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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sexism? Not quite

The Shashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar controversy is about many things – sexism is not one of them

Sexism is real. It is dangerous. It is shameful. And it is alive and flourishing all around us.

It starts even before birth, when families conspire to get rid of the girl child before she has begun to stir in her mother’s womb. It continues into childhood, when daughters don’t get fed as well as sons. It exists in our school and college system, where girls are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to sign up for higher education.

Sexism is endemic in the professional world, where companies are leery of hiring women of child-bearing age for fear that they will take time off to have babies (and for every cold and cough the child has thereafter); where women routinely earn less than their male counterparts for doing the same job; where the glass ceiling ensures that the representation of women in boardrooms across the country is abysmal.

Yes, sexism exists in our far-from-perfect world. And it’s something that every right-thinking person, whatever their gender, must oppose.

But if we are to fight this battle, it is also essential to understand the distinction between genuine sexism that poses a danger to the values of our liberal society and those issues that may involve a woman but are not sexist in nature.

An attack on a woman’s capability, integrity, honesty or decency does not necessarily become sexist just because a woman is the target of scrutiny. So long as the allegations are well-founded, based on facts that can bear close scrutiny, it doesn’t matter whether the target is a man or a woman. This is about accountability not sexism.

Take the recent brouhaha over former minister Shashi Tharoor and his girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar. Right from the moment Lalit Modi posted that now-infamous tweet about the ownership of the Kochi consortium, Tharoor fell back on what can only be described as the “sexism defence”.

The media, he declaimed loftily, could not accept that an attractive woman could also be a professional in her own right. It was demeaning Sunanda to suggest that she was his proxy in this deal, as if she had no identity of her own. She had achieved far more than he ever could in the world of business, blah, blah, blah.

Three days down the line, the lady herself jumped into the fray. Issuing a statement to announce that she had decided to return her sweat equity to the Kochi consortium, she said, “As a woman professional, I am shocked to find how easily parties with vested interests questioned my credentials mainly because I am a woman.”

Er, hang on a minute. Nobody was questioning Ms Pushkar’s credentials because she was a woman. We were questioning her credentials per se. How did someone who was a sales manager in a Dubai firm suddenly land a gig in which she stood to make Rs 70 crores in sweat equity without investing a penny of her own?

Was she a marketing genius whom no one had ever heard of? What made her worth so much money? What did she bring to the table that no other communications wizard/PR person/event manager could?

The answers to these questions made it clear that it wasn’t her professional capabilities that had gotten Ms Pushkar this sweetheart – or should that be ‘sweat-heart’? – deal. It was her closeness to the minister for external affairs (no, I won’t crack the obvious joke) that made her such a desirable party – especially given that he was taking such a personal interest in the outcome of the Kochi franchise bid.

It was the impropriety of a Union minister using his influence in a commercial deal in which his girlfriend – whom he intended to marry as soon as his second divorce came through – stood to benefit that was the issue here. If the sexes had been reversed, the issue would have remained the same.

Nobody is denying that Sunanda Pushkar is an attractive woman if your taste runs to blonde highlights and industrial-strength mascara. But her looks are not the issue here. Nor are her professional capabilities, such as they are. The issue here is that her boyfriend was a minister of the Union government who, by his own admission, had interceded (or ‘interlocuted’, or whatever he’s calling it these days) with the IPL on behalf of the Kochi consortium.

As long as these facts remained the same, anyone in Ms Pushkar’s position would have come under scrutiny. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, or even a glamorous woman, for that matter.

And yet, both Tharoor and Pushkar are pushing the sexism defence down our throats with a certain desperation, even though as reasonably intelligent creatures they must know that this simply won’t wash. And both seem unmindful of the fact that in the process, they are thumbing their noses at the millions of women in India who have to live with sexism every day of their lives – without a pay-out of Rs 70 crores to sweeten the deal.

Sexism is a serious offence. And it is a serious charge to make. So, those who level it should not do so on frivolous grounds – because to do that is to mock every genuine victim of sexism; to make fun of their misfortune; to heap insult on an already grievous injury.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A world without men?

It would be much duller place, even if we can now make babies without their help

I’m sure by now all of you have read all those stories about how a couple of scientists have managed to produce sperm artificially, using skin stem cells. The scientists in question believe that in time, as their research gets perfected, this technique will help infertile couples produce children who are their own

The media, of course, have a different take on this. Ever since the news broke, we have been inundated with articles about how this will impact the future of men. The general consensus seems to be that men will soon become obsolete, because their contribution will no longer be needed to perpetuate the human race.

