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Women in India: Where do all the educated women go?

By Clara How, Mar 06, 2020

Yesterday, we spoke with Yu, a working mother from Japan, who shared about how Japanese society views motherhood, and the expectations placed on mums. Today, we look at India: a country that might initially seem disparate from Japan in terms of culture and beliefs, but both share the traditional belief that a woman’s place is at home. 

Educating women in India has been a topic for discussion for years. When the watershed Right to Education Act in India was passed in August 2009, it made education free and compulsory for all children between 6 to 14. It was met with some success: according to a government census in 2011 (carried out every 10 years), there was an increase of 11.79 per cent in literacy rate for females since its last census, bringing the number to 65.46 per cent in the country. 

But Arundhati Ghosh, 47, paints a different picture with these questions: “Where are all these brilliant women who did so well at school? Why do we not see female CEOs? Why are women not continuing their education past their teenage years?”

With a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and the Executive Director of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Arundhati recognises her privilege. Over a Skype call, she shares with us her thoughts on deep-rooted traditions of women’s perceived place in society, and why it is important to fight for their right to education. It’s time to ask some questions that go beyond the numbers. 

This is the second story in our four-part series, “What gender inequality looks like in my country.” The first story can be read here: www.dayre.me/story/f6483a70fc.

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So many of us assume that education is important. But if someone were to ask me, “So why is education important?”, I would need a few minutes to gather my thoughts.

This would be my answer: 

“Education enables you to think for yourself, know what is good and bad, and make it more difficult to be manipulated. Education can help you see injustices and give you courage to raise your voice against it. 

“When someone is educated, it benefits not just their mental and physical health, but also the people around them. Education enables you to get better jobs, and be dependable people who contribute to society.” 

I am aware that I speak from a position of privilege, but I also believe that even if a woman doesn’t face these struggles, she should still speak up for those who do. 

It is my mother who constantly inspires me, because without education, her life and mine would be entirely different. When my mother was a child, she pushed her father (who was a doctor) to give her the education that she wanted. Her older sister was in school until she was 13, before she was married off to a man who worked in the military. 

In her marriage, her older sister was very unhappy that she couldn’t participate in her husband’s life. At his work events where she had to meet people, she felt very humiliated and had low self-esteem because of her lack of education. Unfortunately she passed away at an early age, and before she died, she asked her father to make sure that my mother continued her studies. “Please don’t let her leave,” she told him. Her death greatly affected my grandfather, and he permitted my mother to pursue her interest in medicine. 

My mother became the first girl to leave her village to study. Every time she came home, people would whisper that she was “the bad girl who went away to the city”. Her relatives would tell her parents that it was high time they married her off. 

With my mother, Dr Rekha Ghosh

With my mother, Dr Rekha Ghosh

Out of the 100 people in her medicine course, there were around 18 women. They had to enter and leave the room with the professor because the parents and staff feared the consequences of men and women mixing together. The women sat at the front of the room, and were not allowed to talk to the male students, but of course, this didn’t happen. A number of men and women from that course fell in love, including my parents. 

When my mother started working, there were very few female doctors. She would work in the hospital for 35 years: starting off as a junior doctor and eventually retiring as its joint director.

She said to me, “I never earned a lot of money, but I ensured that I opened up the road for women after me.”

There have been changes since my mother’s time. Education is now free because of the Right to Education Act, and there are policies that focus on educating girls. In fact, there is a government campaign called (loosely translated): ‘Save the Girls and Teach the Girls’. 

But unfortunately, I don’t believe there is enough work being done on the ground to explain to families why this is important. It’s not enough to just tell them to send their daughter to school.

They don’t understand, because for many people in India, there’s still a belief that a woman’s life is determined by marriage and motherhood.

It’s fair to point out that India is a large country that is densely populated, and like many countries, we are not just one type of people. There might be a home that supports their daughter’s dream of being an astronaut, and next door is a family who wants their child married at 18.

It’s a spectrum, but in the traditional family structure, it would be the norm that a woman is seen as something to someone else. 

She is seen as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. She doesn’t have an independent place in society. 

She never attains financial independence, because this is closely related to education. In a family with little money, they don’t see a point in spending on a girl’s education because she’ll eventually leave the home for marriage. 

People may assume that families who are wealthy or ‘upper class’ would prioritise education. But just because someone has resources does not mean that they are not misogynistic. I know of wealthy families who send their children abroad to study, but this education is not for their child’s career ⁠— it’s to make them part of the society they move in and eventually marry into. Regardless of her capabilities, a woman is still seen as needing a husband. 

This problem may not be unique to India, but I believe that change could be slower here because of interpretations of religious teachings. India is a very faith-based country, where religion is important to many people, educated or otherwise. Across religions, a woman’s role is traditionally depicted as that of a mother or a wife. 

Popular culture is another reason. India has a superbly film-loving culture, and on average, a person could watch three to four local films a month, and one Hollywood film every two months. In most of these films, including the international ones, the female protagonists are given roles that are supportive. They are the mothers, sisters and wives of the key roles played by men. This is also the case for advertisements, where you will see women depicted doing housework and looking after children, even if she is a working mum. Young people grow up watching these films and ads and think, that’s how it should be.

I was fortunate that this was not how I was raised. Both my parents were working, so they bribed me with books and I was allowed to read anything and everything. I was an only child, and didn’t grow up thinking I was a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’ until puberty hit.

People started to say things like, as a girl, you should do this or that. That was when I started thinking, “Why are there so many things that I can’t or shouldn’t do as a woman?”

I was a good student and mathematics was my favourite subject. People didn’t understand how a girl could like math, and would say things like, “Don’t study math, there won’t be another girl in your class”, which didn’t turn out to be true.

