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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Yummy Mummy or High Flyer?

Feminism is about the right to make our own choices – and not care what anyone else thinks of them

It’s a good thing that Cherie Blair has such a wide mouth, given how often her foot lands right inside it. The latest such instance occurred at a recent event in London where Fortune magazine was celebrating the Most Powerful Women in the world.

Rueing the lack of feminist values in the new generation of women who just wanted to be “yummy mummies”, Cherie lamented that it worried her how so many women couldn’t be bothered with a career: “They think, ‘Why can’t I just marry a rich man and retire’.” Cherie warned that “every woman needs to be self-sufficient” and that “even good men could have an accident and die and you’re left holding the baby”.

From her point of view, this was unexceptional stuff. After all, this is a woman who saw her father walk out on her mother when she was eight. She saw her mother struggle to make ends meet, while her grandmother looked after her and her younger sister. So, it is no surprise that the first lesson that the young Cherie learnt was: Don’t trust men; always make your own way.

But of course, the British media and blogosphere – which hates her with a particular passion – went wild about how Cherie was dissing women who chose family over career and weren’t as high-achieving as she had been.

I have to admit, though, that on one level, I am in complete agreement with Cherie Blair. It is important for young women to learn the lesson that the only person you can depend on is yourself – and that financial independence lies at the heart of this. There is no quarrelling with that.

Where I do disagree is that I believe that when we tell women that the only success that is worth striving for is the kind they achieve in the workplace, we effectively devalue everything that women achieve as homemakers, mothers and carers.

Yes, it’s great to have a pay cheque coming in every month. It’s lovely to have a high-powered job that gives you satisfaction. It’s wonderful to feel that your achievements at work are being validated by a judgemental world. But while we are going about it, is it really necessary to debase and demean those women who have made a choice to get off the career treadmill and devote themselves to their families?

I don’t have children myself, but I would imagine that it must tear women apart to leave small babies at home, being cared for by paid strangers, while they go off to earn a living. It probably gets even more difficult – and guilt-inducing – when the kids grow up and begin to need you more, rather than less.

Anyone who wants to learn about the competing demands of career and children and what it does to women should read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story for The Atlantic. Slaughter, a high-flyer at the US State Department, recently resigned to go back to teaching at Princeton University. In her article, titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, she explains how even though she had a ‘supportive’ husband – the Holy Grail of all feminist tracts – who took over the care of her two sons, she still felt guilty of letting her family down. She still blamed her absence for her teenage son’s angst. And so, when it came time to renew her contract, she decided to quit to ‘spend more time with her family’, usually a euphemism – as she notes wryly – for being fired.

But Slaughter’s story tells us an essential truth: most women are hard-wired to want to take care of their young. And sometimes you just can’t beat biology, no matter how hard you try.

So, do we really need to tell a harried young mother with two kids under the age of six that she needs to get dressed and go out to work or else she will be letting down the sisterhood? Must we make the army wife or the diplomatic spouse feel worthless because she follows her husband on his job? And most importantly, do we really want to live in a world where the only person who has power in a relationship is the husband who brings in a regular pay check? Do we want to tell the young women coming of age today that feminism may be about choice – but there’s only one choice available to them: of going out and having it all.

And what does ‘having it all’ really mean? Does it mean being exhausted to your bones because you have worked a 12 hour day at the office and must now cook a meal for your family? Does it mean striving for professional success no matter what the cost to your personal life? Does it mean buying into the macho code of deciding everyone’s worth on the basis of their pay cheque?

After all, the question is no longer whether women can succeed in a man’s world – but why we allow men to define what success is.

And I suspect that’s the trap that Cherie Blair has fallen into: of defining success in man-centric terms: how many hours you work; how much money you make; how far you can clamber up on the corporate ladder. But why should we allow men (or Cherie Blair for that matter) to define what success is?

Because when it comes right down to it, feminism is about the freedom to make our own choices – and to not give a damn what anyone else thinks about them.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Storm in a T-cup

Given the amount of squabbling on its timelines, should we just rename Twitter as Bicker?