Well, I’m sorry if I’m being particularly obtuse, but I don’t really get that. Okay, let’s assume for the purposes of this argument that men and women are no longer required to do the nasty if they want to have babies. Let’s assume that you can just deposit a skin graft in the laboratory to grow your own sperm if you want to get pregnant.

Do we really believe that this is how all of mankind will choose to procreate in the future? Surely, the majority of people will still want to have some romance and love involved in their baby-making and will want to do it the old-fashioned way?

Even if we take the worst-case scenario and assume for a moment that men will be phased out of the reproductive process, does that really render them obsolete? Does anyone seriously believe that a man is only good for one thing: the production of healthy swimmers? And that if this signal purpose of his life is taken away from him, he loses his entire raison d’etre?

Surely not?

Just off the top of my head, I can think of several ways in which men are vital to life the way we know and love it. And no, none of them has anything to do with sex, procreative or purely recreational (important though that undoubtedly is). Or with the usual stuff about paying for dinner, holding the door open, buying us presents, praising our new outfits, etc. (though, of course, they are quite welcome to do
all or any of the above). Or even about fixing a fuse, changing a light bulb, unclogging the sink or doing other stuff around the house (in fact, I don’t know many men who do any of the above).

No, I’m thinking of ways that are just as important even if they do seem trivial. Here are just some of them, in no particular order.

• Remember that old joke? Question: Why does the government exist? Answer: Because there are some things that you can’t blame your wife for! Well, guess what? It works both ways.

We need men because if they didn’t exist, whom could we blame for all the ills of the world? Toilet seats being left up, messy bedrooms, the relentless power cuts, the rising price of vegetables, the global meltdown, the war in Iraq, the chaos in Iran – you know it’s all their fault even if they are not willing to admit it.

After all, it’s men who rule the world (as they never tire of pointing out to us). And with power comes responsibility.

• Men are essential to female bonding. If we didn’t have men to complain and carp about, how could women hope to bond with one another? Imagine a world in which you couldn’t settle down to a coffee and a moan about your boyfriend/husband/ex-husband and all his many, many, many, many flaws.

Not only would this render most female friendships next to impossible, it would also mean that conversations would be even harder to sustain.

• Life would be so boring without the challenge that men present as life-long projects. We spend many happy hours in our mission to recast them in a mould that is more pleasing to us: a better wardrobe, fresher breath, a brand-new haircut, a different personality. (Of course, they never do change, but by the time you figure that out, you end up loving them just the way they are.)

• The entertainment world wouldn’t be half as entertaining without both men and women and the special dynamic that rules their relationships. Can you imagine an all-girl Friends? Or even a Sex and the City with no Mr Big to keep Carrie on her toes? Or, for that matter, a Boston Legal, without the chauvinistic edge of its male

Most of our iconic sitcoms and television series would not exist if it weren’t for men providing us with such brilliant fodder. And the ones that took their place would not be a fraction as interesting.

• But most of all, we need men so that we can celebrate our differences from them. Imagine how boring this world would be if all of us were just the same. It would be dull, dull, dull.

We need men to enliven our days, enrich our lives, engage our minds. We need them to pit our wits against, to build our lives with, to raise families together, to grow old with, to bicker with, or just simply be with.

The truth is that men can give us so much more than babies. And it’s time we learnt to value them for all that they bring to our lives.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Faking it

Yes, we’ve all been guilty of it, at one time or another

These days whenever I get together with friends, we seem to end up reminiscing about our misspent youth. Most of the stories are unprintable, so I will spare your blushes. But there was one that I found particularly funny so I’m going to share it with you.

This friend of mine – who shall remain unnamed, needless to say – went off to study at an American university after college. This was his first time abroad, so his family hooked him up with some old friends who lived nearby, so that he could spend a week or so with them before setting up home on his own.

He arrived at the airport, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, to be confronted with a vision in pink at the airport. This was the 20-year-old daughter of the house, all long blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and a cleavage in which he could imagine spending the rest of his life in.

They hit it off on the drive home, she sat with him talking late into the night after dinner, and he thought he had died and gone to heaven. Some time in the early hours, the two of them said a chaste goodnight to one another and went to bed.

But given the fantasies chasing one another in my friend’s head, he couldn’t really sleep. So, an hour later, he got up and went to use the bathroom.

The first thing he saw as he entered was a large bottle of peroxide. Aha, so her hair wasn’t really blonde, he thought to himself. Well, okay, that’s not so bad.

