The freedom to dream: Gender equality dialogues

Divya (left) and Ramya.

By Akshath Karanam, Melton Fellow

I have always believed that I have a strong sense of justice, and that makes me strive to identify the various forms inequality takes around me.

But I see gender inequality the most. I see it everywhere. Right from the chauvinist words we freely speak without the slightest hesitation, to how we — despite being in a modern world — still deal with menstruation as a taboo topic, and even the very sexist hostel/dorm timings at my university. So much bias and somehow, no one even bats an eye! Why do we accept such behavior?

I had decided to wander the streets of Bangalore in the hot sun, searching for empowering life-stories; dialogues based on gender equality.

Hunting for several hours, here I was in Divya’s living room. Divya & Ramya — two complete strangers — had graciously accepted my request!

I had run into them earlier when at a bakery for a quick bite. Divya and Ramya — sitting next to my table — were chatting about how fashion magazines were making women feel less comfortable in their own skin by the day. Having eavesdropped on an interesting conversation, I introduced myself to them, asking them if I could perhaps interview them for a piece I was writing. And so they were on board, enthusiastically inviting me to their house for a cup of coffee and a frank conversation.

“Women did not have the freedom to dream”

Divya is an air hostess-turned-professional model. Ramya, a product manager at an advertising agency. They are second cousins, they tell me.

“I am a rebel”, Divya confesses. Talking of societal gender norms, she tells me that she notices many gender conventions to be chauvinistic and oppressive. “But I choose to completely disregard oppressive social rules, in search of my dreams,” she proclaims.

I begin to comprehend why she calls herself rebellious: Divya hails from an extremely conservative village, 400kms south of Bangalore — a village with no access to proper education & electricity, embroiled in countless orthodoxical socio-cultural restrictions.

“In a village where the notion of a woman going out to work was unprecedented and outrightly dismissed, I dreamt of taking up a pink-collared job. Women did not have the freedom to dream — dreaming was almost a cardinal sin”, Divya articulates.

I shudder as it dawns upon me that I have always taken for granted the right and freedom to follow professional dreams.

Societal shunning never really got to her. Divya was confronted for her choice of clothes, scorned upon for wanting to follow her dreams and her character questioned by her community, often.

I zone out for a few seconds, thinking of how the proverbial Chaar Log* in India was guilty of killing millions of dreams every year. But here was one such lady who never let the Chaar Log make her doubt the validity of her dreams. Such was her resolve!

*‘Chaar Log’ translation: four people (literally). Metaphorically: What will the community think?! Our family’s reputation is at stake!

Divya says she left India for Dubai at the age of 19 to become an air hostess, on a financial grant from a finishing school in Bangalore. Climbing the professional ladder, she soon found herself to be amongst Fly Dubai’s very first cabin crew team in 2008. Being a part of an airline’s initial cabin crew team is a matter of much pride and repute, she tells me.

Now 30 and married for past 5 years, I ask her what made her return to India, a traditional country still battling to accept pink-collared jobs. She smiles,“The booming modelling sector in Bangalore attracted me. I had saved up enough, financially, to relocate to India. Also the desire to be close to my mother in her ailing years brought me back.”

My brows rise in surprise as she tells me she relocated alone, leaving her husband behind in Dubai. “I wouldn’t be much of a rebel if I did things going by normal convention, would I?” Divya jokes. Her husband’s family did not support her relocation and desire to take up a career in modelling. But her husband was her pillar of support, Divya says, seeing to it that Divya’s resolve to follow her dreams was not broken by their marriage. This brings a genuine smile on my face.

“All I wanted was the same trust as my elder brother”

I shift my questions to Ramya, the quieter of the two. Ramya opens up, telling me how she hails from a South Indian family in the Middle East. She now works at an advertising firm in Bangalore. Curious, I ask her how it is to be a woman working in advertising.

“Being a woman at a male-product oriented ad firm, there was a perpetual underlying sense of sexism (against women) in everything said and done,” Ramya replies. “Men hated having a female boss, often approaching HR to change teams. And for an ambitious woman wanting to climb the career ladder, getting a promotion would mean working hard twice, sometimes thrice as hard as compared to her male peers.”

Her reply left me aghast. I knew sexism existed in the modern world. Had heard of how detrimental it could be. But I had never realised, internalised on how calamitous it actually could be! And the inherent sexism in the system for what reason?! Just because she was not born a male?

My own realisations had me frustrated. Call me utopian for seeking a world reveling in the true essence of equality. But hearing Ramya speak the truth had hurt my male pride; were we, as educated men, so incapable of treating women the right way? Despite history being evidence to the numerous struggles of women, why were we men so haplessly incompetent in providing women with equal opportunities, even now?

Ramya quips that it wasn’t her decision to take up a career in advertising. Her family runs an arts business in the Middle East. Having a creative and artistic bent, Ramya wanted to join the family business when she came of age. Which meant burning the midnight oil and coming home late, at 2 a.m.

Ramya’s parents wanted her to take up a job which would ensure she was back home by sundown. Women in their house weren’t allowed to work till late. So Ramya was sent to India 6 years back, to take up a job in the booming service industry.

“But working in the service industry didn’t mean coming back home by sundown. Being a Product Manager, I find myself often coming back home at 2 a.m., sometimes 3! And since I do come home late, I might as well take up painting and visual arts now — even if it means coming home late,” Ramya laments.

But Ramya doesn’t blame her parents for their concerns over her safety. Coming back before sunset — for her parents — meant that she’d be safe. But none of this matters at the juncture she is now in.

“All I ever wanted is for my parents to have as much trust in me as in my elder brother,” she concludes.

I bid them adieu, with smiles and utmost respect. As I step out, I realize I feel humbled. Their stories and resolve inspire me, pushing me to strive for a world with the true essence of equality.

In a nation with diverse cultures, religions, customs and a long history of gender imparity, there are many Divyas and Ramyas. Women who choose to speak up, tugging furiously at the manacles of chauvinism and patriarchy that have held them back for so long. Women who inspire not just other women, but men like me, too.

Are you passionate about gender equality?

Do you happen to know someone with a story to tell, of someone fighting gender inequality every single day?

Do you want to do something about it?

Then we at the Melton Foundation’s project team Gender Equality Awareness would love to hear from you! Get in touch & join us!