Does anybody care about what young Indian women want?

Does anybody care about what young Indian women want?


Does anybody care about what young Indian women want?

The aspirations of young women in the country are rendered invisible by mainstream Indian culture, says Nilanjana S Roy

What does young India want? At the launch of his sixth book, on just this subject, the popular author Chetan Bhagat offered an inadvertently revealing comment:“Naukri aur chokri” — jobs and girls.

“Today’s youth,” he said, “wants a good, well-paying job and a nice girlfriend in a decent urban city.”

Bhagat, whose five novels have sold far more briskly and consistently than most Indian writing in English, is widely credited with understanding the mind-set of young urban Indians. And yet his statement — like most of the essays in his new book, a collection of his journalism and nonfiction — reflected how easily the aspirations of young women are rendered invisible, not just by Bhagat, but by mainstream Indian culture. There was no reference in his speech to what the girls might want for themselves.

In a country where more than 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 35, most girls and women are still defined by one major life event — marriage. The most popular television soaps demonstrate this to the point of exhaustion. “Pavitra Rishta” is about a mother’s search for the perfect husband for her daughter, while “Balika Vadhu” follows the life of a young girl, married at the age of eight, trying to find an identity for herself as an adult.

“Bade Acche Lagte Hai”  plays on the old Indian standby of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dramas to explore the complex relationships in the new Indian household, but its focus remains steadily domestic. “Yeh Rishta Kya Kehalata Hai” examines the ups and downs of life in a young couple’s arranged marriage.

Ira Trivedi, a best-selling author who both holds an MBA and was a contestant in the Miss India beauty pageant, has some perspective to offer. “Marriage still remains of prime importance, family is still the central unit,” she said of her generation of young urban women. “Bollywood and TV — mass media in general — really shape their mores, especially when it comes to marriage and relationships.”

There is, Trivedi said, a lack of role models for young Indian women, especially those in their 20s. “They can’t look to their mothers, who had arranged marriages instead of the love marriages they want,” she said. “And they don’t have too many role models beyond Bollywood, or a few media figures, perhaps successful professionals like Chanda Kocchar,” the chief executive of ICICI Bank.

Some statistics reinforce Trivedi’s point. The starkest figure comes from the Central government’s National Family Health Survey, the largest survey of its kind. In 2009, it found that 47 per cent of Indian women were married by the age of 18. Many of these women have entered the paid work force, especially in urban India, but tend to look for jobs that will not interfere with family life.

The findings of another recent study, the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2011, conducted by Community Business, a nongovernment organisation, caused a few ripples of discomfort. Of the Asian countries surveyed, India had the lowest percentage of women in the work force, and they tended to drop out before reaching midlevel corporate positions. When the report was released, one of its co-authors, Shalini Mahtani, told reporters: “Culturally, Indian women are under the greatest pressure to get married at a young age.”

Marriage comes with pressures of its own. Aside from additional housework and child-rearing responsibilities, many  women also find themselves juggling the tensions and demands of a large extended family, or looking after family elders.

But the relative absence of role models and goals other than marriage can change rapidly. In a 2011 study of 495 villages in West Bengal, a team of researchers found that the presence of women in positions of power had a major, positive effect on girls’ aspirations and their family’s aspirations for them. In villages where there had been no female leaders, 86 per cent of parents wanted their daughters to be housewives or to let their in-laws decide what they should do. But in villages where a woman had been in charge for at least two election cycles, parents were far more likely to envision other possibilities for their daughters’ lives and careers, with just 66 per cent seeing their daughters in those traditional roles.

“I think there’ll be rapid change in another 10 years,” said Trivedi, pointing to another factor in changing ambitions — the number of women migrating from small towns and villages to large cities. “When women move away from their hometowns and their families, suddenly they’re in very open and anonymous workspaces. Marriage stays important, but their lives change, and open up, in other ways.”

What will young women want in 2022? The majority might still find themselves defined by marriage. But perhaps there will be a larger shift, and more of the chokris will want naukris of their own.