On Women’s Day

On why I’d choose to celebrate Women’s Day.

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In a world full of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and hated, it is important to celebrate. To choose celebration over hatred, everyday. It is also important for these celebrations to be universal and not be tied to a particular religion. It’s important they be celebrated with an open mind and in our own way, with no fear of divine consequences should we fail to do them in a particular way. And in a country where the female foetus is aborted, the girl child is starved at her brother’s expense and the sister kept home to do household chores while her brother goes to school, it’s all the more important for us to put aside celebrations and rituals that put the man up on a pedestal in his role as a brother or a husband, and choose to celebrate the woman for her inherent strength.

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Read the rest of this piece  on yowoto.

Mohalla mobs

Years ago I lived in the now infamous Khirki Extension. I had just begun work, couldn’t afford more and wanted to live in South Delhi. My brother had moved to the US and I was left without a flatmate. After living with a succession of girls who things didn’t work out with, I moved in with a childhood friend. It might have raised a few eyebrows at that time, but our families were comfortable with the arrangement and that is all that mattered to us. His grandmother was my grandmother’s mentor and friend. His mum and mine grew up together. And then, he and his sister and my brother and I. Three generations of friendship.

His mother figured her son would be kept on the straight and narrow now that he had me as his flatmate. I’m known to be quite a prude and very determined. My mother was grateful that I wasn’t a single girl out in Delhi, alone. We got along like a house on fire, had the same friends circle, worked in the same office and had many of the same interests. In fact, he was one of the first to notice the OA’s growing interest in me and teased me mercilessly about him.

The OA would often drop by to visit us, as did our other friends. While there was no loud music or drugs, we did enjoy our little get together. They never ended well, though. We’d walk our guests out, only to find that all their tyres had been deflated. No, they were not parking in anybody else’s spot, but far out.

It’s difficult to explain the concept of Delhi’s many villages to those who haven’t seen them. Khirki was lal dora land. A maze of lanes, squiggly streets, piles of rubble, pink, green, purple houses decorated like confectionery, haphazard parking, houses built cheek by jowl, precluding any trace of privacy, paper thin walls, rooms built like train coaches so that you had to walk through one to get to the other, dingy shafts that hummed with the sound of pigeons cooing and smelled of their shit.

There were empty plots scattered across this mess that most of us used as visitor parking. We’d invariably stand around the car and stare in dismay at the four deflated tyres, while sanctimonious neighbours would stand at their windows, glaring at us, challenging us to take it up with them. There was nothing to be done of course. There was no way to pinpoint the culprit – if there were only one.

If it were too late we’d have the owner of the vehicle stay back at our place, else the boys would chivalrously roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Our landlord was a sweet old grandfatherly gentleman who either assumed we were husband and wife, or didn’t care, because we paid our rent on time, kept the house well and didn’t create a nuisance. He lived on the floor above and would painfully take the stairs, stopping to pant after every second one. Often he’d sit down at my doorstep to catch his breath and if I happened to see him, I’d invite him in. He always refused, but would smile and say – How hard you work, beta. My wife is fast asleep – always is!

I worked with a news channel, so there were shifts. I’d often walk back late at night because the car would drop me at the top of the main road and I’d negotiate the lanes by myself. I look back and wonder how my parents let me do it, but I guess that is what makes me the person I am today.

Khirki was rumoured to be full of ISI agents, plotting, planning, building bombs. We never saw anything to confirm that rumour but it was a running joke that they were too busy plotting about blowing up parliament to bother with us. They’d get their 72 virgins there and weren’t interested in women like us. We were probably haraam!  The streets were full of  young people coming back from work, TV channels, call centre agents. We’d just fall in line with any group headed into the dark lanes and walk home. Oh no, it wasn’t the ISI agents we were bothered by.

It was the local men of the village who were the real problem. Young single boys who thought of us as fair prey, waiting for their mothers to move out of view so that they could pucker up at us. Married men who would step out to pick up groceries and far from their wives’ watchful eyes leer, stare, pass comments. Often the outsiders, the boys who were renting apartments just like us, would defend, support, or simply walk up to the girls and chaperone them to their doorsteps. They were far from home, too. They knew what it was like to be alone. They worked alongside women in their offices and knew that the fact that we were single girls in jeans didn’t mean we were fair game/cheap/anything the local guys imagined.

The months went by and then one night I was fast asleep when I heard a noise at my door. Banging, shouting, abusing. I rushed to the door, to see that my flatmate had already got there. There were a bunch of drunken men outside, screaming abuse. I peeped out of the window and recognised the familiar faces. The guy who lived across the road and often stood at the door scratching his belly over a cup of tea. The creep two floors above him. The bearded guy who always stood at the chai shop down the road and stared. They’d united over a bottle I suppose and demanded that I come out.

