In conversation with Dr. Albeena Shakil.
Q. Constitutional laws on the prevention of women’s harassment, in principle, with regards to their treatment in the workplace exist within India, such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. Despite existing, there is a lack of proper implementation, and a plethora of issues women face within the workplace. What are the social and political issues faced by women, especially within their professional sphere?
Let me start by making a reference to a 1999 status of women report brought out by the United Nations which said that women are over 50% of the world’s population, they do two-thirds of the world’s work, yet they earn one tenth of the world’s wages and own one hundredth of the world’s property. This report essentially summarises what the status of women at the turn of the century was, and we know that since then uh the figures for female employment have not improved by much.
With regards to sexual harassment at the workplace, the constitutional law in India got enacted in the year 2013, immediately after the anti-gang rape protests of 2012. The atrocious incident prompted a very big movement, wherein it seemed the entire country was discussing the violence women face. It was a wide democratization of the issue, wherein the government and the justice committee invited suggestions from people to counter such violence. The key demands that emerged were on the basis of the Supreme Courts Vishaka Guidelines of 1997, which looked into the case of workplace assault in Rajasthan. This guideline changed the parameter of the debate, for it said that if women are working, then one should presume that sexual harassment is taking place in that workplace. This guideline further suggested that each workplace should have a committee, headed by a woman. This committee should further include external parties and members such as NGOs, so that it can conduct fair inquiries upon complaints and allegations of sexuxal harassment. Employers responsibility was highlighted within these guidelines, wherein the Supreme Court suggested that employers must undertake continuous gender sensitisation and awareness campaigns and workshops.
Unfortunately, when women are making the transition from the domestic or the private to the public realm, they are seen as public sexual property. In the workplace, women wish to be assessed in terms of the work they do, yet are still seen through the male sexualised gaze. This can be very reducing and humiliating for women, and can have an adverse impact on women’s health, sense of safety, and sense of security. When this movement thus broke out in 2012, it was the youth who demanded that this guideline should be made into law, and that its implementation should not be left to the discretion of workplaces.
Another issue is that there exists a very interesting paradox regarding women and work within India. If one looks at women and normally female labor participation rates, they’ll find that women who have had access to and have completed higher education consist of a small percentage of the workforce, yet women with minimum-level or no education make up a large amount of the workforce! Yet education and awareness was vital for the rise of this movement.
The #MeToo Movement made an impact within India as well, wherein the two categories of workplace harassment were highlighted, these being the ‘quid pro quo’ harassment and the ‘hostile environment’ harassment. The former referred to ‘a favour for a favour’, which could also be used to make threats upon women. This was different from the other kinds of ‘regular’ harassment that women face, such as that on the streets and in public areas, as workplace abuse and such treatment could severely impact women’s careers. There was a genuine fear of losing work or facing discrimination amongst competitors, if women denied or fought against such cases.
Q. Despite shifts and emphasis on female education and empowerment, India ranks low in terms of women participating in the labour market, as seen through the UN rankings such as the Gender Development Index and Gender Inequality Index. What are the challenges women face in entering the workforce within India?
I believe the biggest hindrance for working women is the entire idea that women are not supposed to work, that they are not supposed to work for wages, instead that they are just supposed to work in homes. This division of labor is very odd, as the male who’s working outside has access to political and economic power, so constraining women within the home is not just an equal division of labor in any way.
There are so many double standards in terms of how we assess men and women, the fact that there is this idea that women should stay inside the homes, and while it is changing many are arguing that the increased violence against women is in fact a very adverse patriarchal backlash to women coming out of their homes. There’s a lot of anger about it, there’s a lot of desire to ‘put women in their place’.
In India, there are additional complications which add to the cultural question. We know that over 60% of young women in India still get married off under the legal age of 18 years, this idea that you know girls are growing so they should just be married off. This leads to them becoming either daughters or wives or mothers or sisters, but not having an independent identity of their own. The biggest hindrance is the idea that women are not supposed to work. If they go out to work, there is a lot of unease about them, as they are not following the traditional gender roles.
Q. In your understanding, do you believe that an emphasis on girl-child education will cause a rise in the number of women in the labour market? With an increase in the access to education, will women be provided with more career opportunities? Will the structural prejudice shatter, or decline to a large extent, due to access to education?