Just a thought. Do you think they should rename Twitter as Bicker? It certainly seems apt given how it has rapidly become a forum for people to squabble about everything in short bursts of 140 characters. Lovers quarrel bitterly; ex-wives and ex-husbands vent venom; new partners give full rein to their jealous rages; and everyone throws insults around in a no-holds-barred fashion. Nothing is private. Nothing is sacred. And nothing is off-limits.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched agog as French politics descended into soap-opera territory via Twitter. President Francois Hollande looked on helplessly as his current partner, the journalist Valerie Trierweiler targeted his former partner (and mother of his four children), Segolene Royal, in a vicious tweet that hit Royal just where it hurt the most.

Royal, standing for election to a parliamentary seat, was being opposed by a dissident from her own Socialist party. So her former partner and now President of the Republic, Francois Hollande, sent out a message of support to Royal to bolster her chances at the polls (after all, she had done her best to support his presidential campaign). That was enough to make his current partner (and now the Premier Dame of France), Trierweiler, see red. She allegedly called up Hollande to remonstrate and then said chillingly, “Now you will see what I am capable of.”

And thus went out the now-infamous tweet, motivated by what insiders called Trierweiler’s ‘blind jealousy’. In it, she wished good look and ‘courage’ to Royal’s opponent in the poll. All of France was appalled, the French Prime Minister publicly rebuked Trierweiler and asked that she be more ‘discreet’ and ‘know her place’. And Royal announced sadly, at an election rally, that she felt ‘wounded’ by the tweet and that she deserved respect as a woman, a politician, and a mother.

But the damage was done. When the votes were counted, Royal had lost the seat, and with it the chances of becoming President of the National Assembly, the third-highest post in the country’s political structure. A bitter Royal quoted Victor Hugo to say that “Traitors always pay for their treachery in the end” and her four children, for good measure, stopped speaking to their father’s current partner.

So what started out as a storm in a T-cup ended up taking down the reputations of all the protagonists in the drama. Valerie was exposed as an insecure, vindictive woman who could not control her insane jealousy of her partner’s former lover. Hollande was shown up as a man who could not manage the women in his life (so, how on earth would he manage France, ran the sub-text). And as for poor Royal, her political career imploded in the aftermath of Twittergate and looks extremely unlikely to revive any time soon.

But while nobody in their right minds can condone Trierweiler’s scorched-earth policy on Twitter, there are some political spouses who have gained from their tweet-wars. Most famously, there was Anne Romney who went on Twitter to take on political commentator, Hilary Rosen, who said in a debate on CNN that Mrs Romney “had never worked a day in her life”. Anne Romney was quick to retort, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work”. Her tweet got her the support of every stay-at-home mom, and many other women besides.

Of late, though, Twitter wars have tended to be increasingly undignified, even downright tawdry at times. Take the current battle royale raging between British multi-millionaire Ben Goldsmith (son of Jimmy and Annabel Goldsmith and brother to Jemima Khan) and his estranged wife, Kate, a Rothschild heiress. Ben called his wife’s behaviour ‘appalling’ on Twitter (because she had called the police on him) while she responded with a series of tweets saying that there were two sides to every break-up. Meanwhile, Kate’s alleged lover, the rapper Jay Electronica (yes, really!) put in his two-bit worth by tweeting #LoveIsOnTheWay. Yeah, real classy, this lot.

In India, too, we have had our share of Twitter wars. The most famous was the one waged by Lalit Modi against Shashi Tharoor (about the now-defunct Kochi franchise of the IPL) which resulted in Tharoor losing his job as minister and being consigned to political wilderness while Modi lost control of the IPL and was banished from the Indian cricketing scene to languish in exile (in London, though, so it can’t be all that bad).

More recently, we saw Karan Johar take on Priyanka Chopra for a story she did or did not (depending on whom you believe) plant about how some star wives and certain directors who were close to them were giving her a bad time. A livid Johar tweeted about how some people were ‘lame and spineless’ and needed ‘to wake up and smell the koffee’ and not ‘mess with goodness’. Of course, he did not mention Priyanka by name, but the inference was clear – and Twitter-sphere was abuzz in a matter of seconds.

