Clinging To The Ceiling

Before indulging in gender discourse, the media needs to first identify the core gender issues faced by women in India.

In a suburb of south-west London, a tennis tournament is being played now. You know it’s Wimbledon and it’s one of the most prestigious Grand Slam tournaments. It’s also expected that you know an Indian woman tennis player who goes by the name of Sania Mirza. What’s not expected is that Sania would make any headway in the women’s singles part of the tournament (for all practical purposes, the singles’ title is what matters). It would also not surprise you if she isn’t even playing for that.

The important thing is that she is a woman, you know her and she is also a tennis player, in that order only. You know her more for the twists in her matrimonial saga and her appearance in endorsements than for her forehands or backhands or aces. Last month, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) managed to get for her a wild card entry into the mixed doubles at the forthcoming London Olympics. After getting that, Sania wasn’t happy with her pairing for the event. She called the country’s tennis fraternity a bunch of male chauvinists. With due apology to firebrand feminists, that’s a victimhood “ace” that you expect most career women to have up their sleeves. Deuce, advantage the “suffering woman”. Or is it having your cake and eating it too? Male chauvinism is still too mild an allegation, there is a lurking danger of being accused of misogyny!

The KB Syndrome and Self-Limiting Cocoons of Glass Ceiling Obfuscations

There’s something insidious about this victimhood trap, it simply limits women’s causes. Though resorting to feminist rhetoric, it somehow does a disservice to the feminist agenda. In unimaginatively distorting the “personal is political” sentiment of Kate Millet’s brand of radical feminism, the strand of feminist discourse in working and competitive spaces is showing a Hobbesian streak to it. With an urge to wear the tag of liberated women always on their sleeves (to the point of being a fetish), the defence mechanism (and offence sensitivity index) in a section of this liberated women brigade is premised on the assumption that the world beyond feminist citadels is “nasty, brutish and short”. And the response to this “dangerous” world is an even more dangerous defence: playing the alarmist and the victim in perpetuity.

The symptoms in Sania’s case suggest that she is suffering from KB (Kiran Bedi syndrome). The professional introduction and claim to fame of both the ladies is preceded by one word -“woman”. There are many more capable and dedicated IPS officers doing a great job in different parts of the country. But policing is only an adjunct to Ms Bedi’s professional profile which begins with the catch phrase “first woman IPS officer”. There are reasons to believe that Ms Bedi has used this gender identity to the hilt for making inroads into the mind-space of the aspirational middle class and busybodies of the feminist circuit. Don’t you remember how she ranted about the “glass ceiling” when she was denied the position of Delhi Police Commissioner?

On July 27, 2007 Ms Bedi told NDTV, “the fact is that this is a little too much of a coincidence. This is the third of the series. The senior most woman lost out as the Cabinet Secretary and then we had Veena Sikri’s case lost out in the IFS”. Really? So isn’t it too much of a coincidence that two female IFS officers (Chokila Iyer and Nirupama Rao) were appointed as India’s Foreign Secretary, Chennai already had a woman Police Commissioner (Letika Saran) and Uttrakhand had a woman DGP (Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya)?

Selecting an officer to be the mainstream police chief is determined by a number of factors and gender couldn’t be one of them. Responding to Ms Bedi’s gender bias rant, this is the point that the Union Home Ministry (as Delhi Police comes under central government) made, as The Hindu reported on July 29, 2007: “Home Ministry said that there was no question of the Ministry showing a ‘gender bias’ while assessing the case of Ms Bedi for posting her as Delhi Police chief… She was already promoted to the rank of Director-General of Police (DGP) on August 1, 2006 whereas Mr Dadwal got the rank only on Thursday; therefore, there was no question of her being superseded by any IPS officer junior to her…Mr Dadwal’s experience of working in different capacities in Delhi Police in the recent past could have tilted the scales in his favour for appointment as Delhi Police Commissioner”.