Then, as he was washing his hands at the sink, his eyes fell upon two small jars filled with liquid. Inside each of them swam a bright blue contact lens. Um, so the eyes weren’t blue either. No big deal, he said to himself.

He wiped his hands on the washcloth and turned around to leave. And then, from the corner of his eye he saw a large contraption hanging from the laundry line. It was pink, it was lacy, and it was heavily padded. Yes, that cleavage he had been lusting after all evening existed only by the grace of foam rubber.

Even 20 years later, my friend’s chagrin was palpable as he related this story to us. “What I don’t understand,” he said bitterly, ignoring our gales of laughter, “is why all this false advertising? What is the point of pretending to be something you’re not? You’re only going to disappoint people once they find out the truth.”

All jokes aside, though, my friend does have a point. False advertising serves no real purpose. The truth has an inconvenient way of slipping out from behind the façade you have created. And of course people feel let down when they are confronted with reality.

But who among us hasn’t been guilty of this at some point in our lives? Which of us can deny pretending to be something or someone we are not? At one time or another, all of us have resorted to false advertising to get a date, get a job, or just get ahead.

We all have masks we present to the world in the hope of being perceived as better than we really are. It is part of human nature to try to be put the best face on things, even if that face is not our own.

If you think about it, there aren’t that many people whom you really allow to see the real you. For everyone else, you put on one disguise or another.

It starts with the smallest of details and goes on to consume the bigger stuff. And before we know it, we have a fully-formed persona that we assume for the benefit of others.

We dress up when we go out for dinner. We slather on our make-up before we leave the house. We assume our best manners when we are meeting someone for the first time. We groom ourselves before we head out for a job interview.

We laugh at jokes we don’t find funny. We pretend to be happy when we’re not. We act interested when we are anything but. We pretend to love something we absolutely loathe.

In fact, I can’t think of a situation in which we don’t fake it on occasion.

The truth is that it is a very human instinct to want to project an idealized image of ourselves to the world. An image which makes us seem better, brighter, more beautiful, more desirable than we really are. An image that makes everyone like us just a little bit more.

Not all of us may want to be seen as busty blue-eyed blondes like the girl in my friend’s story, but we all have an ideal that we aspire to. And it’s that ideal that we project to the world.

We know that this is an illusion that cannot last forever, that it is a bubble that will burst soon enough. But even a pretence of perfection often makes us feel better about ourselves – no matter how fleetingly.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gender bender

We dismiss subjects such as maternal mortality as `women’s issues’ at our own peril

A good friend of mine, Sumita Mehta, recently forwarded some statistics to me on safe motherhood. Or unsafe motherhood, as it should be more accurately described in India, given the high rate of maternal mortality.

Consider the facts. The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in India is 254 to 100,000 live births, ranging from 95 in Kerala to 480 in Assam. This is the worst MMR in the sub-continent, worse than either Pakistan or Bangladesh. To make sense of this statistic, all you need to know is that in India more than 65,000 women die every year in childbirth. That is to say, in our country every eight minutes a woman dies while giving birth.

A shocking 50 per cent of these deaths are caused by haemorrhage and sepsis, and around 70 per cent of these deaths could easily be prevented by safer delivery methods and adequate maternal care (more than half of India’s mothers deliver without the assistance of any health personnel). As for the children they leave behind, they are ten times more likely to die in the following two years than those with both parents alive.

While these facts are horrific enough, what really troubles me about this situation is that for some reason, this is seen as a ‘women’s issue’. You know what I mean I’m sure. This is supposed to be the kind of soft story that women feature writers pontificate on in the pages of weekend supplements. God forbid that this should actually be treated as a story for the front pages of our newspapers, where it truly belongs. But no, maternal mortality involves women – so it should stay on the feature pages, the natural habitat of all female writers and readers.

What can one say about such appalling sexism except that it beggars belief that it is still alive and flourishing in the newsrooms of national newspapers and television channels?

Think about it for a minute. Just because an issue involves the health and well-being of women, does it mean that no man could possibly have any interest in the subject? Doesn’t the health of a woman affect her entire family? Would not her death impact the men of her family as well, be they fathers, husbands, brothers or sons?

And when it comes to maternal mortality, this exclusion of men from the equation is particularly puerile and foolish. After all, who stands to lose the most when a woman dies in childbirth? It is the children who survive her and the man who is left behind to care for them. Husbands are perhaps the most affected by maternal mortality. And yet, let alone dub it a ‘men’s issue’ we don’t treat death in childbirth as an issue that involves men, even peripherally.