In the early 1970s, there was a debate between social reformers and political reformers regarding gender and caste. A historic status of women report was brought out in the early 70s, and one central discussion that came about this report was regarding education, wherein it was felt that education should be gender-sensitive. Education is extremely valuable, it does a lot in terms of broadening the horizons of people, giving people access to thinking about vital issues and realities.
Yet, our education is in many ways extremely gendered, for it also tells us how to be “good men” and “good women” in very subtle ways, throughout our studies. Since then, educational reforms are being demanded, with regards to how and what students are taught. However, as mentioned before, education does not automatically translate into participation in the labor market and workplace.
With regards to education, there is a lot of resentment within the country, for there are large gaps between people who have access to higher education, often called “liberal-elites”, and those who do not have such access. Thus, it is found that more often than not it is the same family and generation receiving education. There is, however, a difference between first-generation women in the workplace, and those who follow after, in terms of social mentality.
With regards to education, there is a lot of resentment within the country, for there are large gaps between people who have access to higher education, often called “liberal-elites”, and those who do not have such access. Thus, it is found that more often than not it is the same generation and family receiving education. There is, however, a difference between first-generation women in the workplace, and those who follow after, in terms of social mentality. There is a kind of difference in the sort of work environment one looks for, for example, those who receive higher education or are second-generation career women tend to look for particular jobs, and are not keen on being underemployed and unemployed.
Q. Following-up from our last question, to what extent, in your view, has the socioeconomic mindset shifted with regards to career-oriented women in India?
Despite the aforementioned law becoming mandatory, it’s still not completely implemented. If a workplace or a corporation doesn’t have such a committee, they must pay a fine of ₹50,000. There are very few workplaces that are implementing the law. We know that even after it has become mandatory most workplaces are just ignoring the law. There have been debates about incorporating it as a part of the companies act, yet there has been a lot of backlash against. Many claim that if the aforementioned were to occur, women employees would raise these issues too much, which would further affect their levels of employment, as companies would no longer wish to hire women.
There is a patriarchal backlash to assertive career women, people expect women to be of ‘feminine nature’, rather than have an assertive personality, or their intellect. It is a very complex terrain for career oriented women. To this day, even if they wish to give priority to their career, women are still battling very complex issues in terms of the domestic realm and the workplace. They are expected to focus on the former, and their relationships with friends and family, rather than their participation in the workplace. A lot of negative stereotypes do get attached to women, and yet despite that, women are breaking the glass ceiling everywhere. They are managing to work despite a lot of disadvantages, and are managing to break new grounds for other women.
Q. Could you please elaborate on the work efforts undertaken to help women enter the workforce? How often do you find such efforts to be implemented, or are they solely present on paper? Instead, what measures do you personally believe should be implemented to help such women?
Essentially, everybody who wants work, should get it, yet we know people face different challenges. Working women face more challenges, linked to other aspects of their identity as well. For instance, Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women face a lot of backlash. The Prime Minister has a very good slogan on educating daughters, “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, yet this slogan is an alteration of the former “Beti Bachao, Bahu Lao” slogan that came to be in 2014 due to the fear of “love jihad”. See, the connection? It is there for us to assess you know what the continuities are between the two.
There is this idea that women are to be protected from dangers all around, be it from dangerous sexually predatory men, to harassment that occurs online, and other dangers. There is this entire obsession with you know somehow saving the daughters from sexual predators all around, and this gets complicated with issues of religion, community, and caste. If this discourse continues, the restrictions upon women will increase. Every-time there is an incident, restrictions get circulated immediately on women. So, it is a very hostile terrain, which makes it very difficult for women to break out into the public realm, as it is ‘supposedly not for them’.
Instead, there should be policies within companies calling for better diversity in terms of gender. There are studies that have been conducted around the world which indicate that the more diversity a company has, the better it does in terms of decision making, as a wider range of viewpoints are considered. Thus, if there could be incentives in workplaces for employers, there may be a change.
There is, however, resistance from employers in this area. Many companies are resisting the idea of employing women, if the harassment protective act is completely implemented. They claim that a plethora of issues will arise from that in the workplace. I, however, do not believe much of a change will occur, unless the public dynamics and social mentalities shift with regards to women. This is a terrain where women still have to fight and find ways for themselves.