I remember the look on my friend’s face as he went out to talk sense into them. I remember them getting violent. I remember rushing out to stand by him. I remember him hurrying back in, because it was the only way to keep me indoors and safe. I remember him barricading the door as best as he could, knowing he was the only buffer between me and those louts.

Those lovely, self respecting middle class men who believed I had the morals of an alley cat because I was sharing a flat with a man I wasn’t married to. Who believed that if I was his wife, I should be home cooking for him, coming out in my nightwear with a dupatta covering my modesty, only to bargain loudly and rudely with the subji wala. That I should  not be working odd hours and wearing sleeveless kurtas. Who were sure this was a den of vice where we solicited men and sold drugs. Who believed that the way to deal with this ‘problem’ was to get drunk and scream filthy abuse at my door.

Their wives stood at their doors and watched openly. Their eyes filled with hatred and distrust of the other. They didn’t like their husbands staring at us girls, and this was one way to get back at us.

The show raged on for more than an hour and we didn’t call the police, because we needed to live there. We couldn’t antagonise the neighbours further unless we had other options. My poor old landlord shuffled down and begged them to leave. He didn’t want to lose a good tenant either. Thankfully they ran out of steam and went home. I sobbed through the night, in terror and shock and anger.

It was the first and last time it happened to me, because I casually let slip in the morning to my maid (who the neighbouring housewives had been persuading to quit my place because it was a den of vice) that I was planning to lodge a complaint with the police and would call in my TV channel to report, if I was harassed again. Maids love to gossip, the message was put across.

When the recent raid on Nigerians and Ugandans made the headlines, I knew that the nosy, moralising residents were at it again – and this isn’t endemic to this area – happens all over the country. Never mind that the cigarette shops sell Madhur Munakka packets for a few rupees, ensuring that most of the much married men roam around in a drug induced haze. Never mind that they get drunk and harass single girls. Oh no… only they are allowed to create a nuisance there. Only they are allowed to set moral standards. Anyone not meeting their rather dubious standards of morality is at the receiving end of such mohalla committees. What next? Set up a khap panchayat under a tree and order the women raped while their men watch. Something like this poor girl who fell in love outside of her caste and was raped by 20 men on the orders of the village elders. Put yourself in her place and ask yourself if you want to be at the receiving end of such mohalla, majority justice.

I find this form of mohalla moral policing, the xenophobia and the misogyny, outrageous – particularly because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’m sorry I supported the new regime, if this is the way things are going to turn out. We wanted a more lawful regime. Not one where women are dragged out of cars at night, not allowed to use the bathroom, not arrested with a warrant, no lady police officer present. How is this any different from what a rather despised party in Maharashtra behaves around Marine Drive and Valentine’s Day?

I leave you with a piece by Aastha Chauhan.  

And one by Kavita Krishnan who I greatly admire.

Rage.

I’m hopping out of the car and rushing across the street to the ATM. A motorbike whooshes too close and I jump back, only to realise it was deliberate. He’s singing a love song and leering, turning back and singing to me. Me. Does he know I have two little children sitting in the car behind me, one waiting to have his injured head tended to? Does he realise I have a full day and a full life that he is thrusting himself into, uninvited, and upsetting?

I can’t chase him with my bad knee so I smile and beckon to him with one finger, seductively. He’s shocked. It’s broad daylight and this woman is responding to him in a busy, conservative area of town. He slows down and slowly turns the bike around, unable to believe his luck. I’m waiting for him to get closer – I can’t believe my luck either.

And then, because I’ve never done this before, the mask slips and he sees the rage in my eyes. The bike sways as he frantically jams brakes, turns around and drives away. I drop all pretence and yell – Come back. Come closer and sing to me if you have the guts, you asshole. All I have to fight with is a wallet in my hand and a heart burning with rage. Such impotence is frustrating. He only sang a song and leered, but I’m tired of this crap.

To him, and maybe to others, it was just a man singing at me. But I am 35, I have two kids, I thought I was way past the stage where I would have ruffians on the road serenading me. At another time I might have been less outraged but I had a terrified child in the car, my heart was in my mouth as we headed to have his stitches removed (ah, yes, the Brat hurt his head on a train journey –  stitches were taken out today). My mind was with him. I didn’t have the mindspace to deal with this intrusion. I had a right to only focus on my terrified son at that moment. I’m tired of this being considered ‘merely’ eve teasing because it ruins the entire day for me.

Hopefully he’ll think twice before he sings to some unsuspecting old woman next time. And hopefully the next time I’ll get close enough to grab him by the collar, punch him in the face – and if I find the rage and the strength, kill the bastard.

They’re talking of the growing rage among men, more violent assaults, more violent rapes. Well, there’s a growing rage among women too and I for one, am so ready to unleash it. God help the next man that messes with me.