But then, if you ask me, there really is no such thing as a ‘women’s issue’ – or a ‘men’s issue’, for that matter – when it comes to such societal problems. All issues that involve the health and well-being of women impact society as a whole, and men who are part of that social fabric cannot be isolated from them without imperilling our society as a whole.

Take female literacy, for starters. We’ve all heard that old cliché about how educating a girl child means educating an entire family. And like all clichés, it contains a grain of truth. It is self-evident that an educated mother will make better choices about the health and well-being of her family, that she will bring up her children to value education, and that both her daughters and her sons will have a better role model to look up to.

Women’s health is another issue that impacts not just the female of the species but all of society. Anaemia is endemic among Indian women, with 56.2 per cent of women suffering from it. Around 33 per cent of Indian women are malnourished with a body mass index below normal.

Is this really a problem for women alone? Do men not share the responsibility or suffer the consequences?

But such is the conventional wisdom on the subject that issues like these are never given the importance that they deserve. We dredge them out on International Women’s Day or Safe Motherhood Day and give them a hasty airing before shelving them away until the next anniversary rolls around.

Consider the amount of press that has been devoted to the Women’s Reservation Bill and compare it to the attention that the issue of safe motherhood has achieved in the same period. No contest, is there? And yet, safe motherhood affects more people – both men and women – than the Women’s Reservation Bill possibly could.

If we accept that women hold up half the sky, then surely it becomes our duty to ensure that they can stand tall while doing so. Fail to do that and we run the risk of having it all collapse around our ears.

Now tell me if you think that this is a women’s issue. No, I didn’t think so.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Soul mates

They are mythical creatures who exist only in romantic fiction

It was a sad day when the words ‘soul mate’ entered the lexicon. For ever since then, both men and women have spent fruitless, frustrating years looking for this elusive creature, enduring much angst in the process, and ending up sad and lonely at the end of it all.

But how could it possibly be otherwise? Soul mates are like unicorns, mythical creatures who only exist in our fevered romantic imagination. They are the staple of soppy movies, pulp fiction and mediocre poetry. And like fictitious happy endings, they don’t really translate into real life.

So those who are looking for a real-life soul mate to share real life with are just setting themselves up for heartbreak.

Put away those rose-tinted glasses for a bit and think about it. It is such a huge ask of another human being, isn’t it?

A soul mate: quite literally, a friend of your soul. Someone who mirrors your personality; who shares your deepest thoughts and darkest fears; who understands you instinctively; who knows what you are thinking even before you do. Someone who is your other half; someone who completes you; hell, someone who can even complete your sentences.

Yes, I think I have covered every cliché of romantic fiction.

And yet, such is the grip these clichés exercise on our imagination that we are primed to start looking for our own soul mate from the moment puberty kicks in. We want someone who shares our every interest, who enters into our every thought, who thinks like us on every subject, who has the same prejudices, watches the same movies, reads the same kind of book, even likes the same ice-cream flavour.

Popular culture only reinforces these stereotypes. We are constantly being bombarded with images of picture-perfect celebrity couples who seem oh-so-much in sync with one another. Right on top of that list are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, traipsing the world with their brood of rainbow kids and cuddling up for the benefit of the cameras in every country they pass through. Nearer home we have Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, who have achieved the ultimate prize in coupledom with their own proud monicker, Saifeena (a la Brangelina, of course).

Is it any wonder then, that as we feast on these pictures and lap up the stories that accompany them, we want to find our own soul mate with whom we can conjoin our names to create a brand-new joint entity?

And when we don’t find such a person – as is inevitable – we do the next best thing: try and change the person we are with so that he or she fits into these ridiculous parameters.

Hard as it is for me to admit, it is usually women who are the biggest culprits in this regard. Most of us tend to see the men in our lives as works in progress, whom we can improve upon as we go along. Whether it is something as minor as buying them new clothes so that they fit in with our idea of how they should look or something major as forcing them to watch chick flicks in the hope of converting them to the joys of Nora Ephron, we have all been guilty at some point of this kind of social engineering.

Not that men are entirely blameless in this regard either. Many of my braver men friends have forced their wives to accompany them to wrestling matches, have tried to introduce them to the joys of video games, and even (Shock! Horror!) made them sit through hours and hours of Batman re-runs on television.

Women are, of course, a little better at playing along having being brought up to be people-pleasers, but men tend to react very badly indeed to this sort of thing.

But despite the unhappiness this engenders all around, we still stick to our ideal of a romantic relationship, in which we do everything together with our significant other, right from the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we turn out the lights at night.

Not surprisingly, most relationships tend to flounder under the weight of these expectations.

