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SUMEDHA SARKAR

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |




SONGSOPTOK: What is your earliest memory about being a boy?
SUMEDHA: I used to bully two boys called Andrew and Tyler when we were kids. It surprised me when the neighbors thought this odd. I was, after all, to my mind, bigger and stronger than them. 

SONGSOPTOK:  Where did you go to school? Was it a boys’ school? If yes, then why do you think your parents send you to a school for boys? If not, why?
SUMEDHA: My schooling took place in three schools across Bombay, all three being co-ed. Predominantly however, I would say that I received my education at Bombay Scottish School, Powai, as I spent nine years studying there. Honestly, I don’t think it was a very conscious decision on my parents’ part to send me to co-ed or a girls school, I don’t think gender really played a part in the discussion about where I would be educated. I believe that their aim was to send me to a good school, where I would grow holistically and enjoy my childhood. I must point that out about my parents, gender was never a big deal with them and except for giving my brother and I the occasional “be careful of the other sex” lecture, as most parents give growing teenagers, we were never made aware of the fact that there was any kind of segregation we had to be mindful of. Children were simply, children.

SONGSOPTOK: A lot of studies indicate that the gender segregation starts in school. What is your experience?
SUMEDHA: I think everyone remembers the story about boys sitting on one side of the class and girls sitting on the other. Funnily, that happens even now I think when people go out in groups. But then again in school, its more about being close to the people who you think you are similar to, and at that age, our understanding of similarity very rarely goes beyond the anatomical sort. I wouldn’t therefore exactly call girls sticking to girls “segregation”. As far as attempts by my schools to classify us, my schools very rarely employed anything of the sort. I don’t have any real memory of anything of note that I would categorize as segregation. We would all be treated similarly, scolded similarly and appreciated similarly.  In fact, I used to be particularly boisterous in middle school, and my class teacher made no qualms about rapping me on the hand like she did with the boys.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you remember any incident(s) from your childhood where you witnessed gender discrimination? What are your thoughts about that?
SUMEDHA: I have a younger brother, and there were isolated instances where the elder members of the family gave him an extra mango. I know that sounds frivolous, but that’s really as far as discrimination went, because eventually I understood that the older members of the family had lived in a generation which did prefer boys to girls, and even if they didn’t want to, sometimes that preference came out, subconsciously. Over-time, however, as I began to grow up, they all began to make up for denied permissions for school trips and for that occasional extra mango that went to my brother.

SONGSOPTOK:  Now going on to college / university – what according to you were the advantages / disadvantages of being a man? Were there any disadvantages at all? Do you think that women were treated fairly by the educational institutions?
SUMEDHA: No, I absolutely did not face any discrimination in college. Not in terms of marks, attention in class or leadership positions. I think any preference towards a particular student was based solely on individual merit and not gender. I attended law school in Delhi and I can unequivocally say that gender discrimination has not been a part of my experience.

SONGSOPTOK: A lot has been written about the unsafe environment in India for women, especially on public transports. What is your personal experience? Has the situation deteriorated over time? Are the streets of your city less safe today than let us say a decade back? If so, what is you analysis of the situation?
SUMEDHA:  I’ve spent major parts of my life in Pune, Bombay and Delhi and the one thing that I always do in order to feel at home in a city is to go for an incredibly early morning drive and have chai and breakfast on the side of the road at a small stall or dhaba. And by early, I mean 4 a.m. In Pune and Bombay I went out with my girlfriends and in Delhi, I have only done this when I have one of the guys with me, (not that this is effective protection if something were to happen, but it lets Ma and Baba be at ease).  I have never felt anything except absolute freedom and happiness on these trips, which brings me to the point that there isn’t a particular time of day, or night that I would categorize as unsafe. I have felt very real fear at as early as 7 p.m. when I’m on crowded public transport. I remember this one time where I got on a white bus with tinted windows, a bus that very closely resembled the bus at the center of the December 16th rape in Delhi, and even though this was a bus that was a part of the airport, fear gripped me through out that journey. Absolutely nothing happened on that bus. I didn’t really see anyone stare at me or come and sit down next to me purposefully when there were a dozen empty seats. In fact the conductor was careful enough to keep checking on me. This makes me think that while I do feel that the boldness with which people commit crime these days is perhaps more than it was even five years ago, it is also bringing out a very large number of men and women who counter-act it to make the streets safer.


SONGSOPTOK:  According to you, to what extent is the patriarchal society in India responsible for the status of women? Do you see any reflection of the patriarchal control in your own/extended family?
SUMEDHA:  I think that initially, this form of society was based on a primitive understanding of gender roles and perhaps effectively worked for several generations, and for that reason I wouldn’t fault this form of society right from the get go. I do not see a patriarchal form of society where it is suitable and is working well and fairly as a bad thing. I could get into what one would conceive as “fair” but I would rather not read too much into it. My great-grandmother and grandmother were part of a family that followed the patriarchal system and I have never seen them being subjected to any form of disadvantage or being subjugated in any way. They took many family decisions along side their husbands and I saw my family beautifully transition into a matriarchal family once my great-grandfather passed away. It has to, therefore, be about what works where.
However, in the larger sense, considering that we have entered an era where these gender roles have begun to shift and the lines between them are slowly disappearing, what has actually become detrimental to the position of women is an exhibited desperation of traditional elements to cling to the patriarchal form of society and maintain outdated ideas of gender roles. It isn’t about a productive division of labour between man and woman but is now a method of control and power over women.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you think that social status (caste, class, affluence) plays a significant role in how women are treated in India? How? Are there significant differences in the status of women in urban & rural India?
SUMEDHA: Initially, I would think that these variables were the most definite determinants of how a woman is treated in India. My belief that this was true possibly came from the fact that I never saw my family and peers being subject to any discrimination or disadvantage. This, however radically changed as I grew up and became more aware, more informed about the different shades of discrimination. What I am trying to say essentially is that the way a woman is treated in India transcends caste, class, and affluence. There is substantial truth to the statement that these are primary indicators, and there are some things that are more “acceptable” within one class with respect to the other, however, discrimination, loss of freedom or to put it positively, complete choice and autonomy in the conduct of her affairs can be found at all levels of class, caste and affluence.