Members of the cat family

Years ago I wrote a post on the taboo surrounding miscarriages. Over the years I’ve spoken about my own experience with other taboo issues like CSA, Child Sexual Abuse, molestation, and so much more. I don’t think I’ve been able to articulate exactly why I do this, other than the fact that I’m tired of the secrecy that shrouds everything that has anything to do with women.

Why is it that our sanitary napkins have to be wrapped in newspaper and disposed of ‘discreetly’. It’s not that we go around decorating our front door with them. Why are stained sheets and underwear whisked away and quickly washed before anyone realises what happened? Why do we not talk about a pregnancy until the first three months are over? So what if there is a chance of miscarrying? So what if we lose a baby? We lose older family members who have been a part of our lives – grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, all the time. That is never a secret. In fact we call up, text, mail and inform people far and wide of the loss. So why is the inability of the womb to carry through a pregnancy, such a hush hush issue? Oh, btw, I think I miscarried (ectopic pregnancy, didn’t know about it, glad the decision was taken out of my hands) around the Bean’s birthday two years ago – I think that is why I didn’t post about her birthday. No, I didn’t go to the hospital. Just lay in bed almost bleeding to death until someone called a doctor home and the OA rushed from work. I didn’t go for a procedure after it either. I just lay in bed, convinced that the body would take care of itself given time and rest. I’m still here, two years later so I think we’re doing okay.

Anyhow, getting on with more important matters, I read a fantastic piece on Kafila today ( I love that website anyway) and had to share it with you. Someone far more articulate than I will ever be, has explained the phenomenon. Am highlighting a few of the things she says. Please go over and read the piece by Anupama Mohan when you can.

“I teach a big word in my critical theory classes: phallogocentrism. It is the idea that our societies are centred by the phallus and language (logos) and is a word that often scares, perplexes, and disturbs my students, but I unpack it using an example. In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb.”

“So, how do we take the war to phallogocentrism? We begin, I think, by first acknowledging it as part of our everyday practices. Many people have been recently talking about “rape culture,” a phrase that disturbs me even as I recognize that what is being indicated is “phallogocentric culture” where the lingam is worshipped, women keep fasts for men’s welfare or for being blessed with a (good) husband, hide their faces, menstruation, pregnant bellies, abortions, and indeed, run the gamut of their social lives from one threshold to the next and the next, hiding various parts of themselves, physical and emotional. The focus on women as worthy of respect because they are mothers, sisters, and wives is almost always a ploy to constrain women within social identities where their “roles” are defined by and understood in relief from the normative male paradigm. This doesn’t mean that mothers, sisters, and wives are bad things to be, but it does point to the fact that in these roles, women are safest, most worthy, and most valuable to our societies.”

Also, do read this piece by Veena Venugopal. Where she talks about the denial of the existence of female desire. In some ways connected to piece above. A woman must be pure and have no desire. She must merely submit to beastly male desire. Oh well, anyone who knows this blog knows well by now that I have no such qualms. If Farhan Akhtar or Will Smith happen by, I’ll be happy to show them what female desire looks like, upfront and close!

A few days ago the Brat asked me, ‘Mama, can I call you a puma?”

Me: Erm, sure – but why?

Brat: Because Pumas are the best mothers in the cat family and you’re the best human mother there is.

Me: Oh well in that case :D

I put it up on FB and Diptakirti who exists for only two reasons – to obsess over Bollywood (have you read his book Kitnay Aadmi Thay? No? How could you not?!!) and annoy me, asked ‘Is Cougar next (hee hee)?’

I thought about it and while I hate stereotypes and terms of this sort, I’m happy this term came into existence. Happy that this sort of female desire is acceptable. That women no longer seek out merely the security of an older man but are happy to have their fun and move on – just like men traditionally have. That it’s common enough for there to be a term for it.

For years the woman has merely been a Puma. A loving mother. One who submits to her husband until the deed is done and then focuses on rearing her child, the milk of maternal love quenching all other desire (if she had any to begin with). If at all we compare her again, it is to a tigress protecting her young. As her young grow, she is meant to turn to God and community service while the old wily foxy man continues to mate and breed. Centuries have gone by and only now are we willing to accept that a woman can be a cougar, might want to be one too. More power to them cougars I say.

And on that (I’m sure, rather scandalous) note, have a good week you all.

That girl on the bus

I looked up from my books only when the librarian began to make shooing noises. About time anyway, I thought. My head was aching, my eyes burning and my body exhausted by all the last minute cramming. Quickly putting my papers together I picked up my denim backpack. At 17, heading off to college, I’d wanted a new backpack, just like I had at the beginning of every school year. It was covered in graffiti; lyrics from songs by Metallica, Sepultura, Anthrax, Iron Maiden and decorated with graveyards, skulls, all drawn by my brother and my friends. So that I didn’t miss them too much, they said.

