Maladies of God's Own Country

Maladies of God's Own Country

Like all good things, the so-called emancipation of women also comes at a cost. For many, it means curbing and tailoring their lives to fit into a pre-carved convention, even amidst success, writes Sreelekha Nair.

“We have purchasing power and can buy anything we want without the help of the family. The fact that we stay away from the family gives us a lot of autonomy. We decide our lifestyles and appearances, including what to wear. But in the eyes of the society, we are young women who are not controlled by the family. So many questions are raised about our characters. Since we stay far away from home, stories are woven around our lives. Many people even engage in moral policing.”

This is what Roshni, an IT professional working at Technopark in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, has to say about the social and cultural pressures, educated and empowered women like her have to contend with.

Roshni, a Keralite herself, stays in a rented accommodation close to her workplace.

Talented and hard working, she has managed to build a flourishing career for herself.

Yet, as far as social perceptions go, she is a woman whose attitudes and ways of life are a threat to the existing societal and gender norms.

Of course, Roshni is not the only female IT professional who is facing this situation today.

While the IT sector has been making news for revolutionising communication technology in India, this industry is fascinating not just for its contribution to technological modernisation, but for its impact on social institutions as well.

Globalisation processes seem to be changing the lives of IT workers and through them, values and lifestyles, previously alien to Indians, are making an entry. 

As per the ‘Women and ICT Status Report’ (2009), the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) industry has the power to transform the lives of millions of women, opening up a whole new world of career options to them.

But while this sector has been a major driver of economic and social growth globally and has especially unleashed the potential of women as knowledge workers in India, and particularly Kerala, their lives and work pose serious challenges to the traditional - and mostly orthodox - value systems and practices.

Double standards

Technopark employees come from different parts of India and exhibit a cosmopolitan character.

The women move freely in the evenings and they head for restaurants and cinemas with friends.

These practices have been creating a flutter among the locals who are rather conservative in their everyday lives.

Increased divorce rates among IT couples are blamed on the high income levels and lack of sexual morality and emotional integrity among women.

Meanwhile, men who are an equal party in such events are beyond such scathing allegations and remarks.

Factors like increased income, very active social networking that reduces the comparative importance of the otherwise primary relationships - spouse and children - and intimacy with group members in the work settings are held as the possible reasons for the chasm that is reported in large numbers among IT couples.

The local media also widely reports on the increased visibility of women employees in Technopark.

In fact, Malayalam TV channels regularly telecast stories about those breaking the barriers in the IT sector in Technopark in the prime time programming slot.

These women are, therefore, perceived as asserting themselves not just in their workplaces, but in their personal lives, too.

Lawyers in Thiruvananthapuram are handling a growing number of divorce cases involving Technopark engineers and they talk about the fact that the wives’ monthly earnings are fuelling the soaring divorce rates in such cases.

In certain cases, women IT professionals earn much more than their husbands and this
creates ego problems among men and their parents.

Men in the IT workforce may be sharing space and ideas with their smart and bright female colleagues but they, too, do not see them as ideal life partners.

Says a male IT professional working in one of the companies at Technopark, “I had made up my mind not to marry someone from my field. Of course, two salaries from IT are attractive and that pushes up one’s living standard. But I have been observing the issues with my classmate’s marriage. The question often is ‘who is bigger and who will command and who will obey’. The natural hierarchy of age and earning is absent and sometimes wives earn more. Does that mean that the man will be the wife? And husband is no more respected?”

Unfortunately, such responses are very common, indicating that the money is acceptable, but not the attitude changes of women that comes with it.

Though IT professionals in general – and not just women – have reported incidences of violence, in the form of physical attacks and mugging, sexual assault is directed exclusively at women.

Lonely stretches near the IT hub, which is located on the outskirts of the city, are a hotbed for these assaults.

Additionally, auto rickshaws fleece them even while travelling short distances; often, Technopark employees are made to pay much more than the other local residents.

The problem has become so acute that in order to deal with this threat, Technopark employees recently met with the state’s Home Minister and submitted a formal petition signed by the employees.

The likes of Roshni are part of a unique revolution, one that not only aims to create a more level-playing field for women as workers, but also seeks to establish them as equal partners in society.

But, for now, these women are paying a definite price for being active changemakers.

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