As I grew older, people also advised me to be a doctor because it was “easier” thanks to my parents, and in particular a child specialist or a gynaecologist (never a surgeon, because that was apparently a man’s job). When I wanted to go into the corporate world, they told me, “Why don’t you look at Human Resources?” I kept getting pushed to consider the ‘softer’ options. 

Right now, I work in art and culture, which is seen as socially acceptable for women. I work with an arts foundation, India Foundation of the Arts (IFA), which supports arts and culture projects across India.

The IFA team celebrating Secret Santa before Christmas!

The IFA team celebrating Secret Santa before Christmas!

But what others don’t see or appreciate is that I also look at finances, investments, and crunch numbers on a daily basis. They ask questions like, “How are you so good with investments?” 

Even at 47, I hear statements like: “It’s so sad that you’re not married and don’t have children.” I don’t find it sad at all. I was previously married but we both decided that we were better off as friends, and I’m still on good terms with my ex-husband. I love children and I’m a godmother. This is a choice that I made and I am glad that I have the ability to choose my life.

What I’ve noticed is that the idea of a woman wanting only marriage and motherhood is changing among women, but not yet among men.

It comes down to a question of power. When women fight back for their independence, men lose control over them, and no one (whether an institution or a person) wants to give up a powered position. It is going to take time and effort for the idea to sink in that the feminism movement is also good for men, families and society, not just for women. When a woman is educated, it doesn’t just benefit her, but also the rest of her family.

But the great thing is that now, I see more women leaving unhappy marriages, or who are staying single for longer because they want to seek education first. It’s not that marriage is a bad option: I have friends who have embraced this. But they have chosen this, and not pushed to do so.

Another heartening observation is that more mothers are making it a point to educate their children.

It could be because of the Internet and media, but I also believe it’s lived knowledge. My domestic helper, Margaret, has been with me since 2002 and has become a friend. She’s a mother of five and tells me she does not want her daughters to have the same job that she does, so she’s put in extra hours to ensure that all her children are educated. She’s an example of the shift that’s happening among women, and it’s brilliant.

But it’s not just about getting women into schools — it’s also about asking what do they do with this education?

If you look at the college rankings in the country, year after year, there are many female students who are top students and are outperforming the men. Yet if you look at India’s workforce, you will hardly find female CEOs. 

You cannot help but wonder, what happened to all these brilliant women?

These are women who got an education, worked hard, but either did not start or left their career midway because of marriage or motherhood. They leave because there are very few husbands who help at home, and very few companies with a structure that supports working wives and mums. The question is: why does one have to choose between a career and a family, when the men are not choosing?

I travel 20 days a month for work, and if I was a mother, I would need incredible support from my partner, a family, or hired help. I cannot imagine doing my job as a working mum, but does that imply that to do what I do, you have to either be a man or a single woman? That’s a sad conclusion.

There are so many things that can be done to encourage female education, and enable more women to have a career.

Instead of just having a government campaign that’s influenced by electoral agenda, there should be specific programmes where someone talks directly to families. For example, having a centre in government hospitals that can give parents information after their children are born. A lot of parents don’t even know that education is free. 

Sometimes, it just takes finding a solution to a logistical problem. A few years ago, I helped with an online fund-raising campaign for a school, Bijoynagar Adarsha Vidyamandir in West Bengal. Many female students were leaving school at puberty, because the walk from the village took two hours through a forest and parents were worried about safety. We eventually raised enough money to build a residential hostel at the school, and since then, none of the girls have left.

The building of the hostel for the school

The building of the hostel for the school

Companies could look more positively at women who want to come back to work after having a child, such as having flexible working hours or even a childcare room. Foundations can look into scholarships, or childcare grants. These are actions that can make it possible for a woman to continue her career, so women can realise that this is what they can pursue with education. 

Increasingly there are more of these issues being discussed: there are advocacy groups, corporate CSR and non-profit organisations pushing for educating women. But India is such a large country and the needs are so high that these efforts may seem like drops in an ocean.

At the protest site of Bilal Bagh in Bangalore

At the protest site of Bilal Bagh in Bangalore

When I share about gender and misogyny on social media, I often get asked: “Why are you always talking about gender? Sometimes, can’t you just let it go?” But we have been letting it go for so long. I can’t help but see what’s around me.

I could be on the way to work and I see a man and a woman fighting on the street ⁠— I see him slap her and no one says anything. I could be talking with my peers to a government officer, and he turns to address the men instead. I attend a discussion panel, and it's comprised of only men. Recently I found out that a reputable institution of science in our country has very little information on women in their archives. These are things I don’t deliberately look for, but I see everywhere. 

Women like us have what we do today because our ancestors fought for our rights. The belief that a woman should belong at home is an ingrained tradition. Things are not going to change overnight.

But we cannot be discouraged, because I believe that rights and freedom are never gifted. They are negotiated and fought for. If you look at any movement, whether civil rights, feminism, or the queer movement, change is always slow. It’s very frustrating to see the same things happening over and over again, because the hardest thing is to change how people think. But it’s important to have allies and solidarities with people who believe in the same things as you do. 

Allies are important because we are not alone in the fight for freedom. To me, International Women’s Day is a time to think of all the marginalised communities whose voices are ignored, erased or silenced. This includes people affected by discrimination of caste, class, religion, sexuality as well as gender. 

All of our struggles have to come together, so that we can be in solidarity and be heard for the change we need.

Pictures by Darshana Dave, Sutanuka Ghosh and Arundhati Ghosh.

This story is the second part of a series titled: ‘What gender inequality looks like in my country’. Over four stories, this series aims to shed light on the rights that women are fighting for around the world. The third story in this series will be published next Thursday. 

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