I’d stayed on in the library after classes and most of my regular companions had left much earlier. For once I would have to take the bus alone and as I walked out I realised with a shock that it was dark. It was early spring and the weather unpredictable. I looked at my navy churidar, thin white kameez and chiffon dupatta; woefully inadequate once the sun set and the chill came in. I loved this particular hand embroidered kameez, more so because Ma had embroidered if for me.

Wrapping the dupatta tightly around me I hurried to the bus stop and caught my regular bus pretty soon. I soon got a seat and settled into a corner, my bag arranged over my chest protectively, to avoid roving hands. I’d been awake all night studying and then up early in the morning for college, very short on sleep. The bus rattled on and I gave in to my fatigue, fading in and out of sleep.

I woke up to find myself in a strange part of town. Obviously I’d slept through my stop, I realised in horror. Getting off at the next bus stop I began to to make inquiries about getting home. This was in the good old days when blue lines and chartered buses ran in equal numbers. The only way to ensure you were getting on to the right bus was by listening carefully to the conductor rattle off the route, none of which sounded like anything on earth unless you paid close attention.

India Gate, I asked him? He nodded. I hopped on. I had very little money on me and I couldn’t afford the indulgence of an auto every time it got late.

By now it was really late and dark and I had no fucking clue as to where I was. My head began to ache more. The bus trundled down unfamiliar roads and I felt the panic rise. This was not the age of cell phones. My parents, far away in a small town, saved every rupee to send me to the best college in the country. My brother would start college next year and money was scarce. We couldn’t afford daily long distance calls and if I got lost, no one would know I was missing for a long, long time. I used to be the praying kind in those days, and so I prayed.

Soon the bus did turn on to a road I was familiar with. Vaguely.

And then I realised my mistake. In my nervousness I had only asked the conductor if it passed India Gate. I hadn’t clarified which end of the huge circle I needed to be. And anyone who has lived in Delhi and is familiar with the area will know what a walk that would mean.

The crowd had thinned out and then before I could even decide what to do, the bus turned off into one of the radials. Collecting my belongings and my wits, I walked up to the conductor and asked him where it was off to. Why, its regular route of course, he said. This is where the depot lay and where it would terminate.

Oh, my face fell. I needed to be on the other side of India Gate. By now it was 9 pm and the streets were deserted. I could get off and walk, I thought. Except that it was cold and dark and my lack of sense of direction was legendary.

Why not wait, said the conductor. ‘We have to sign in at the bus depot and show that we completed our route in time. After that we will drop you home.’

It’s a testament to how young, innocent, tired, desperate and foolish I was, that I agreed nervously. It seemed like a better option to walking back down the lonely road in the dark, not knowing which was the correct radial to take to go back home, encountering all sorts of people on the road.

They stopped at the bus depot and got off to do their official business. I sat on the first seat, a stone statue. I began to count every mistake I’d made since the day began. From getting little sleep, to studying too late in the library, to dropping off because of exhaustion. Yes, victim blaming usually begins at home.

Around me was darkness. A few other buses were parked in the dark. Rough voices shouted out to each other. I held back my terrified tears. The conductor’s head popped in the door and asked, Would I like some tea; it was a cold night.

‘No thank you, I don’t drink tea.’ I really didn’t want to offend him but I wasn’t allowed to drink tea while growing up and hadn’t grown into the habit after leaving home.

Ah, you must be a Christian, he said sagely.

H-h-how did you guess, I managed.

Because Christians don’t let their children get into tea-coffee habits, he pronounced.

And then he walked off and got himself and the driver a cup of tea. While they drank it they chatted with me about what I was studying and where I was from. He told me about his daughter, also doing her BA so that she could better herself. She too often had to travel back alone from college. Considering I was at their mercy to get home, I couldn’t think of any other polite option so I kept up my end of the conversation.

They finished their tea, paid up and then true to their word, drove me not just to the street I lived on but as close to my residence as the bus was allowed.

I got off the bus, my knees weak with relief and waved them goodbye.

Years later a much older girl got on to a bus on a busy Delhi street, at around the same time of night. She was with a companion, yet she got brutally raped and died.

She shouldn’t have been out so late they said. They shouldn’t have got on to a chartered bus they said. They shouldn’t have stayed on the bus when they realised there were no other passengers, they say.

I’ve spent a lot of the last month fighting these battles online. Trying to do everything I can to spread awareness. To stop the victim blaming. Because as a wise woman once said, when you blame the victim, you are defending the rapist.

Have you ever looked at it that way? Every time you think she should have avoided going out late, she should have taken an auto, she should have, she should have, she should have, you’re missing the point. It’s not what she should have. It’s what he SHOULDN’T have.

SHE and WE are just regular women trying to make our way in the world. We’ve all been educated by our parents in the hope that we’ll make something of ourselves. We work the same hours and then carry the same weary bodies back home on the same crowded buses that men do. The only difference is the way in which we hold our bodies. Arms folded against our chests, heads down, bag held defensively.

