by Shreya Sen[box]When Chetan Bhagat writes ‘I’d like Indian men to have an open mind about choosing their life partners and revise their ‘ideal woman’ criteria’, one expects that he is exhorting many Indian men to finally realise that women are equal ‘partners’ in a marriage, and are also humans with their own ideas and aspirations both within and outside the home, which are not tied to being someone’s wife or mother. But no, Mr. Bhagat fails miserably, as in his narrow view of the world that ignores disturbing everyday realities for much of India’s population, women’s lives still revolve around men. Shreya Sen tells us why this is not just pissing off, but also extremely problematic, and hardly “progressive”.[/box]
Ever so often a new notification pops up in my Facebook account signaling yet another person who has “tagged” me in one of Chetan Bhagat’s “progressive” articles. Every single time, I furiously type out a long comment on why he annoys me so much and almost every time, I am accused of being a stereotypical-hysterical-humorless feminazi who needs to stop “over reacting” and start learning to look at the “good things” in what people have to say. So, to end this cycle once and for all, I want to rant at length about why the notion of the ideal, Bhagatian phulka-making, career bride isn’t my favorite idea in the world.
Let’s begin with a little introduction to the premise upon which Mr. Bhagat bases these “progressive” articles. In his article “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”1, we find out that in Bhagat’s world, women, namely “Indian women”, are awesome. So awesome, in fact, that without them the world would meet an inevitable doom – “there would be body odour, socks on the floor and nothing in the fridge to eat. The entertainment industry would die… Kids would be neglected and turn into drug addicts or psychopaths by age 10. Soon, all-male world leaders would lose their tempers at the slightest provocation, and bomb the guts out of each other’s countries.” See? As a race, we women are indispensable. From being sexual objects on screen for men’s entertainment to creating their perfect, little, socially acceptable progeny to maintaining world peace to picking up their socks, we women can do it all.
To this kind eulogising of the feminine prowess, I have only one response for Mr. Bhagat and the ardent worshippers of his fine mind – No, thank you.
Shocking as this may be, I was not put into this world to make life easier and more pleasant for Mr. Bhagat and his brethren. And while I understand that the only way to get any validation as a human being is to match up to the apparent role model for young women, Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer (irrelevant trivia: Mayer publicly dismissed feminism as a “militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder.”2), I must concede that I, like most other women, am a mere human being with mere human powers. And my mere human brain cringes every time I read Mr. Bhagat’s well-rationalised enumeration of the “enormous benefits” of “choosing a capable, independent and career-oriented woman”. In his article, “Home Truths on Career Wives”3, Mr. Bhagat uses his IIM-level salesman skills to sell the idea of the working wife. The working wife is better, stronger, sharper, more interesting, more arousing, more skilled and, subsequently, more worthy of modern day “Indian men”, than the boring housewife. Of course, he grants that working women have their “drawbacks”, but, by and large, wouldn’t “Indian men” rather have that extra money and mediocre phulkas rather than the embarrassment of a having a wife who is too unambitious, un-enterprising and incompetent to even be a good partner? The idea that a homemaker may have just as much personhood as a “career wife”, or that household work may be just as important and fulfilling as work done outside, or even that household work is work at all, seems to be too radical to have crossed Mr. Bhagat’s mind. Perhaps, I should cut the guy some slack. He does say that the benefits attached to “career wives” only hold true if men learn to see women as “equals”. Good on you, Mr. Bhagat! – except for the one teensy detail where you completely miss the point: for equality to be achieved within a heteronormative4 marriage, men and women need to be doing, and getting recognition for, work both outside AND inside the house! See? That way the “drawbacks” of “career wives” being mediocre homemakers cease to exist. But Mr. Bhagat is a progressive man. It “doesn’t really” bother him that his wife works as a COO (although he would have little respect for a wife who “spent her entire life in the kitchen”). He proudly claims that in his case the household work is designated to the domestic help instead. The fact that he is speaking from a position of class privilege – wherein he and his wife are able to afford to pay another woman to do the housework – and that he is, in fact, implicit in replicating both gender-based roles and class hierarchies are not facts he finds worthy of acknowledgment. What matters is that the “Indian men” know that you can get by fine with a “career wife” so long as she, or a woman belonging to a lower caste/class background, is taking care of your needs and whims at home.
