Beyond heels and bindis

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 10, 2014
Beyond heels and <i>bindis</i>

ON Women’s Day, even Narendra Modi wore pink when he indulged in ‘chai pe charcha,’ one of the pre-election rounds he had with only women; Mamata Banerjee led ten thousand women who walked with her from College Square to Esplanade, causing unforgivable traffic jams; Men wearing women’s high heels completed ‘Walk A Mile in Her Shoes’ in Sofia, Bulgaria, to raise awareness against domestic and sexual violence; and women in Berlin walked the SlutWalk Rally protesting the same. Now, why would men need to ever walk in our heels, or wear pink, or why would we ever need to lead a procession or walk half naked to celebrate Womanhood is another consideration. Fact is, women do reign on the March 8 under media microscope and not always beyond.
Being successful for a woman calls for some examination. A woman being successful does not mean that she is not subjected to passive aggressive behaviour from her partner at home. A woman being successful does not mean that she is able to pursue a passion of her choice. A woman being successful does not mean that she is an equal. Success, in the case of a woman, smells and tastes different.
Discussions on successful women go on forever; magazines and trophies for women are in abundance. But in reality, don’t all women just hit the glass ceiling? How many have strong wrists to bash the glass and tower through the fragments and speak up. Hardly any. An Asian woman is supposed be a “picture perfect” phenomenon. The ride from sitting pretty on a picture frame placed on top of a chest of drawer in the bedroom to even the glass ceiling can be extremely trying and excruciating. But in Asia itself, that reeks of abuse and bias, quite strangely, Chinese women have done better than most of the states.
A survey by Grant Thornton International Business Report shows that senior management positions in China had risen to 51% from 25% a year earlier. Increases in other Asian countries, in contrast, have been less. Out of the 44 economies covered in the survey, Japan has 7%, 22% in Australia, 34% in Asean while the global average stands at 24%.
Why then does Japan lag behind? Why are Japanese women always portrayed with painted faces and complicit gait? In Japan, the reason behind the lack of rise to the top for women often means lack of day care facilities. Yes. Strange as it might seem, that country has women who just give up work after child birth, according to a 2012 report by the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute, while prefectures lag behind on approving day care centres and addressing higher taxes imposed on privately owned child care centres compared with the ones run by social welfare organisations. To combat this, Abenomics, the economics promoted by Shinzo Abe, pledges to establish child-rearing-support programme, which will be met by the increase in sales tax effective April this year. The reference to Japan is relevant to contrast with the developing countries and to indicate that development has little to do with mindsets. And that is why the United States gives twelve weeks of ‘unpaid’ leave while, in Bangladesh, we give ‘paid’ leave for 12 weeks and are fast galloping towards a six month one.
The question that should be raised in our case should actually pertain to the quality of economic employment. Female labour in our part of the world is undoubtedly ghettoised. In spite of us taking credit for empowering women through our ready-made garment sector, the fact still remains that a female garment worker may not be completely secure in her working condition. Even in better factories with better practices, she may face bias from her supervisor and may be discouraged from trying to aspire for her voice. Just a few months back, a colleague told me that the reason behind us having lesser female supervisors lay in them not being adequately literate.
On a subsequent visit to one of the factories, I called in many female workers and asked them whether they wanted to become supervisors; 90% raised their hands and emphatically said: YES! Most of them had attended school till grade 8. At that point, when I asked that same colleague of mine what he thought about their spirit, he said: “Madam, apnakey dekhey ora utshahito bodh korchey,” meaning that they were feeling inspired by my presence and generally would shy away from taking responsibility. Did I believe that? No. Most of the times, this is what happens. Bias traps women and puts them in boxes designed to fit them and are presented as, when and how they are paraded by the other sex.
Therefore, most women remain in horizontal occupational segregation, where they work in the lowest rungs while mostly men enjoy better placements. Whether women are in positions to make policies, whether there is any equitable space for women in decision-making structures is a question that is also worth assessing. The Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) that ranks nations on the number of the women representatives in the parliament has just ranked Bangladesh as 74th  out of 189 countries as we do have 20% female representation. Pakistan is ranked at 72nd position with 21% of the parliamentarians in the Upper House and 17% in Lower House being women. China stands at 61st with nearly 25% of MPs being women and Nepal is at a pleasant 33rd position with 30% of its MPs being women. Last but not the least, India is at an abysmal 111th position with only 60 members out of 544 in Lok Sabha being women and 26 MPs out of 241 members of Rajya Sabha being female. Surprisingly, India is considered as being as bad, and possibly worse, than Syria, Niger and Sierra Leone when it comes to women’s opportunities for entering politics.
More shocks have come in this year. Every second woman faces sexual violence in the European Union, according to the report by Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which interviewed 42,000 women in EU. The report also states that one in three women have experienced violence since the age of 15. That brings us to a figure of 62 million women.
In spite of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s message on International Women’s Day emphasising that countries having more economic growth have more gender equality, companies with more women leaders perform better and peace agreements that include women are more durable, truth is that for women all over the world, the de jure of the environment is quite drastically opposite to the de facto of the ground reality. Truth is not all countries having higher growth rates can boast about women being freer. Truth is there is a serious dearth of women leaders in most of the nations and that is why women who are often highlighted are only the most visible ones and not necessarily the best. Truth is, for most men the mental picture of a woman equals to a “shoti nari” (a noble woman) out of a Hind serial, with a bindi on the forehead, bangles on the wrists and a cotton sari. That women, even in Bangladesh, are attempting to cross those set frames and will no longer plead to slavery is news to many. Vive la Femme!

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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