SONGSOPTOK:  Would you say that there is equal treatment of women in the workplace? Are women given the same opportunities as men? Has the situation evolved compared to the earlier generation?
SUMEDHA:  I have just started working, and between my batch-mates and I, I would say there is equal treatment. Honestly, and I think this is a good thing, amongst people I know, I don’t think people are constantly, consciously thinking about gender-roles and equal treatment all the time. It’s become more in-built and natural to not differentiate and constantly break things down.

SONGSOPTOK:  Has the position and status of women evolved at home compared to your mother’s generation? Do women today have more decision-making power within the family structure? Can you explain your answer?
SUMEDHA: It will take me a long time to become the firebrand that the women before me in my family are. The eldest woman I knew in my family was my great-grandmother and I can tell you that no decision in the family was made without consulting that grand, old, white haired lady in the wooden arm chair. Her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, was exactly like her, summoning an entire family of thirty down to dinner with just one ring of the bell. She sent my mother to Presidency, a co-ed college and raised her to be strong and firm while taking decisions with regard to her family and career. I have never known women in my family who do not take major family decisions; in fact, at the back of my head, I almost feel this kind of pressure to learn how to be as strong, graceful, and firm as them.


SONGSOPTOK:  According to you, what needs to be done to improve the situation of women not only in India but all over the world? How can women contribute – at home, at work, at social & political levels?
SUMEDHA: Educating both boys and girls is imperative. But the education has to be subtle. It may sound odd, but it is my belief that by talking to small children about prejudice and gender roles starkly, in your face manner, emphasizes the gender divide even more. I think a lot of the change is happening naturally, and by subtly educating children, we must allow that process. It is very important that we do not shy away from conversations about the status of women, but saying that “girls must study, girls must work, girls must drive” may make younger, more impressionable minds (unaware of any divide) question why she shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. For them, the fact that their mother or sister works is natural, not exceptional. That in my opinion is a good thing. Its important we encourage young girls to seek their future in the way they want, but telling them that its them against the boys or great job every time they claim a little freedom for themselves makes me think that we are not completely integrating women’s freedom into our society. It shouldn’t be such a surprise anymore.

SONGSOPTOK:  Violence against women is a global problem today that manifests itself in different forms in different societies. And the problem seems to be growing every day in spite of preventive measures. What, in your opinion, should be the priority in India? How do you see the role of the civil society in this context?
SUMEDHA: Civil society has a massive role to play when it comes to protecting women against violence. In my mind, preventive measures, which are mainly in the form of law, do not do much to avert violence against women, simply because it does not induce the kind of fear that one would traditionally expect the law to elicit in possible perpetrators. That for me, is the scariest part of violence against women. The ones who set out to harm, have very little regard for consequences. Therefore, preventive measures have to come in the form of civil action. It’s important people speak out when they see a woman being harassed instead of point and talk about it in hushed tones. Men and women alike need to stick up for each other constantly and form a real sense of community. I don’t know how much of that is possible when the first thing to take a hit when public crime soars is trust, but I think it’ll help if we realize that there are always more good men and women than bad. Perhaps that will help.

SONGSOPTOK:   What are views on women’s empowerment? What should be the priorities here (economic / social / cultural/ educational…)
SUMEDHA: Empowerment is choice. I think women should be allowed to do whatever it is that they want. A progressive society does not mean that all women start working or getting jobs, or contributing at the political level. A progressive society for women means that they must have the choice to get a job, contribute at the political level or just sit at home and watch TV. I have a very big problem with women berating other women for making the choice to take care of the kids or saying that the modern woman is the one with a job. The modern woman is the one with a choice. That is what we need to work towards. It cant be that the ones who want to sit at home are now judged for doing so, in the same manner as those who chose to work a few generations before us.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you think the situation of women in India can evolve in the years to come? What is your vision for the future?
SUMEDHA: India is a complex country. I believe that it is constantly evolving for women. Many of the girls I know, have the same experiences that I have had, where we haven’t faced discrimination or any disadvantages of being women. I know that one would say we are lucky, because that isn’t the case for many women around the nation, but I would much rather look at it as a sign of evolution in itself. There are on the other hand, women who face prejudice on a daily basis but as women get stronger and more aware that they deserve to be treated with respect that prejudice will slowly start distancing itself. It will have to, I don’t think the women in India are giving it much choice.


[SUMEDHA SARKAR, INDIA]


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