After my column on women and science (The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 14, 2004), I had a number of very interesting responses. They ranged from those who shared their experiences as women scientists and endorsed what I had written to those who argued that there was no problem. Not surprisingly, the latter were almost exclusively men.
One man wrote something that will be a like a red rag to most women, and especially women scientists. I quote his conclusion: "Most women do not have an aptitude for Physics (and Maths too perhaps). This is true around the world. Also, on the average, women do not have the same ability as men in subjects like Physics and Maths, though they usually do better in subjects like Biology. And from what I've seen, there isn't so much of a gender bias in laboratory working."
But of all the views expressed, perhaps the most disturbing was this response from the father of a girl who has trained in science. We should not be surprised because one comes across many such stories. Yet, each time I hear it, I am chilled. Here is what this man wrote: "I want to say something in response to your lines `What happens to them after that? Are they forced by their families to make choices which are not their own?'
"My daughter was a topper in high school and college studies. Then she did M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Central University at Hyderabad. She got a job in Monsanto Enterprises. Considering her leadership and communication skills, she was deputed on a short trip to visit Monsanto Office in St. Louis and Detroit. She got a good number of Stock Options. After that your question: `What happens to them after that? Are they forced by their families to make choices which are not their own.' She was to be married. The bridegroom was a Ph.D. He was working at a different city. Bridegroom insisted that he cannot afford to live alone without wife at his place. So he expected that my daughter would resign and join him after marriage. Bridegroom's father insisted that his son has to be happy and to be well looked after. Though he gave marks for her working in Monsanto, he expected her to resign the job and join his son. I said to the bridegroom, that you both can carry out respective jobs at respective places for a few months and see as to how nature and time intervene. He did not listen. Marriage is over. She is cutting bhindis at husband's house now. So that is what happens."
For every one story, there are hundreds more that could be recorded. But what they illustrate is essentially the same point. That despite education, and quality education, the mindset of people is not changing in this country. Girls are still expected ultimately to be "good wives" and boys continue to be tutored to expect to be served by the woman. So you can make your women scientists or engineers, but at the end of the day if they have to live with such contempt at home on a daily basis for what they have achieved, their chances of concentrating and excelling at work are slim. If they do shine, they ought to be given additional points.
The story narrated above illustrates how women ultimately succumb because they are socialised to believe that making a marriage work is more important than their careers. The other half of the story is how such educated women silently tolerate abuse and violence within their marriages.
Rinki Bhattachararya, in her recently-released book Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence in India (Sage, 2004) has narrated first person accounts by women of different communities and classes of their experiences in encountering violence and verbal abuse within the four walls of their marital home. Again, some of the most disturbing are those of women from middle-class "educated" families. I place the word educated within quotes deliberately. The true meaning of education ought to be enlightenment, a liberal and generous approach towards other human beings, and above all humility because the more educated we are the more we realise how little we know. Unfortunately, the way the word "educated" is used these days has very little to do with this definition. It merely means an accumulation of paper degrees and qualifications. It has very little to do with the world-view you develop, the way learning changes your approach to life.
One of the stories in the book illustrates this point. In Neela's words: "I had heard about wife beating. But I was under the impression it did not occur in the educated class. Although my parents never got along, violence was never a part of their problem. Certainly there was a lot of bullying from both ways. A great deal of verbal abuse, but not actual beating. My parents argued non-stop. No one knew what triggered their rows the smallest and silliest things could start it. If my father lost his kerchief it was enough for us to be tense the whole day." Sound familiar?
Neela goes on to narrate how she could never tell her "educated" parents that she was abused even as a child and how she ended up in an abusive marriage. Within 10 days of her marriage, her husband forced her to give up her job. And in the end, she did not walk out of her marriage because: "My attitude was, when you have accepted life, keep quiet." Neela was also led to believe that she could not be self-sufficient, that she could never survive on her own. As a result, she remained inside a marriage and suffered the worst forms of physical violence until she, and her newborn child, were literally thrown out.
Next: Don't moan, fight back
The reality is that most women want to get on with their lives but cannot. Even women with the highest of qualifications are often hampered. The worst off are those whose hopes are raised with education and skills and then crushed when they realise that the men they are forced to marry or even choose to marry do not share their dreams.
One hopes some of this is changing in India. Rinki Bhattacharya's book is based on 20 years of research. The stories are already more than a decade old. It is possible that someone working on a similar book starting today would not come across such horror stories. But then they just might. For the violence continues. It is hidden, as it was in the past. And women continue to believe that things will improve, even if they are being abused and beaten. So they do not speak up, they try and tolerate the intolerable and they hope people close to them will not notice and will not ask. Essentially, very little has changed.