We all have the same series of events leading up to bad days. Late nights, working too hard, long days, missed buses and exhaustion that leads to us making that one mistake. Getting off at the wrong place, getting on the wrong bus, trusting the wrong people. Sometimes the only difference lies in that one mistake, taking that day from simply bad, to fatal.

The truth is, we can’t just sit home now. We’ve tasted freedom and independence, and we’re hooked. We’ve come too far to turn back now. We can’t live our lives cowering in fear. We cannot be stifled or restricted. We cannot be sheltered any longer. If I must live my life in fear and depend on my husband or brother to take me out, I shouldn’t have wasted my time getting an education. I should have just stayed home and stuck to cooking and cleaning. Why this false sense of equality where education is concerned when we can’t take that education and equality and make something of it? When we’re constantly being chaperoned or else at risk?

I urge you all, don’t stay home in fear. Step out. Fill the streets. Let them know they can’t push us back in. Let them grow used to seeing us out and about. Make it safer for yourself as well as the other girls simply trying to get home. From office, from a club, from hospital, from the airport. We’re living the same lives that men are. We have a right to the same safety they have. They just don’t want to see it yet. Someday they will.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I got this link via BEV. This is Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivering the keynote at Barnard College’s 119th Commencement ceremony. I watched it a couple of times and figured I’d share the transcript in case you are interested. Am going to italicise and number the portions that I want to talk about.

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Thank you, President Spar. Members of the board of trustees, esteemed members of the faculty, proud parents, squirming siblings, devoted friends: congratulations to all of you. But especially, congratulations to the magnificent Barnard Class of 2011.

Looking at you all here fills me with great joy, in part because my college roommate, a member of your faculty, Caroline Weber, is here. Carrie, it means so much to me to be at your school, and in part because I work in Silicon Valley, let’s just say I’m not usually in a room with this many women. For the wonderful men who are here today, if you feel a little uncomfortable, we’re really glad you’re here, and no line for the men’s room. It’s worth it.

I graduated from college exactly 20 years ago. And as I am reminded every single day where I work, that makes me really old. Mark Zuckerberg, our founder and my boss, said to me the other day, “Sheryl, when do midlife crises happen? When you’re 30?” Not a good day at the office. But I am old enough to know that most of our lives are filled with days we do not remember. Today is not one of them. You may not remember one word I say. You may not even remember who your graduation speaker is, although for the record, Sheryl with an S. You won’t remember that it was raining and we had to move inside. But you will remember what matters, which is how you feel as you sit here, as you walk across the stage, as you start the next phase of your life.

Today is a day of celebration, a day to celebrate all the hard work that got you to this place where you can sit, kind of sweltering in that gown. Today is a day of thanks, a day to thank all the people that helped you get here, the people who nurtured you and taught you, who held your hand, who dried your tears. Today is a day of reflection.

As you leave Barnard today, you leave not just with an education, but you take your place amongst the fortunate. Some of you came here from families where education was expected and emphasized. Others of you had to overcome far more obstacles to get here, and today you become the very first member of your family to graduate from college. What an amazing accomplishment. But no matter where you started, as of today you are all privileged. You are privileged in the most important sense of the word, which is that you have almost boundless opportunity in front of you. So, the question is, what are you going to do with it? What will you do with this education you worked so hard to achieve? What in the world needs to change, and what part do you plan on playing in changing it? (1)

Pulitzer Prize winners Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof visited this campus last year and they spoke about their critically important book, Half the Sky. In that book, they assert that the fundamental moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery; of the 20th century, it was totalitarianism; and for our century, it is oppression of girls and women around the world. Their book is a call to arms, to give women all over the world, women who are exactly like us except for the circumstances into which they were born, basic human rights.

Compared to these women, we are lucky. In America, as in the entire developed world, we are equals under the law. But the promise of equality is not equality. As we sit here looking at this magnificent blue-robed class, we have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world. Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.

I recognize that this is a vast improvement from generations in the past. When my mother took her turn to sit in a gown at her graduation, she thought she only had two career options: nursing and teaching. She raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her. But what is so sad–it doesn’t just make me feel old, it makes me truly sad–is that it’s very clear that my generation is not going to change this problem. Women became 50% of the college graduates in this country in 1981, 30 years ago. Thirty years is plenty of time for those graduates to have gotten to the top of their industries, but we are nowhere close to 50% of the jobs at the top. (2) That means that when the big decisions are made, the decisions that affect all of our worlds, we do not have an equal voice at that table.

So today, we turn to you. You are the promise for a more equal world. You are our hope. I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.

So my hope for all of you here, for every single one of you, is that you’re going to walk across the stage and get your diploma. You’re going to go out tonight or maybe all summer and celebrate. You deserve it. And then you’re going to lean way into your career. You’re going to find something you love doing, and you’re going to do it with gusto. You’re going to pick your field and you’re going to ride it all the way to the top.