So, what do you think? Does Bicker work better than Twitter? Or do you have a better idea? All suggestions welcome at my Twitter handle (given below). And may the best name win.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Not without my kids

Have you ever forgotten about one of your children and left them behind? Well, the British Prime Minister did...

In one of my favourite episodes from the sitcom Modern Family (which is slowly taking the place of Friends in my life), Claire and Phil Dunphy are at a child psychologist’s clinic with their son Luke. Claire thinks he may have learning disabilities; Phil disagrees. The couple continue to argue as they head out, Luke trailing behind. And then, they get into their respective cars and drive off – leaving their son standing alone in the car park.

Worse is to follow. Each parent thinks Luke is with the other, so they go through the routine of their day not sparing as much as a thought for the abandoned boy. It’s only in the evening when they meet up at a family dinner that they realise that he is with neither of them. Just as they are berating themselves (and each other) a huge stretch limousine drives up and disgorges Luke. The enterprising youngster has managed to hitch a ride home.

Yes, I know, hilarious stuff, right? Well, so long as it is a sitcom, and no child is actually being endangered by being left all alone in the big, bad world, we all laugh (and shake our heads over the folly of the Dunphy clan). But when something like this happens in real life, it can get a bit hairy. Then, it’s all wildly beating hearts, sweaty palms and an imagination that runs away with you, as you think of the worst things that could happen to your child because of a momentary lapse on your part.

That’s probably how David and Samantha Cameron felt when they drove up to Chequers (the country house of the British Prime Minister) and discovered that they had left their eight-year-old daughter, Nancy, behind at the local pub, where they’d gone to have lunch with some friends.

Samantha had thought that Nancy had climbed into her father’s car, as he drove off accompanied by bodyguards. And David believed that she was in the second car, with her mother and her siblings. It was only when the two cars disgorged their cargo that the Camerons realised they were missing their eldest child.

Nancy had apparently wandered off to the loo while the party was leaving and that’s where she was discovered by the pub staff, who kept her entertained while David did a quick U-turn to pick her up.

No harm done. All’s well that ends well. Or any other cliché that you’d like to pull out and employ to describe the situation.

Of course, this being the Camerons and the British press being what it is, the parents were rapidly hauled over the coals for being so irresponsible as to ‘forget’ their daughter at the pub (though, in all fairness, they didn’t forget about her; they just thought she was with the other parent). David was advised to attend one of the parenting courses he is so keen on; Samantha was berated for not keeping all her children well within sight at all times; and there were those mandatory musings about how the social services would have been called in double quick if the parents had been working class ‘chavs’ rather than posh folk like the Camerons. And yes, the term Nancygate cropped up in news reports soon enough.

But while this was, no doubt, an honest mistake that the Camerons won’t be repeating any time soon, it does make one think about the British Prime Minister’s security detail. It’s one thing for harried parents to miss one child out of three. But quite another for a Scotland Yard close protection team to miss the fact that a child of the PM was unaccounted for as long as 15 minutes. Thankfully, Nancy remained safe – but the alternative really doesn’t bear thinking about. (And I do hope that some heads have rolled as a consequence.)

Though the rules must be different for David Cameron and his family – who are high value targets for any terrorist group – this is a situation that any overworked, harried parent can identify with. Victoria Beckham, for instance, famously confessed to a similar lapse soon after the birth of her daughter, Harper. All set for the school run, Victoria buckled Harper into her car seat, got behind the wheel and drove off to drop son Brooklyn to his school. It was only when she was half-way there that she realised that Brooklyn was not, in fact, in the car.

And for all those hemming and hawing about the Camerons and their irresponsible parenting, here’s an interesting statistic. According to an online poll conducted by The Daily Telegraph, a little over 33.8 per cent of parents have forgotten and left a child behind on one occasion or the other. And while some put it down to momentary forgetfulness there are many who – like the Dunphys and Camerons – did so in the belief that the child was safe with the other parent. This kind of stuff is really more common than you think.

