businesses have not yet got round to using Ms, but they will learn, by and by.
But what do you say to a judge who asks a rapist and violent monster if he would marry his victim? How does one come to understand the other India, where women are raped and killed with impunity, and dowry murders are still rampant?
Designed for men
Till pointed out by a Twitter post, by Katy Hou whose handle is @Kbarley66, who in turn gathered the information from the remarkable book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado-Perez, one didn’t realise how entrenched the discrimination against women is.
To give a few examples that Katy listed: Cars were not built for women and for a long time, test dummies were based on the average male body which meant that female drivers had 47 per cent higher chances of injury, because of differences in centre of mass, different organ placements, seating difference (women being shorter, sit closer to the wheel) are not taken into account. PPE kits were not designed for women, so wearing larger sizes means the risk of tripping or getting clothing caught in moving machinery.
Similarly, when the US army started recruiting women, the body armour was not made in smaller sizes, so females had to remove panels to fit around the chest and hip or get crushed. Drug doses have been based on clinical trials conducted on men, so women could experience adverse drug reactions with the same dose. Men are 23 per cent more likely to get CPR than women in an emergency because CPR training is done on male torsos and emergency response technicians are uncomfortable touching female chests in public.
Men and women both suffer from heart disease, but artificial hearts are usually too large to fit women, leading to higher rates of failure. Standard office temperature was calculated based on the metabolic rate of the average male and is too cold for women. There are dozens of such examples, and Caroline Criado-Perez’s research is remarkably thorough.
Finally, thanks to the hugely popular etymologist Paul Anthony Jones, who goes by Haggard Hawks, one found that 'sisternity' is a strongly united group of women. Remember when tempted to use 'chicks'.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.