So, what advice can I give you to help you achieve this goal? The first thing is I encourage you to think big. Studies show very clearly that in our country, in the college-educated part of the population, men are more ambitious than women. They’re more ambitious the day they graduate from college; they remain more ambitious every step along their career path. We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap. (3) But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now, if every single one of you leans in. Leadership belongs to those who take it. Leadership starts with you.

The next step is you’re going to have to believe in yourself potentially more than you do today. Studies also show that compared to men, women underestimate their performance. If you ask men and women questions about completely objective criteria such as GPAs or sales goals, men get it wrong slightly high; women get it wrong slightly low. More importantly, if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other factors like working harder, help from others. (4) Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, “I got lucky. All of these great people helped me. I worked really hard.” Ask a man and he’ll say or think, “What a dumb question. I’m awesome.” So women need to take a page from men and own their own success.

That’s much easier to say than to do. I know this from my own experience. All along the way, I’ve had all of those moments, not just some of the time; I would say most of the time, where I haven’t felt that I owned my success. I got into college and thought about how much my parents helped me on my essays. I went to the Treasury Department because I was lucky to take the right professor’s class who took me to Treasury. Google, I boarded a rocket ship that took me up with everyone else.

Even to this day, I have those moments. I have those moments all the time, probably far more than you can imagine I would. I know I need to make the adjustments. I know I need to believe in myself and raise my hand, because I’m sitting next to some guy and he thinks he’s awesome. So, to all of you, if you remember nothing else today, remember this: You are awesome. I’m not suggesting you be boastful. No one likes that in men or women. But I am suggesting that believing in yourself is the first necessary step to coming even close to achieving your potential.

You should also know that there are external forces out there that are holding you back from really owning your success. Studies have shown–and yes, I kind of like studies–that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This means that as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them less.(5)

I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I first joined Facebook, there was a well-read blog out in the Valley that devoted some incredibly serious pixels to trashing me. Anonymous sources called me a liar, two-faced, about to ruin Facebook forever. I cried some when I was alone, I lost a bunch of sleep. Then I told myself it didn’t matter. Then everyone else told me it didn’t matter, which just reminded me of one thing: they were reading it too. I fantasized about all kinds of rejoinders, but in the end, my best and only response was just to do my job and do it well. When Facebook’s performance improved, the trash talk went away.

Do I believe I was judged more harshly because of my double-Xs? Yes.(6) Do I think this will happen to me again in my career? Sure. I told myself that next time I’m not going to let it bother me, I won’t cry. I’m not sure that’s true. But I know I’ll get through it. I know that the truth comes out in the end, and I know how to keep my head down and just keep working.

If you think big, if you own your own success, if you lead, it won’t just have external costs, but it may cause you some personal sacrifice. Men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment. That’s because the majority of housework and childcare still falls to women. If a heterosexual couple work full time, the man will do–the woman, sorry–the woman will do two times the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare that her husband will do.(7) From my mother’s generation to mine, we have made far more progress making the workforce even than we have making the home even, and the latter is hurting the former very dramatically. So it’s a bit counterintuitive, but the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further. A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.

I have a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. I want more choices for both of them. I want my son to have the choice to be a full partner not just at work, but at home; and I want my daughter to have a choice to do either. But if she chooses work, to be well-liked for what she accomplishes. We can’t wait for the term “work/life balance” to be something that’s not just discussed at women’s conferences.

Of course not everyone wants to jump into the workforce and rise to the top. Life is going to bring many twists and turns, and each of us, each of you, have to forge your own path. I have deep respect for my friends who make different choices than I do, who choose the really hard job of raising children full time, who choose to go part time, or who choose to pursue more nontraditional goals. These are choices that you may make some day, and these are fine choices.

But until that day, do everything you can to make sure that when that day comes, you even have a choice to make. Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.

These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it. (8) Everyone I know who has voluntarily left a child at home and come back to the workforce–and let’s face it, it’s not an option for most people. But for people in this audience, many of you are going to have this choice. Everyone who makes that choice will tell you the exact same thing: You’re only going to do it if your job is compelling.

If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.

What about the rat race in the first place? Is it worthwhile? Or are you just buying into someone else’s definition of success? Only you can decide that, and you’ll have to decide it over and over and over. But if you think it’s a rat race, before you drop out, take a deep breath. Maybe you picked the wrong job. Try again. And then try again. Try until you find something that stirs your passion, a job that matters to you and matters to others. It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.(9)

At Facebook we have a very broad mission. We don’t just want you to post all your pictures of tonight up there and use Facebook to keep in touch, even though we want that, so do a lot of that. We want to connect the whole world. We want to make the whole world more open and more transparent. The one thing I’ve learned working with great entrepreneurs–Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google–that if you want to make a difference, you better think big and dream big, right from day one.

