Words like empowerment and inclusion were bandied about liberally at a conference organised by YFLO (the young women’s arm of FICCI, with members between the ages of 20 to 39) in Delhi on Monday, July 15, 2013. All said in the august company of Louis Vuitton bags, Satya Paul saris and Dior watches.
Speakers for the session titled ‘Great Expectations: An Interactive Session with Dynamic Leaders’ included Union minister Dr Shashi Tharoor, BJP national secretary Vani Tripathi, industrialist-MP Navin Jindal – and, in a strange contrast, Namanji, a spiritual teacher from the Oneness University (of which common folk such as Shilpa Shetty, Manisha Koirala and Isha Koppikar are followers).
In fact, everything felt rather strange during the two-hour session held at the Lalit Hotel in Connaught Place. Tharoor did not stick to his agenda of “the changing trends in technology, society, demographic profiles” as the invite promised. Instead, he rattled off impressive numbers about Indian education in an impressive oration. When members of the audience targeted him with accusations (some, admittedly unfair) about the illogical elements of the new Right to Education Act, he squarely placed the blame for all failures on state governments, repeating more than once his regret that Parliament could not function these days because of “you-know-who”.
Member of the “you-know-who” party and feminist activist Tripathi began her monologue with encouraging examples of women sarpanches who’d brought much development to their villages, but quickly lost the audience as she disintegrated into Urdu shayari, justifications about why she didn’t believe in “men-bashing” and irrelevant announcements of her marital status.
Jindal gave his stony, staccato points of view, unwilling to concede that women faced discrimination in the corporate workplace, and putting the entire onus of societal transformation in cases of gender violence on the individual, not the state. He even attacked a commentator for suggesting that Kurukshetra, Haryana, had the worst sex ratio in the country. He curtly clarified that it had the “fastest-improving” sex ratio, and that she should get her facts right before speaking up at a conference such as this.
For his part, Namanji provided eerie silences through the debate, talking about self-love, self-forgiveness and self-empowerment amidst the very worldly conversation on the dais, leaving even the otherwise voluble anchor Fatima Karan nonplussed.
But if the action on stage was discordant enough, a look around the room was a study in paradox. The audience, primarily made up of wealthy businesswomen, appeared suspiciously like a large gathering of “ladies who lunch” complete with designer labels, air kisses, giggling banter, un-silent phones – and a dash for the buffet. The only thing that didn’t fit was their seeming love for food – but maybe the quick sprint to the buffet balanced out the food intake. Heiresses to large family fortunes, socialites and page 3 regulars dotted the five-star hotel hall and the YFLO Delhi committee. Nothing wrong in that, of course, except it did seem ironic that the very group of people who were here demanding equal rights and empowerment were precisely those who’d been born with ample doses of it.
To be fair, there were also social activists who’d worked at the grass-root level, entrepreneurs who’d built empires with their own hands, and corporate honchos who’d broken glass ceilings – all of whom would have paid the required Rs 11,000 admission fee and Rs 75,000 lifetime membership to join FLO. But their numbers appeared small enough to be overlooked amidst the power-play and self-exhibitionism of the privileged majority. The word “feminism” was almost redundant in that room. For many of these women, with their daddies and hubbies back home and their Audis in the driveway, equality would mean a downgrade.
Many recent YFLO events in Delhi have reeked of self-congratulatory posturing; awardees for their Young Women Achievers Awards usually include the daughters and wives of well-known businessmen. The only “rural”person this year – a women’s rights activist who was given the award for ‘Community Service’ – gave all the credit for her success to her brother and invited him on stage. Which turned out to be a ghastly mistake as he went on to chide modern girls for not knowing how to brush their teeth and for losing their sanskriti. Congress politician Margaret Alva announced with a flourish that women entrepreneurs should look beyond “beauty salons, boutiques and baby wear” – a faux pas considering that most women present would have a vested interest in one or all of those areas.
Earlier in the year, YFLO’s Delhi committee had visited the Tihar women’s prison and a show at Gurgaon’s Kingdom of Dreams. Both were probably a fun day out for the ladies, who missed no opportunity for photo-ops and Facebook updates.
Feminism is as urgent and relevant in 21st century India, or more, as at any other time in global history. The West – where it’s become yet another F-word – is no longer a source of inspiration for the Indian woman’s schizophrenic reality, where on one hand we do not have a voice and on the other we are too rich or too tired to raise it. From the farms to the boardroom to the bedroom, there is no doubt that Indian women from all strata of society (and the country as a whole) would benefit from economic, social, political and personal empowerment. But events such as YFLO’s appear to be a staged front for a disconnected cause, with no application or long-term benefit for the disempowered. The government’s representatives aren’t listening. The audience is here to party.The media doesn’t care.
Women’s empowerment needs a hero. But these women, with their diamond-encrusted phones and holidays in Monte Carlo, are not it.