So, if anything, this incident just shores up David Cameron’s credentials as a regular bloke. Now, his security detail – they’re a bit of a disgrace to their service, aren’t they?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Holding back the years?

It’s time to say it out loud: we’re middle-aged and proud

It was William Shakespeare who famously wrote about the seven ages of man. “All the world’s a stage,” he proclaimed, “And all the men and women merely players.” To paraphrase the Great Bard, we all start off as mewling infants, go on to become grubby schoolchildren, play lusty lovers, then become soldiers or men (and women) of business, until finally we descend into our second childhood “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

I know, depressing stuff, isn’t it? The thought that our best years will inevitably slip away from us, that life will eventually come full circle and we will end up as the mewling, helpless, dribbling creatures that we started off as (except that now instead of being petted and cosseted by our proud parents, we will be nursed by our resentful children and grandchildren).

Honestly, it doesn’t bear thinking about. And yet, that is the manifest destiny of each one of us, however much we try to hide away from it. All of us are pre-ordained to recreate the seven stages of man (unless we are unfortunate enough to be struck down in our prime).

We will have our chance to enjoy the carefree days of our childhood, where we don’t have to worry about anything other than the annual exams and a bit of schoolyard bullying. We will all have a crack at being teenagers, being ruled by our hormones and tormented by the occasional zit that will crop up at the worst possible time. We will have our youth, when we set out to conquer the world, with that fresh optimism and energy that only the very young possess. We will go on to marry, raise families, see them grow up, rejoice in their successes even as we mourn the loss of our own youth.

Ah, there’s the rub right there, isn’t it? The loss of our youth.

The only age that we seem to treasure these days is that time when our adult life is just unfurling in front of us, alive with possibilities and the promise of a better future. When our skin glows, our figures stay in shape with everything pointing in the right direction without any real effort on our part, and we have all our teeth. When we can read newspapers and menus without having to slip on a pair of glasses. When we can party late into the night and still make it to work early next day, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. When we have the belief that we can take on the world and win.

And such is our celebration of this period of our lives that we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate the other six stages as we focus all our attention on recapturing the one in which we were at our physical and mental prime.

Think about it. We were all blissfully happy as babies; oblivious to the cares of the world as children; our every need anticipated; our every need fulfilled. Would we like to be transported back to the safe, secure world in which we believed that our parents could keep us from all harm? Of course we would.

But does that make us revert back to pigtails and bloomers and run out into the playground, to see just how high we can make that swing really go? Of course not; we know that would make us seem ridiculous.

As rational adults we recognise that clinging on to our childhood is just not a feasible enterprise. So, how long do you think it’s going to be before we realise that trying to cling on to our youth is rendering us just as ridiculous?

Well, I wouldn’t hold my breath, if I were you.

Wherever I look around me, in my world of 30 and 40-somethings, I see a manic desire to slow down time, to hold back the years, to somehow freeze frame so that we always appear the way we want to: with the bloom of early youth just segueing into the wisdom and serenity of early middle age.

Of course, we don’t call it that. Middle age? Perish the thought. We are in what we like to call our late youth, where 40 is the new 30 and everyone shies away from the prospect of turning 50 (or at the very least, admitting to it).  

So, instead of embracing the changes that Nature bestows upon us as we move into another stage of our lives, we try and hold back its ravages with every weapon at our command. We colour our hair; we starve ourselves back into pre-pubescent shape; we exercise maniacally so that we have the toned bodies of the very young; we slather on the anti-ageing creams, the anti-cellulite potions and the under-eye serums; we Botox away the wrinkles that might give away just how far we have journeyed through life; we inject fillers to recreate the plump faces of our youth; and we dress as hip as we can possibly can.

And yet, you know what? We don’t really look young. We just look as if we are trying very hard (and oh yes, we are).

So, it is really worth it in the end? Should we keep up the savage resistance against the worst depredations of Nature? Or is it time to say it out loud: we are middle-aged and proud?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The same-sex wars

Why do women persist in being their own worst enemies?