Bhagat’s articles pitch forth a specific group of people as the “norm”. He tastefully describes the wants of “today’s young India” as being limited to “meri naukri, meri chhokri” (my job, my girl)5. Nothing in his writing so far has given me any indication that he might be open minded enough to be actually talking about Queer identified women6, so I am just going to go ahead and assume, women aren’t a part of his discourse at all. So, when he says he is talking to the “Indian youth”, the people he is really in a dialogue with are urban, upper class/caste, cis7, men working in a corporate environment and either in, or are aiming to be in, a heteronormative marriage. When he refers to the female gender as “our women” or talks about how societies that do not allow for equality are “backward tribes”, he is constructing these groups of people in relation to this dominant, normative group that is supposedly the “Indian youth”. This normative group, the supposed “majority”, is apparently only guilty of “lesser crimes” such as when they “judge, expect too much, don’t give space and suffocate [their] women’s individuality”, as compared to the “extreme” instances of crime perpetrated by a “minority” who “abort girls before they are born, neglect them in their upbringing, torture them, molest them, sell them, rape them and honour-kill them.” Not only is he forming a dangerous hierarchy of violence where emotional abuse and trauma are completely trivialised, he is also ignoring the fact that what he flippantly terms as being cases of “extreme” violence are sadly everyday realities of the people belonging to marginalised gender groups and transcend class, caste and religious barriers.
Mr. Bhagat’s “best-selling” novels celebrate the much romanticised space of male bonding (“bromance”, if you will), in relation to which women are either props or intrusions (think Five Point Someone and Three Mistakes of My Life). So it feels a little strange when he feels he has any authority to comment on what kind of relationships women have with other women and how they can work to manage/improve them. Thank you for being yet another popular “youth icon” who perpetuates the insipid, misogynistic, patriarchal myth of women being women’s biggest enemies, Mr. Bhagat. Not to mention how hugely hypocritical that sounds since in the above mentioned articles it is you who has pitched daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law and working women against homemakers. Believe it or not, Mr. Bhagat, we do not always compete amongst one another over mundane issues like who will “make a better scrapbook for her school project” or who will “lose more weight with a better diet” or who will “make a six-dabba tiffin for her husband”, and stress among “Indian women” is not always caused because we try to achieve “A+ in every aspect of [our lives]”. And if these are ever the causes leading to stress, it is because a society that is steeped in patriarchal values gives us little space to negotiate our lives differently. All Mr. Bhagat’s “progressive” articles do is to further perpetuate these values, while, in the process, absolving men of having any part in the everyday violence faced by women.
So here’s news for Mr. Bhagat and his cronies: while dialogues between privileged and marginalised groups are important, not only in relation to gender but also ability, class, caste, religion, sexual orientation etc., the privileged male cannot be the central figure around whom such discussions take place. I see nothing remotely ground breaking in Bhagat’s work because appeasing to the dominant group to justify an egalitarian society is a tried and failed method that has been around for years and has only reproduced and reinforced social inequalities. Why else are we still talking about educating women and girls for the sake of a better family, better generation, better Nation etc., while we can so easily imagine men getting educated just for the sake of education? So when Bhagat goes on and yawn about how men can benefit from working wives, the crucial point being ignored is that women shouldn’t have to decide their life’s trajectory based on their husbands’ convenience. Indeed, there is that rather strange possibility that a man might hold no position at all in a woman’s life’s trajectory. Whether or not we choose to work, share the work, make a top quality phulka, or refuse to have children should be based on our comfort and negotiations. “Our” successes are not for you to “accept” and “celebrate” or even “tolerate”, because they are not for you to give. By acknowledging the rights of marginalised groups, you are not being benevolent; you are only being a decent human being who believes in equitable living.
A student of Gender Studies, Shreya Sen is a loud and proud feminist and considers herself the Batwoman of the internet world. She enjoys reading, respects chocolates for their benign presence in her life, and often ponders upon the merits of procrastination.[facebook]Share[/facebook] [retweet]Tweet[/retweet]
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- Heteronormativity consist of desires, acts and behaviors that comply with the socially acceptable standards of what appropriate sexuality, sexual conduct, gendered expressions etc are. Therefore, a heteronormative marriage would be one where, among many other things, a cis, heterosexual couple, who belong to the same caste, class and religious background, are bound by the contract of marriage and follow conventional gender roles. ↩
- Read here ↩
- In this context, by “Queer” women, I mean all kinds of women who like having female partners-lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals etc ↩
- “cis” is the term used to address people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Non-cis people are trans* people who would comprise of groups like Hijras, Kothis, Transsexuals, Transgenders, Genderqueer, Genderfluid, Agender etc ↩