Do young women attending professional courses in Indian metros face gender discrimination in their own homes? Is education seen only as a value-addition, enabling a woman to earn well while she continues to shoulder the major responsibility for housework? Are young women being trained to bear double or triple burdens for the rest of their lives?
The answer - when one considers that college-goers are a privileged minority among women - is 'yes'. Families may make a concession by allowing their daughters to opt for a course that will assure them of a job and some economic status, but may continue to discriminate against them.
Gender-based socialization begins early. Parents impart a different range of abilities and attitudes in boys as compared to girls. Asked to comment on what qualities their families consider appropriate for girls, a number of students studying for a Bachelor of Elementary Education degree (B El Ed) at Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) quipped: "Girls are brought up to be caring, understanding, giving, loving, adjusting, hardworking, conformist, quiet, submissive, soft, kind and nurturing." These girls come from middle-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. Their parents want to equip their daughters to be able to work, but don't see them as equal to their sons.
Clearly, families still try to socialize girls into typically 'feminine' personality traits and roles. Boys, on the other hand, are brought up to be aggressive, assertive, demanding, protective, brave, bold, strong, domineering and outgoing.
Women students report many small, nagging acts of commission and omission. Says Amrita Sinha, 20: "When I come home, nobody ever offers me a glass of water. When my brother comes home, my mother bustles around with water and food.... I make the chapattis (Indian bread) whenever I come home at lunchtime. But my brother invariably gets a hot meal or snack when he returns."
Amrita's brother is two years older than her, and also a student in Delhi University. It seems that even parents who send their daughters to prestigious educational institutions like LSR might cling tenaciously to a gender-based role division when it comes to 'real' life. Although Amrita's parents want her to pursue the course so that she has a career, they don't want her to give up on her household responsibilities. Even if she takes up a job outside the home, she will be expected to do the major household chores.
A number of students express resentment about restrictions on their mobility. "Boys have so much freedom. They can roam around until late evening. But we are expected to return home straight from college," said one. Adds Jasbeer Kaur, "My parents gave me a cellular phone just to keep track of me and to make sure I go straight home from college."
Meenu Mishra notes, "My brother is a year younger than me. He insisted he wanted a motorcycle, and my parents bought him one. He goes to college on his motorbike while I travel by bus!"
Several students are among the first generation in their families to access higher education. Their mothers have been full-time housewives. There is a sea change in the aspirations of the students. The present generation wants a freer life, to take many of their own decisions. But they face resistance and hostility when it comes to some of the most significant decisions in their lives.
Rehana Khan says, "Now that I am in my final year (of B El Ed), my parents insist I go with them for family functions. I know they are looking for a boy (for her to get married to). But they aren't telling me directly."
Sandhya Shah says: "My parents are like a walking-talking marriage agency nowadays! All of a sudden, they are encouraging me to go to the beautician, buy new clothes, new cosmetics...."
Women students observe that while their male counterparts are encouraged to focus on careers, there is little attention paid to their own career growth. Nita Mehta says, "Our studies are not taken seriously. I wish my family paid more attention to my studies and career prospects. I definitely want to have a career. I study hard and I want to utilise what I have learnt. I would like to earn independently."
These women are being educated to become competent professionals. Yet, family structure and ideology is hardly adapting to women's changed realities. In fact, women are being expected to stretch themselves until they become superwomen. Sons, on the other hand, are still being reared to expect women to wait on them hand and foot.
The family in India remains firmly patrilocal. After marriage, the bride is supposed to switch her allegiance, become part of her in-laws' family, and move in to live with them.
Kirti Jairam, who has taught in the same department in LSR for several years, notes that students often feel trapped in the inevitable contradictory pulls. "There are so many issues these students have but we are in no position to address them."
Shoma Sen, 22, who graduated from LSR, says: "After my graduation, my parents found a boy for me. I wasn't prepared for marriage. I didn't like the boy when I met him. His mother said I couldn't work outside. I tried to convince my family to call off the match. But they wouldn't. I was so shattered that I actually fell ill. I had a nervous breakdown. That's when the boy's side called off the match. My parents have begun to understand me a little better after that. I have taken up a job and will think about marriage after two or three years."
Says Shanti Kumar (a student): "Parents train girls to be obedient and submissive, partly out of fear. In-laws disapprove of brides who do not conform." Daughters are supposed to adjust to the ethos in their in-laws' households. Boys need never learn to adjust to another household.
College life introduces students to broader horizons. They develop varied interests and complex identities. Yet they are expected to limit and restrict themselves in the most important arenas of life. Naturally they chafe at the fixed and rigid roles they are expected to fit. They reinterpret reality, and question received wisdom.
Translating abstract principles like `equality' and `democratic rights' into ground-level realities is neither simple nor easy. But these young women are evolving strategies for change. Some of these strategies may be hardly visible to the external eye. For instance, Amrita says: "My nephew is one year old. He loves the kitchen, but my mother says, `What are you doing here? You are a boy!' She wants him to play with toy motorbikes and guns. I don't argue with her; I just make sure I give him pots and pans to play with!"
Perhaps patriarchy will finally be defeated by the thousand and one daily acts of resistance waged by ordinary students like Amrita, Rehana and Nita. They may use their education to topple discriminatory structures - creatively, strategically and persistently.
(The names of the students have been changed to protect their identity.)