Honestly, there are times when I despair of my own sex. It’s not the small stuff that gets me down – that I can live with by gritting my teeth and counting slowly to ten so that I don’t have a meltdown in public.

You know the sort of thing I’m talking about: the kind of meanness that only women are capable of subjecting each other to. Oh, she’s gotten so fat after her baby! We all know how she got that promotion (by sleeping with her boss, didn’t you know?). My God, can that hemline get any lower? Honestly, if she dresses like that, it’s only a matter of time before she gets molested. I could go on and on, based on my vast and varied life experiences, but you get the general drift.

Yes, all of this annoying, but it is still small potatoes. You can take a deep breath, tell yourself that you’re better than this, and stay silent.

But it’s the big stuff that I really can’t sweat. That’s what makes me foam at the mouth, shout dementedly at the TV set and mutter balefully when I read the papers. That’s what makes me so angry that I can barely form a cogent argument to explain my views. But for the benefit of all of you reading this column, I’m going to try.

It all began with the Park Street rape case in Calcutta, which the fabulously rational chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, helpfully characterised as a ‘conspiracy’ against her government even before the facts of the matter has been established. It is to the credit of two other women – the rape victim herself, who refused to lie down and play dead; and a courageous police officer by the name of Damayanti Sen – that the culprits were hunted down and that the wheels of justice were set in motion.

But I was revisited by the same despair I felt at the time of the Park Street incident by the curious case of Zohal Hamid and the molestation that never was. We were all riveted by the appearance of this US national on TV, telling us how the Australian cricketer Luke Pomersbach, had molested her in her hotel room. And that when her fiancé, Sahil Peerzada, tried to protect her, Luke hit him so hard that he had to be rushed to hospital.

So, there we were, feeling outraged on behalf of this brave young woman who had had the courage to take on an influential group of people in a foreign country, in an attempt to gain justice for herself. We hissed and booed at a media that suggested that because she was always so well-dressed, perfectly coiffed and made-up, she couldn’t possibly be a victim. And we felt a strange pride when she threatened to sue Siddhartha Mallya, who sent out a sexist, offensive tweet about her after the incident, if he didn’t apologise forthwith.

Here was a woman, we felt, who was willing to fight for her rights, no matter how hard and arduous a battle it might be. This was a woman who was not willing to take things lying down, no matter how powerful the people she was up against.

How wrong we were!

No sooner had Peerzada been released from hospital than Zohal’s entire body language changed. In a joint interview conducted with the two, she sat poker-faced while Peerzada resolutely refused to refer to her by the ‘f’ word (as in ‘fiancee’). And she didn’t raise as much as a murmur when he referred to Sid Mallya as a nice guy, and suggested that things would soon be sorted out between them.

Sure enough, the case has now been withdrawn by Zohal Hamid because she wishes to ‘go back to her own country’. And by backing down so cravenly because her boyfriend/fiancé/whatever he’s calling himself this week patently wanted her to, she has made it doubly difficult for other victims of such drunken misbehaviour to be taken seriously by the authorities.

All of which makes me wonder: just how long will we women go along with taking the lead from the men in our lives? Just what will it take for us to accept responsibility for our own actions, and live with the consequences of our behaviour, however unpleasant they may be?

Well, that day is a long time coming if what I read in today’s paper is anything to go by. A woman has sued her live-in boyfriend of eight years, accusing him of ‘rape’ because he married someone else citing parental pressure. The court had admitted her petition and the man could soon be in jail facing rape charges – all because he refused to marry his live-in girlfriend.

Now, I can understand a woman being upset about being dumped after living with a man for eight years. I would get it if she wanted to scratch his face, throw his clothes out on the street, or even egg his car. But to accuse him of ‘rape’? All because he didn’t marry her?

Frankly, it beggars belief. And it reinforces the idea that matrimony is some glittering prize that men are good enough to bestow on us. And that a woman’s reputation is ‘ruined’ if the man she is sleeping with neglects to make an ‘honest woman’ of her.

Are we really buying into this tosh in the 21st century? If that’s not cause enough for despair, I don’t know what is.