The truth is that no single person could possibly fulfil all our needs or share all our interests. So, the only way we can ensure that our primary relationship flourishes is to reduce the pressures on it. The best way to make that happen is by having a large circle of friends and family who can take up the slack, a whole bunch of soul mates, so to speak, rather than just the one.

Mothers take on the role of soul mates when you’ve just had your first baby, bolstering your confidence in your child-rearing skills at a time when you feel overwhelmed by it all. Siblings can be soul mates when you are in the mood to bitch about your spouse. Friends are the ones who fall back on when you want a stress-free evening at the movies, or just kicking back with a beer while you watch the IPL.

To fall back on another cliché, it takes a village – not just a single soul mate – to get through life. To expect any different is to set yourself up for disappointment.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Peer pressure

Your friends rule your life in more ways that you could possibly imagine

Who you are, how you feel, and what you do, all of it depends a great deal on whom you are friends with. It is your friends who determine how happy you are, what your weight is, how faithful you are to your spouse, and how moral or immoral you are generally.

No, I am not making this stuff up. I am just extrapolating from the results of a recent survey that indicate that your happiness depends on your friends. No, not on how loving and supportive they are. Not even on their levels of understanding and empathy. No, your happiness depends on how much money your friends have. If they have less money than you, then you are happier than you would be if they had more money than you.

Yes, I know it isn’t exactly rocket science. But still, it’s nice to have some evidence to back up what we have intuitively felt for years. No matter how rich and successful you may become, it is still not enough if your friends are even richer and more successful. It doesn’t matter how much money you make; there will always be a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction if your friends have a higher disposable income than yours.

If, on the other hand, your friends are doing much worse, if their houses are in a less impressive neighbourhood, their children go to cheaper schools, their car is half the size of yours, and their pay packets not nearly as large – well then, you can’t help thinking that you must be doing all right.

Sad but true.

But then, how could it possibly be otherwise? Peer pressure being what it is, all of us measure our success by the successes (and failures) of our friends. And as long as we are doing a tad better than them, we feel good about ourselves. After all, it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Of course, friends do much more than provide a baseline for comparisons – financial or otherwise. They influence our thinking, shape our lives, hell, they even determine our shapes.

Research shows that if your friends are fat, you are more likely to be overweight. Conversely, if your friends are thin, then the chances are that your weight will remain under control as well.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If your friends are into healthy eating and exercising regularly, you will probably be shamed into doing the same. Nobody wants to be the only blimp in a group of thin people, the target of tired old jokes like “Who’s your fat friend?”

On the other hand, if your friends gorge on vast quantities of fast food while slumped on the sofa in front of the TV, then you will also feel no embarrassment in doing the same. And then before you can say Big Mac, all of you will be shopping for elasticised trousers and extra-large T-shirts together.

I am sure you must have noticed this in your own lives as well. Go out with a friend who orders a green salad and steamed fish and invariably you will end up ordering a more healthy meal yourself. Go out with someone who gorges on fries and hoovers up the dessert and the chances are that you will stuff your face too.

Eating with greedy people triggers your greed impulse as well. On the contrary, sharing the table with disciplined eaters makes you rein in your appetite as well. That’s how fat friends make you fat while thin friends keep you thin.

As if that wasn’t enough, friends also have a nasty knack of showing up all our flaws and imperfections. Tall friends make us feel short, thin friends make us feel fat, and fashionable friends make us feel dowdy in comparison.

But it is on much deeper levels that friends really impact your life. For instance, the moral codes that we live by are also reinforced by those who are closest to us.

If your friends think nothing of cheating on their spouses – hell, they even boast about it – then you may well be more inclined to give up on marital fidelity. If your friends think nothing of taking or giving bribes, of adopting corrupt practices in their businesses, then it is that much harder for you to stay honest. If your friends routinely lie and cheat about matters large and small, then you are more likely to do so as well.

After all, if everybody is doing it, can it really be so bad? (Short answer: yes, it can, but that, as they say, is another column altogether.)

On the other hand, if you move around in a circle where everyone takes pride in being honest, in paying their taxes on time, not being part of the black economy, trying to stay on the right side of the law, then you would probably stay on the straight and narrow as well (if only for fear of being socially ostracised).

The truth of the matter is that if your friends can help you rein in your worst impulses. Or they can encourage you to give in to your basest appetites. It all depends on what kind of friends you have.

So, when it comes to choosing your friends, make sure you exercise due discretion. Remember, these people will end up controlling your life in ways that you can barely even imagine.