On 24th September 2014, India rejoiced as the world cheered the all-women team of engineers responsible for the launching of Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter Mission of India, that made headlines across the world. BBC has recently done a story on BP Dakshayani, the former head of flight dynamics and space navigation at ISRO, one of the members of this now famous team. With all the discussion about how women are discriminated against in the academia and the endless tales of harassment and abuse that women face in society, this “success story” about a woman heading a major space mission is definitely something to be happy about. I am sure the BBC considered this to be one of those positive stories, that put a smile on people’s faces and leave people with a little warm feeling. However, as I read the story, I felt upset, irritated, even angry. I was left with a feeling of bitterness in my mouth, instead of a warmth in my heart. In fact, it was this feeling that led to this article. I felt I had to write about this, to bring this feeling out in the open. I needed to share my thoughts with the world, and see how people would react to me – call me insane, hyper, over-sensitive, a reactionary? Perhaps.
Why was I feeling angry and irritated? Why the bitterness in my mouth? Because, as I read the very well written story of Dakshayani’s life, I couldn’t help recognize something that I hear all the time. I am sure we all do, those women who balance their work and personal lives and still manage to be “successful” on some count. The world sees us as women, who have not ignored their homes for the sake of their careers, and thus applaud us. The world sees us as people with special skills, who can multi-task and who manage to be good mothers and wives, in spite of having an active career to take care of, and they applaud us. We are special because we continue to be women, in the roles that are meant for women, and yet, we are a part of the men’s world, and so we deserve to be applauded. The BBC article is titled “Rocket woman: How to cook curry and get a spacecraft into Mars orbit”. Cooking curry is as important as getting a spacecraft into the orbit of Mars, as far as BBC is concerned.
The article talks about Dakshayani’s journey through life, her passion for learning, her growing interest in space and satellites and how that took her from teaching maths in a college to ISRO, India’s space research hub. Her life as an Indian woman was very much a part of this journey, and the article highlights her struggle to balance life between work and home. Reading this article, one is bound to admire the lady’s courage and perseverance, the sheer grit to stay on her chosen path, in spite of all the problems that she faced. However, this happy feeling faced a wall when I reached the part where the author describes her interaction with Dakshayani and her husband at the Bangalore home. She writes:
Asked to rate their lives with each other, Dr Basavalingappa says he would give her “10 out of 10”.
Dakshayani laughs and says she will give him only 9.5. “Because you never ever found an occasion to assist me in the housework.”
In a traditional Indian family set-up, women are expected to bear most of the burden – and in most homes they do it uncomplainingly. Dakshayani is no exception.
At this point, I wanted to scream (I did, in my head, with expletives, now censored)! It almost feels like the author is celebrating Dakshayani for being the perfect Indian wife! And of course, the husband gets on 0.5 points less for not helping with the housework!
So, what’s wrong with a woman managing both ends and being successful, one might ask. As far as I am concerned, everything! Why don’t we stop applauding women for managing it all, and start criticizing the men for not doing enough? As a woman who lives such a life, I know that it feels good to be appreciated from time to time. But, I also know, that I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that it’s the woman’s job to keep the house and cook and take care of the kids and relatives and guests while the man can return home from work and watch some TV or spend time on WhatsApp or read a book. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that she has to do all of these as a woman, because that is expected of her. I don’t want her to be appreciated for being a woman, but for being a person. I don’t want my son to be appreciated for helping with the housework in spite of being a man. And I don’t think all of this is possible to achieve easily in a society that keeps applauding women for being women and taking more responsibility than men. We need to think as people as persons, not as representatives of genders with set roles. Yes, men can’t have babies, and we women typically have babies at critical periods of our lives which often push us a little behind the men in the career race. So, what? We are different, and we have different ways of dealing with life. We can choose to compete, or just relax and take life as it comes. Why do we need to prove ourselves over and over again, just to retain a foothold in the so-called men’s world? Who says it’s a men’s world? The world would cease to exist without the women, and we better accept this for a fact. Why should we make ourselves proud because we can cook and wear sarees and write codes? Why should a woman who only knows how to play cricket be any less successful? Why should we have to keep proving ourselves as good housekeepers for being appreciated?
When India successfully launched Malgalyaan, the image of the all-women team behind the mission flooded the media. There were a lot of comments on social media about the women in sarees, with flowers in their hair, cheering and celebrating. What was the world awed by – the fact that this was an all-women team, or that they wore sarees (thus were typical Indian women) and flowers in their hair (highly traditional Indian women)? When we applauded the ladies for the fantastic job that they had completed, were we not also insulting them a bit by recognizing them as women first, successful engineers and scientists later? Would an image of male scientists in nondescript suits or t-shirts celebrating a similar success have drawn an equal amount of attention from social media? Perhaps not. Or perhaps I am biased and hyper-reactive. Nevertheless, the questions remain, as does my irritation and anger as a person, whom the world always sees as a woman first.