HER NAME IS ASPIRATION
OThe expanding service sector offered jobs to educated and young women and enabled them to think of their futures beyond the traditional roles of motherhood and homemakers.
n August 4, a 23- year- old woman, Geetika Sharma, committed suicide in her home in Delhi. Two days later, another young woman was found dead in her home in the town of Mohali, close to Chandigarh. The two incidents are not related but the individuals involved have several things in common. Apart from being “young” and “dead”, they were both associated with powerful and influential men. They are both dead because they were women and had had “bad” experiences with the two men. While the woman who died in Mohali had been briefly married to the son of a senior Haryana politician, the suicide note left behind by Geetika Sharma too indicates her being “manipulated” by the other powerful man.
The two women, in a sense, represent a new generation of Indians who grew up in the new India of the 1990s, where the expanding markets and service economy offered aspiring men and women opportunities beyond the conventional jobs in the public sector and government departments. The expanding service sector in particular offered a large variety of jobs to educated and young women and enabled them to think of their futures beyond the traditional roles of motherhood and homemakers.
The process of liberalisation initiated during the early 1990s was not merely about making the Indian economy more competitive. It also began a process of social transformation. India today is no longer imagined as a land of “village republics” and agriculture. It is the service economy and urban manufacturing that contribute most to the national income. The new economic order that linked India to the global economy in a much more intense mode also produced a new cultural order. The new cultural economy of commerce, commodities and consumption created aspiration for mobility and promised a new lifestyle that would provide comforts and dignity to those who worked hard irrespective of social position in the traditional order. Women who joined the new service economy not only went out to work and made friends based on their individual tastes but also brought home handsome salaries.
Apart from those from the metropolitan centres and middle classes, women from the lower middle classes coming from smaller towns and even rural areas entered a new life of working outside the home, often at odd hours. The new middle class family of urban India no longer looked at its daughters merely as paraye ghar ki mehman, a “guest” to be brought up for the house of her in- laws, where she assumed her final identity, that of a wife and a mother. The urban parents, even those from the relatively less prosperous economic backgrounds, have begun to look at their daughters differently. Notwithstanding conservative values and strong faith in the institution of family, very rarely do urban parents discriminate against their daughters when it comes to sending them to schools and colleges.
The new market economy also shapes social relations and aspirations. While a rapid growth of service sector creates demand for a variety of labour force, the growing culture of consumption and commodities creates new aspirations which encourage everyone to work and accomplish dreams. Nothing is more valuable in the consumer society than a good amount of disposable income. Everything seems achievable. India lives with contradictions. As the country grows richer, so do its contradictions.
The development of market economy during the 19th century in Western Europe that brought women into the newly emergent labour markets was also accompanied by a new democratic consciousness and the rise of women’s movements about their rights as citizens. In the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movements raised more fundamental questions about the relations of power in the private sphere. By the 1980s the West saw the rise of a new consciousness about women’s equality. The change was radical.
India too has had its feminist movements. The so- called autonomous women’s movements that emerged during the 1980s raised questions about the pervasive violence against women in the streets and at homes. They also raised questions about differential wages and rights of working women. Even when these movements were mostly led by the middle class urban women, they articulated concerns of different sections of Indian women. Women’s empowerment, as they argued, could happen only when the patriarchal mindset of the Indian society and the corresponding structure of social relations would change. However, the process of liberalisation and globalisation empowered women through the market. They raised aspirations and desire for participation and mobility. The question of politics of social relations seemed redundant. It is this absence of politics and blindness to the social structures of gender and patriarchy that produces the kind of urban and
“modern” society where young middle class women, despite being empowered, are much more vulnerable than they have ever been in the past.