We try at Facebook to keep all of our employees thinking big all day. We have these posters in red we put around the walls. One says, “Fortune favors the bold.” Another says, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” That question echoes Barnard alum Anna Quindlen, who said that she majored in unafraid. Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face–and there will be barriers–be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold, and I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. (10)

You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. Like everyone here, I have great hopes for the members of this graduating class. I hope you find true meaning, contentment and passion in your life. I hope that you navigate the hard times and you come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope that whatever balance you seek, you find it with your eyes wide open. And I hope that you–yes, you–each and every one of you have the ambition to run the world, because this world needs you to run it. Women all around the world are counting on you. I’m counting on you.

I know that’s a big challenge and responsibility, a really daunting task, but you can do it. You can do it if you lean in. So go home tonight and ask yourselves, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” And then go do it. Congratulations, 2011.

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So… ladies and gentlemen. Let us discuss. 40 marks for theory and 60 marks on the practicals :p

1. What will you do with your education and how will you change your world? I find this one a rather loaded question. How do you define change and how do you define world? I do agree Facebook has changed the world but the more I look around the more I see most of us plodding on in meaningless jobs and wait – they are meaningless not to me, but to those who hold them. Always whining about how they hate the job but must do it. Are you truly using your education and changing the world? Think about it.

2. We’ve heard this one often enough. We already know the reason. Yes, 50% of women should have the top jobs and there is a glass ceiling that most women don’t have the strength to take on. Mostly because at any given time there is so much else to do that men aren’t handling – missing maids, in-laws, sick children, husbands who don’t pull their share of weight at home. Nothing is impossible – but at some point juggling all those balls in the face of so much opposition gets too much.

3. Very true. Only two days ago a rather slim girl I was talking to, said something to the effect of – I only need to stay slim till I get married. I was shocked. This was the height of her ambition. No job, not even a personal desire to stay fit. Why do we expect so little of ourselves. I often have people telling me that I try to fit too much into a day. And I guess this is my personal ambition. To do everything. Maybe not be the best at one particular thing because then you have to focus on it. But to die, knowing that I have tried everything I wanted and fitted it all into my life. Choose your ambition, I’d say. And don’t let anyone else define it for you. Not even Sheryl Sandberg. If you studied literature because it interested you and not because you wanted to be a professor or writer, that is fine. But if you do want to be that professor, don’t let anyone get in the way. Not even yourself.

4. True this, too. The moment people compliment me on a well kept house or slow tracking my career for the kids or something, I instinctively get uncomfortable with the praise and start dragging the OA in for his share saying – Oh, I’d never have done it without his support or some such shit. I should just grin and say  Thank you. And I will, starting today. Similarly, read an interview with any of the biggest names in the corporate world and they will all tell you how their inlaws helped raise the kids, their husband stayed home when they were travelling etc. How many men will tell you who attended the PTA meeting while they were jet setting? And last of all, the SAHMs too. Compliment them on their choice and they will promptly smile and say they can afford to it because their husband is earning enough. The truth is, there is never enough. These women would have made the same choice even if their husband were earning more or less (as would I) because this is the person they are. But we are still too reluctant to stand up, accept our due, and be proud of our choices, our strength and our achievements.

5 & 6. This one never fails to bother me. Why are powerful women less liked? Is it because traditionally women are not meant to be in positions of power? What about people like the Rani of Jhansi or Razia Sultana? Were they hated too? Is it because strong women aren’t feminine? Is it because women are meant to be feminine as opposed to strong and masterful? Are feminine and strong mutually exclusive? What is feminine? Are we still defining it? Why do even men, let M&Bs define roles for them?

7. Much though I love the OA I must confess he didn’t do half the housework I did when I was working and we were in Delhi. On the other hand, I’d already taken a flexible job and sort of set myself up to be the one point person for everything anyway. So I blame myself. I should have gone to work and let the house fall around our ears, let him come home to no meals, piles of laundry, inches of dirt and more. But I think a lot of this is to do with the fact that homes are still defined by women. He grew up in a tiny 2 bhk that was functional at best. I grew up in a house spread across acres, with brass and silver shining and wooden floors that a man spent a day polishing, with napkins and butlers and a head cook and two gardeners. Even if the OA made his peace with the filth I allowed to build up, I couldn’t have dealt with it. To say nothing of the fact that my kids would be growing up in that mess and dirt. It might have been easier before we had kids. We’ve worked ourselves into a corner and now we need to push out. But with the way work hours are in India its not easy. The OA is rarely home before 8.30 and living in Gurgaon has just made it impossible to have any semblance of work and life balance. If I go to fulltime work our kids will be raised solely by hired help and our home will go to rack and ruin. Which brings us back to the first question – what really is my ambition?

