Why Emma Watson’s speech might not cut it in India (Huffington Post)

By Monica Sarkar, for the Huffington Post

[This article is published by the Huffington Post here]

The United Nation’s “HeForShe” campaign, recently launched by British actress Emma Watson, is set to reach its first milestone of 200,000 men pledging to commit to gender equality.

In a rousing speech, the Harry Potter star extended a figurative invitation to men to join the movement. And the hashtag #HeForShe is prevailing on Twitter.

The awareness raised can only be applauded. But it is also important to recognize that the idea of “feminism” can mean different things to different people across the world.

Twice in her U.N. address, Watson commented on wages for men and women:

“I am from Britain, and I think it is right I am paid the same as my male counterparts,”

she said.

“…The reality is that if we do nothing, it will take seventy-five years, or for me to be nearly 100, before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work.”

The invaluable homemaker

Although she is absolutely right, not all countries measure gender equality on a pay scale. In many communities in India, for example, a housewife is seen as being of equal value to a breadwinner, or priceless. And for any feminist approach to work effectively in the country, it needs to recognise the distinct values upheld by such cultures.

Of course, if a woman is pressured by others to stay at home, which can be the case in India, then this is unacceptable. If she wants to build a successful career, then she should be supported, but if she prefers to attend to the home, then she must also be respected.

At a younger age, I wondered why some of my Indian aunts in Kolkata would choose to dedicate their lives to homemaking or rearing children, while their master’s degree certificates gathered dust.

I thought they were oppressed, but that they didn’t realise it. Now, I’ve come to understand that having been born and raised in London, I was imposing my western values onto their eastern ideals. And I failed to recognise that these women contently made these choices for themselves.

But it is a topic that is contested within the country too – it is argued that India undervalues the housewife, often leaving out this role in labour statistics, which only acknowledge paid work.

Cooking up a storm

Earlier this year, Airtel, India’s telecommunications company, released a televised advert that shows an assertive female professional in the workplace who then goes home to cook her husband dinner and asks for him to return home soon. The commercial sparked outrage on social media, with many claiming it was sexist. But one Twitter user pointed out that the woman was not asked or forced to cook – she did it of her own accord.

In 2012, it was also questioned whether Indian husbands should pay their housewives a salary, further to pressure from feminists to value homemaking. But how this would be implemented and measured has been scrutinised. How can you put a price on it? And I wonder: has anyone bothered to ask housewives what they want?

Perhaps even India struggles to come to terms with the diversity of its own 1.3 billion people. I once interviewed Madhu Khanna, a Tantric scholar from Delhi, who summed it up perfectly: “We live with many Indias.”

Emma Watson also pointed out: “No country in the world can yet say that they achieved gender equality.” And this is true of India as much as any other country.

But in addition to the right to earn the same as men, women should be totally free from imposed, westernised principles to choose the lives they want to lead. And this is regardless of whether their contribution to society is quantifiable or not.

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