Is “Woman” a Code Word?

We know it is so in America. Think back to 2008. Hillary Clinton was simply & unquestionably the most qualified candidate in the 2008 Presidential election. Her election would have fulfilled the dream of American women to have a Woman President, a Woman leader of the free world. Every woman writer, and activist should have given her soul to see Hillary win.

And she was a mainstream, winning candidate. Mrs. Clinton may have started weak, but in the final stretch she was on fire as a candidate. Think back to her decisive victories over Barack Obama in America’s industrial belt. She became the choice of America’s industrial workers, the same blue-collar workers who are routinely cast as chauvinist and retrograde by the American media.

Remember who were Mrs. Clinton’s most loud, vociferous, and emotionally intense detractors? America’s “women activists”, the same “activists” who claim to fight for Power for Women. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times was at her biting best when she was writing against Hillary Clinton in 2008. This was because Hillary Clinton was not the right kind of “woman” for America’s “women” activists. Now
Maureen Dowd herself has become a wrong “woman” to the same crowd. Why? Because she dared to criticize the near absence of women in President Obama’s 2013 cabinet.

Last year’s Presidential election also showed how specifically “coded” the word “Woman” has become. To President Obama’s campaign, the word “Woman” meant single women and that’s it. In contrast, the Republican convention showered attention on their definition of “Women” – married women with children.

This is “America’s Woman Problem” – the word “woman” has become a code word which does not stand for gender but a specific viewpoint of a collection of social groups.  This is just as true in India, only with greater intensity.

India has a powerful woman politician, a woman who single handedly broke the Communist party’s power in India’s Paschim Banga (formerly West Bengal) state. If there is a woman India’s women activists should admire, it is Mamata Banerjee, the fiery Chief Minister of Paschim Banga. Secretary Hillary Clinton flew to Kolkatta to meet Chief Minister Banerjee. But Mamata Banerjee gets the same treatment from India’s women groups that Hillary Clinton got from America’s women groups – not the right kind of “woman”.

And who is the right kind of  “woman in India” as far as these women’s groups are concerned? Probably Shreyasi Singh, the woman writer marketed with pride by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

“Woman” – a codeword of the English-educated class in India

In her article titled “How it feels to be a woman in India“, the writer, Shreyasi Singh, describes herself:

  • “I’m in my early 30s. I have a good job as an editor at a business magazine in New Delhi. I am fortunate enough to live in an upscale gated community in a Delhi suburb – the kind of place that shields you from the daily exasperations of India’s power, water, traffic and noise pollution woes. I don’t even have to drive myself anymore – like many who are comfortably off in India, I have a driver.” (emphasis ours).

Ms. Singh is probably is among 1/100 th of 1% of Indian women with these conveniences. You would think she would be happy to have a lifestyle that 99.99% of Indian women don’t have. On the contrary:

  • “I felt angry and almost ashamed to be Indian. What good is a growing
    economy or the world’s second largest military if half of the population
    can’t venture past their own doorstep without complete confidence?”

We wonder, does
Ms. Singh even know that 600-650 million Indians, the real half of India’s population, doesn’t even have running water or toilets?
These women & men have to “venture past their doorstep” every
morning to go to the fields just to take care of their bodily functions.
Does Ms. Singh realize that the first priority of India’s growing
economy has to be to bring running water, electricity to this half of
the population, to bring basic education so that their children can escape the deep poverty of their parents?

Does Ms. Singh
ever think about the men who make up the world’s second largest
military? Their mothers and wives live back in discomfort and make do on
an Indian soldier’s meager salary. These are the young men who stand
guard at India’s borders to ensure Ms. Singh’s safety. They are the ones
who fight against daily incursions from NonPak-istan based terrorists
who try to infiltrate into India to kill Indians. And they are the ones
who might have to give up their lives to protect Delhi and people like
Shreyasi Singh.

What about the women who are linked to her life? We mean the mother of her driver or his wife if he is married. Chances are her driver’s family cannot even afford to live in a half-decent area of Delhi. They are not “shielded” from lack of power, water or from ravages of inflation that make food more expensive by the day.

Ms. Singh’s family & her neighbors enjoy their exasperation-free lives because of the help of poor women or girls who work in their apartments to clean, wash and take care of young children. The culture of Delhi and probably of Ms. Singh doesn’t even think of household helper women as people or citizens of India with equal rights. No, they are just servants meant to serve Delhi’s upscale women.

This doesn’t make the writer, Ms. Shreyasi Singh, a bad, mean, or exploitative person. To her, they are simply not “women”. Their India is different and Ms. Singh’s India is different, or at least it should be different. Ms. Singh’s India should be free of troubles, troubles that make her ashamed to be Indian. What are these troubles?

  • “For a start, I don’t dare walk the few hundred feet to the nearby coffee shop near my home after 8 p.m. (Indeed, despite the wide, well-paved roads, it isn’t a pleasant walk at any time of the day).
  • Even more
    annoying, why does my cell phone have to buzz with an almost suffocating
    stream of text messages from my family checking when I’ll be home every
    time I’m out after 10 p.m. – even when I’m in a car with a driver that
    we trust?
  • And almost reflexively when on public transport, invisible antennae go up all over my body ready to sense the slightest unwanted touch or sign of harassment.”

These terrible trials and tribulations of Ms. Shreyasi Singh reminded us of Juliet Huddy, an anchor-reporter on the Fox Television network. We feel reasonably sure Ms. Huddy makes more money than Ms. Singh does as an editor in a Delhi. But Ms. Huddy doesn’t have a driver who chauffeurs her around so that she can avoid the exasperation of mingling with people of New York City. And Ms. Huddy is very angry about getting unwelcome physical attention in New York City subways as she told Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly in an emotional outburst.

But we are willing to guarantee, without knowing her, that Juliet Huddy will never feel or claim to be “ashamed to be American”. The real women of India, the mothers & wives of India’s soldiers, Ms. Singh’s driver and the household helper women that serve Ms. Singh are more like Juliet Huddy. They do not feel “ashamed to be Indian.”

No, the sense of being “ashamed to be Indian” is entirely a characteristic of women like Ms. Shreyasi Singh, a class of English-educated women who feel a tremendous sense of entitlement, the entitlement of having a European/American life style in Delhi without the exasperation of dealing with that poor Hindi-speaking India that is meant to serve without getting in their way. That is why Ms. Shreyasi Singh can write about “How it feels to be a woman in India” while enjoying a life far better than that of 99.9% percent of Indian women.

We see what her article says about Ms. Shreyasi Singh. What does it also say about Fareed Zakaria who thought so highly of Ms. Singh’s article that he posted it on his CNN blog and tweeted about it?

Editor’s Note: The earlier version of this article had two more sections which made it too long. Some smart & outspoken readers suggested those sections belonged in a separate article. Upon reflection, we concurred. We thank the readers for their candid feedback.

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