So, were Ms Bedi’s credentials as strong as the “star cop” – obsessed media would make you believe? What about controversies surrounding the not-so-fair admission of her daughterin 1992 for a MBBS course in Hardinge College (Delhi) under North-East student’s quota (Bedi was posted in Mizoram for a brief period)? What about the severe criticism in the Wadhwa Commission (1988) report about her role in ordering a lathi charge on and handcuffing of protesting lawyers? And what about her lack of experience in mainstream policing (a desirable eligibility for Police Commissioner)?

But Ms Bedi had an identity that was too “political” to be “personal”, and the prized catch-phrase was “glass ceiling”. The KB syndrome has infected Sania and it’s no coincidence that beyond the “woman” part of her professional introduction (a novelty quotient for Indian tennis), there’s little that makes her relevant for sporting reasons. And she has one more “ladies only” weapon to stay in the news: the bogey of male chauvinists and the bugbear of the “glass ceiling”.

The worrisome part is the subtext of the “glass ceiling” obfuscates even the genuine narrative of gender inequities in the country. For women (not necessarily bread winners of the family) from affluent families driving (or being driven) to plush offices in urban spaces, the “glass ceiling” would be the fashionable vacuity to talk about. Though they are outnumberingthe opposite sex in many sectors, they know that this shift in numbers may not have anything to do with merit. The glass ceiling is the shibboleth that keeps the gender polemics alive in places where it matters the least. The more seminal concerns of terms of gender discourse in the country get lost in this maze of careerist grudge talk.

Gender Disparity: The Non-Glass Ceiling, Less Fragile Concerns

The study of gender issues has emerged as a discipline in itself and, in the Indian context, more rigorous analysis (in both empirical as well as normative terms) would be a different story. Here it should suffice and even be of relief to see how the Government of India has tersely summed up the kernel of concerns that should engage gender discourse in the country. The introduction to the Government of India’s policy document on Women Development (prepared by the Ministry of Women and Child Development) says:

“Gender disparity manifests itself in various forms, the most obvious being the trend of continuously declining female ratio in the population in the last few decades. Violence at the domestic and societal levels are some of the other manifestations.

The underlying causes of gender inequality are related to social and economic structure, which is based on informal and formal norms, and practices.

Consequently, the access of women particularly those belonging to weaker sections including Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes and minorities, majority of whom are in the rural areas and in the informal, unorganised sector – to education, health and productive resources, among others, is inadequate. Therefore, they remain largely marginalised, poor and socially excluded.”

How illusionary can the “glass ceiling deviation”from real challenges for women in India get is well articulated by the observations made by The Economist (May 11, 2012):

‘How should one judge the lot of women in India, a country that is in many ways progressive, modern, tolerant and yet by turns repressive and hostile? Women hold the highest political positions (the presidency, speaker of parliament, leader of the ruling party, leader of the opposition in parliament, several chief ministers of large states)”.

And then the irony of reality is not missed as it remarks:

“The United Nations Development Programme makes a valiant effort to compile various indicators relevant to women’s prospects, and lists countries by the results as a ‘gender inequality index’. For 2011 the UN’s compilation of data on maternal mortality and health care, teenage pregnancy, women’s representation in parliament and the workforce, women’s education and more, suggest that India ranks a relatively unimpressive 134th out of 173 countries.” Surely if you are still thinking that two of the largest private banks in India are headed by women (Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai) and why not other banks too, the glass ceilings would continue to blur the perspectives on women’s concerns.

Any attempt to identify the core gender issues can also contribute to a course correction that the obfuscating gender discourse, run from media houses, needs to take note of. These banal realities that confront the majority of women in different corners of the country are prosaic but constitute the leitmotif of the gender narrative in the country. The poetic indulgences of glass and glass ceilings can be the occasional sideshows.


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  • Payal Chopra

    Great! The article has brilliantly put things in thoughtful perspective