8. So true this one. The first time I quit my job to move with the OA it was because he earned more than me. But I should never have let that be the definer. A job and a career is what it is, and who earns more should never be the question. But I reminded myself that I wanted kids, that I wanted out of Bombay’s rains and small homes so that my kids could have a lawn to play in and if that meant quitting, I’d do it. As she said, I leaned back when I should have been leaning in. We had the Brat a year later – but I am no longer sure what I should have done. I know kids are raised in all parts of the world but I stepped back thinking already, not of myself even, but the fact that my children should grow up with wide open spaces to run about in.

9. Find something that combines passion and contribution. Now again – contribution is hard to define. Are you contributing to society by raising your kids well? I think you are. If you feel you are the best suited for it and no maid or daycare, more power to you. Are you passionate about it? Great. Do you think you will excel at your job? Go right ahead and excel – but find one that you are passionate about.

10. Never let fear overwhelm desire. You hear this often but how often do you identify fear for what it is. We find excuses for a lot of our choices, we justify, but we refuse to accept that we were unwilling to take that one brave step into the unknown. A good friend still tells me she let go of the man she loved because she was scared he wouldn’t earn enough. At that point (when she was making the choice and I was urging her to follow her heart) she kept on about the importance of keeping your family happy, tradition, keeping culture alive blah blah. And married a man her parents chose. They’re okay today. Like all couples married ten years they know each other well, are good human beings so make the effort to keep their marriage going and have kids they focus on. But we have long chats over coffee and things pop up – fear that she would have nowhere to go if things didn’t work out, fear that her parents would hate her, fear that he wouldn’t earn enough to support her in the style she is accustomed to – mostly though, she hadn’t been taught to trust herself. She didn’t trust herself with such a big choice. Isn’t that sad? In the midst of all this I want to remember to teach my kids to trust their choices and their instincts.

I love the last line and I ask all of you – What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Give me an honest answer.

On working women and feminism

Do you remember this post on working women that I did a while ago?  You know, the one where my head caught fire over the whole – ‘don’t discuss feminine problems at work and don’t use your child’s photo as your screensaver’? Well, Dipta (yeah, whoulda thunk it?!) sent me this piece by Rashmi Bansal. I know a lot of you love to hate her, but I do like her work.

I much prefer her thinking to the Jessie Paul way of thinking because it fits what I’d want for my life. I don’t want to neuter myself at the work place. I want to have it all and I want it my own way because I am worth it. A nice example she gives is of film stars taking their kids and nannies on location. In the Indian context, as she points out, it is affordable because househelp is cheap.

And I’ve done it without househelp too. I’ve taken a 2 month old Brat, strapped to my chest, on location to interview filmstars. I’ve taken him along while interviewing for a flexitime position, again, hanging on my chest. I am a mother before I am an employee – always. My family is important. I am ready to do all the work you want me to – just – on my own terms. And perhaps I will come back to a regular rigid corporate day when I am ready. Or maybe, just maybe, I will be a small part of a huge social change waiting to happen.

Before anyone objects, no, I am not suggesting we all take our babies to work and lay them out on the desk. Merely saying that we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do and let our work speak for itself. Whatever that flexibility might be, we’ve got to demand it and then deliver on what we promise.

I read something at Prema’s place some time ago.  She calls it selective feminism. Why, she asks very rightly, is it that only women choose to adjust for the family’s sake? I don’t know. I gave it some thought. Are we more nurturing? Less ambitious? Is it conditioning? Yes, to a large extent it is. I guess when I  say I am doing something for the sake of the family it is for every member. It is for me because I need the rest – juggling too many balls was getting to me and too many slipped and fell down. It is for my kids who benefit from having me around. And for my husband who wants to take a break but would be committing suicide professionally and also a social outcast. It is for us as a family. And if I didn’t want to work as a family, as a team, I shouldn’t have signed up for marriage. It does not always have to mean compromise (that ugly word) – it merely means pulling together, even if it doesn’t mean personal and individual success and glory. You could have it all (what exactly is all?), but at times the price you pay is too high.

By the same token, the OA cannot put up his feet the way I did and say he quits.  Well, he can, if he wants to, but it would not face the same acceptance that my quitting did and he is conditioned to be a work horse till he dies. To provide for wife and child and ensure they never know want. Society would look down on him and while that might not count, I am sure plenty of his contemporaries, colleagues and perhaps even family, will be disappointed in him. We can go all idealistic here and say screw them, but I’m looking for a solution that doesn’t take away from anyone. A man isn’t allowed to take a break unless he gives it a creative name and claims that he is backpacking across Europe and taking pictures. No company will hire a man who took three years off to raise his kids. He’d not come across as the aggressive alpha male most people are looking to hire. Yes, women and men are seeking equality, but neither is getting it. And we won’t get it as long as we try to be like the other gender, or hell, even like another person. To me, a job is like a saree blouse. It has to be something that fits me perfectly. And I could borrow yours, but it would never be a perfect fit.

What say you, wise internets? And err.. prospective employers?! Times they are a-changing. Are you ready to keep up with them?