31 Jul 2022  |   05:52am IST


Vivek Menezes

Such pleasure to hear Deviya Rane speak up for Poriem and the Goa Forest Corporation (where she is Chairman) in the assembly sessions earlier this month. The debutante legislator was not always right – such as her suggestion that Goa emulate Haryana’s highly dubious “jungle safari park” – but she conducted herself dignity, grace, and the assured capability that comes with solid qualifications. By itself, that is most welcome change from the highly degraded business as usual, but it also highlights two glaring gaps in our state leadership: an abysmal lack of professional expertise (Ms Rane’s MBBS is an extreme rarity), and the near-total absence of women’s voices (they are three out of forty MLAs, but all serve alongside much more powerful husbands). 

Make no mistake, this is an emergency which costs Goa heavily. During the Covid-19 crisis, the entire world has been reminded again and again that women make far better decisions under pressure, as States and countries with female leaders markedly outperformed others: Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Teacher Shailaja in Kerala (where she led the state’s remarkable pandemic response as Health Minister). Harvard Business Review says “at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.”

The conspicuous irony in India’s smallest State, which ranks so high in economic and human development, is - of course - that Goan women have outperformed their male counterparts in every professional and academic field for at least 30 years. Well over a decade ago Goa shot past Kerala for the highest percentage of female enrollment in higher education in the country (most likely over 70% now), and when it comes to higher qualifications – postgraduate degrees – the numbers are similarly impressive: 60% women to just 40% men. Yet, when it comes to leadership and power, all those numbers fade to oblivion. Women literally disappear.

“Indian women are trained to habitually delete themselves” says Deepa Narayan (an international poverty, gender and development expert who has worked at the World Bank and United Nations) in her superb Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women, which was launched at the 2018 Goa Arts + Literature Festival. About the research for this brilliantly insightful book – it’s based on over 600 interviews – she writes ruefully that “over and over I would shake my head in disbelief that yet another smart and smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom was so unsure of herself. Or that she sounded, after the obligatory gender equality claims and sometimes passionate lecture, like her mother would have sounded thirty or forty years ago.”

Narayan says “we thought that when women became educated, they would be valued, free and unafraid. They are not. We thought they would speak up. They don’t. We thought that when women earn their own money, violence against them would stop. It has not. We thought that when laws change, and women have rights to property and maintenance after a divorce, they would become independent and safe. Women are still not safe.” She concludes that “while it is deeply satisfying to focus on the outer independence movement of women – we can count the changes – this approach is deeply flawed. It is misleading and, worse, it is diversionary. Just because women are visible, it does not mean they are not invisible at the same time. This focus on visible external change assumes that the cultural ideology that kept women invisible, and even denied women life itself, has evaporated. That assumption is wrong.”

After “thousands of hours of listening to girls, boys, women and men”, Narayan developed “one unifying idea that helps make sense of the hundreds of definitions of a good girl or a good woman and a good boy or a good man, our cultural and moral compass.” That is, “our culture trains women not to exist. Being a woman itself is taboo. Not allowed. Invisibility is just one manifestation of this cultural training. One way of ensuring that women do not exist is to kill them. A safer and less crude way is to train women to disappear. This helps explain the hundreds of ordinary, everyday behaviours, proverbs and admonishments that are part of a cultural morass that sucks us all in to perpetuate a culture of non-existence for women.”

Narayan says we are all complicit, “because nobody talks about it. It is a nameless cultural secret. It is so unpalatable that it is disguised and buried, otherwise women would surely object. Instead what we see is hundreds of cultural practices that we learn so naturally growing up that hundreds of young women say, ‘Ma’am, this is normal.’ Why is it normal for young girls not to tell anyone that they have been sexually molested or for a girl not to be kick-ass strong or for a woman not to share her opinions in front of men?” She details how “girls are trained in seven cultural habits of non-existence. They are deny the body; be quiet; please others; deny your sexuality; isolate yourself; have no individual identity’ and be dependent. It is deep training in these habits that makes so many women feminists in belief but not in behaviour.”

Another person who thinks deeply about these issues is the highly acclaimed Mumbai-based social entrepreneur Elsa Marie D’Silva - founder and president of Red Dot Foundation (India) and Red Dot Foundation Global (USA), whose Safecity technology platform crowd sources and maps sexual violence in India and abroad - who happens to be in her ancestral Goa this weekend to launch a new initiative. She told me “it is tragic that highly qualified Goan women are being left behind. This is part of the patriarchal mindset which is so ingrained in our culture. When we think of leaders, we have not yet reached a stage where women are being considered before men, even though they may be much more highly qualified. We talk about empowerment but no one raises an eyebrow about this - our unconscious bias which clearly prefers and promotes men in positions of power.” 

D'Silva says “our Constitution guarantees us the right to equality but are we practically allowed to live it? Goan women are extremely capable but it is their men who are probably holding them back by not making space, not supporting them and not giving them the platform to thrive and be themselves.” In the end, it is society and the State that suffers because “leaving women out of development means you are choosing to ignore 50% of inputs and lived realities. You empower a woman, you empower a community. We have seen that time and time again through our programmes. Most women invest their resources back into their businesses, they want to create more jobs and prosperity and want to improve lives. How could this be ignored? We are choosing to harm ourselves by leaving women out.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival)