Pehle aap

Sometimes, a news article, a small discussion is all it takes to bring out a thought you’d been pondering for a long time. So, when I got a link in my e-mail about women not entitled to/asking for basic hygiene facilities, it just brought to fore my thoughts on the “Pehle Aap” phenomenon I so regularly observe. For instance, here is a conversation that has taken place many a time, my elderly relatives (mostly women) vary but the gist remains the same:

Me: Hi! How are you?

Rel: I’m good. How’re you and your husband?

Me: Ananth’s doing good. Naughty, as always.

Rel: Don’t say that. He is a very good boy.

Me: Naughty doesn’t mean bad.

Rel: It does, treat him with respect, he is your husband. Where is he?

Me: (confused, because I didn’t think naughty = disrespect) He is doing the dishes/gone for laundry/vacuuming.

Rel: What? You make him do the house-work? What are you doing?

Me: I did the cooking, kitchen cleaning, organizing things and besides, it’s not like I’m not helping him at all. We share the house-work.

Rel: That is not a good thing. He’s the man, he ought not to do house-work. ‘Seva’ is your work.

Me: Ummm………….umm…………

Never mind that my husband doesn’t mind it a bit to help me with the work. Never mind that the system for work-distribution we have in place works very well for us and we fill in for each other, whenever necessary. I just got told off for ‘making the man do the house-work’.

If the situation is like this for someone who is in the highest stratum of women’s education, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like for women who are completely uneducated. In rural India, it is unheard of to see a woman ‘asking’ for her basic rights to anything at all. Even in the richer families in rural India, the women (often weighed down by gold chains around their necks) neither ask for nor are provided the basics of needs. Their ‘quarters’ (believe it or not, most rural parts of India still have a women’s “part of the house”) are often shared by the cattle (as women take care of them), poorly lit and ill-maintained. The better facilities are always saved for “men’s part of the house”. When there comes an educated one (in the villagers’ vocabulary, the ‘rebellious’ one) and asks men the reasons for treating their women so shoddily, the replies often amount to “What do these women need facilities for?”. To say the least, I feel aghast. The horror of it all is often laced with sadness and sympathy for the women. The true horror of it all, however, dawns upon me when I talk to the women though. Their reply is, “This is our life, what can we do?”. The sheer helplessness and fatalistic attitude towards their own conditions of living makes me wonder. When, if at all, will this situation improve so that women can stop saying “Pehle aap” to men and seek at least their basic rights? Do I see a light at the end of the tunnel for these women yet?



  1. Ananthakrishnan said,

    May 24, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Nice post. There is no perception of tunnel for these women. They are burrowed underground with the light outside, a distant dream. Probably too bright for their own good. The perception of equality isn’t there. Facilities is taken by only those who demand it, can grab it and do grab it.

  2. May 24, 2010 at 10:17 am

    These stereotypes are drilled deep into our psyche. And as I repeated earlier on, it’s a social problem, not of or with a particular gender. I guess, it will take time to go. I confess with some shame that even in my house, the equation of household work isn’t balanced between me and my wife. She takes a larger portion of it. When you consider each instance of it, you will see that stereotype living in various forms. Sometimes in the fact that her expertise in handling all such things exceeds mine. Sometimes in sheer show of affection from her side. More often than not, you’ll find my wife favouring the stereotype vigorously while me try fighting it.
    Often I can see no end to the issue of figuring out how much of it is logical and how much rooted in social stereotypes. Beyond a point, it gets too much to fight established stereotypes (and frankly for me, the lure of not having to equally share labour), and we just let things be as they are. Though stereotypes are in our mind, it isn’t enough accepting their presence to get rid of them. I find no other way but to try within tolerable limits to fend ourselves from their effect and accepting that perhaps it’s not possible to get rid of it but gradually over time.

  3. Karthik said,

    May 24, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Nice post Pritesh ! And yes , a very relevant point ! I guess women have to stand up for their rights .In rural areas , the situation must be very sad . In cities, I think the newer generation of men are learning that they need to be a part of the housework too ! At then end of the day , it is individual specific i think !

  4. bhanu raman said,

    May 24, 2010 at 10:22 am

    hey, u have just tied the knot-and u live abroad. Our own family is a patriarchial one even today. Rani ho ya runk, ghar ka ya bahar ka, kaam tho hamein hein karna padtha hai. I dont think even the President of India is exempt. U will face more harsh realities when u r a much married woman and a mother.

    SAVING GRACE: We, and even in rural India, Women are realising and breaking the chains and conventions, albeit slowly. So, cheers!!!

  5. Vinod said,

    May 24, 2010 at 11:06 am

    The equations are changing Pritz, you will see it soon!!!

  6. Vinod said,

    May 24, 2010 at 11:16 am

    History says the oppressed will rebel at some point of time. You can get many examples like Arabs in 6th century, Nazis in Germany, Soviet Union, lower castes in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and in many states of India.
    The days are not far ahead when the oppressed Indian women and women from Muslim world will wake up and fight back for their rights.

  7. Aditi said,

    May 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    So thought provoking post Pritz! Oppression is disagreeable but being oppressed is doubly disagreeable!

  8. laasya said,

    May 24, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    I couldnt agree more!! wvery aptly made point! I ve faced a couple of similar situations and been equally baffled! though not from relatives but still its a voice from such adifferent world that it throws you off balance!! i know its very sad the kinds of situations women in our villages even today face.. but its almost sadder that supposedly \educated\ people stick to these sterotypes when it favours their comfort! infact thats far less excusable i think. i remember not long ago when i visited an old age home with a friend, a guy, and we had taken oranges to distribute. i was just chatting with a v nice lady while the friend started peeling the oranges. the lady next to me fiercely pulled my shirt and asked , you call yourself a girl? what do you mean by letting the guy do this work? and i was so taken aback i didnt know how to apologize or what for!! but clearly we were brought up on such different values that it would be very hard to explain why its ok anyhow!

  9. Pushpa said,

    May 25, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Every drop forms an ocean. If that is true, every person, male or female, who feels very strongly about this issue, should see that they set a good example for the next generation to follow or for their own peers to emulate. We do not have the past generation in our hands, but the present and the future is. So step forward and be the change to bring about the change. As everybody else has stated, Change MAY be slow but it will happen.

  10. Pritesh said,

    May 26, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    @ Ananth: Thanks Ananth, but yes, you’re right. For the women out there, probably it’s just so far off that they think they can never reach that speck of light.

    @ Sujit: What you raise a point is very valid. What I was basically talking about was the rights to basic health-care, hygiene, education etc. Rights that are beyond gender and should be every human’s, ideally speaking.

    @ Karthik: I think you are right Karthik. The same way as women are in the work-force, leaving the confines of the house, men are also working in the house to help the woman. It’s about respecting that one partner is putting in more effort at sustaining the household.

    @ Vinod: I agree with you Vinod. I just hope the change percoaltes to the lowest rungs of the society as well, and soon enough.

    @ Aditi: I couldn’t agree more Aditi. But I suppose, these women just so consider it their way of life that they don’t know basic things like health, education, nutrition etc are their rights.

    @ Laasya: I agree that people revert to these stereotypes to suit their convenience. I can so imagine the situation because I’ve got enough reprimand for ‘allowing the guy to do something I was expected to do’, notwithstanding the fact that the guy insisted on doing it.

    @ Amma: I really like your perspective Amma. That’s the way to go! Accepting that we HAVE the power to change the present! 🙂

  11. Madhurima said,

    May 27, 2010 at 4:47 am

    Hi Pritesh, your thoughts are so on the mark. I have an observation about this oppression that happens; often not expressed in words but visible in action. I feel that women play a role in oppressing women in a strange manner. The knowledgeable elderly women always telling us how to be a ‘good’ wife; women friends wondering why we have to work on weekends when we could spend the time socialising or being with husbands; well meaning women relatives say that education and degrees are but one thing- we still are meant to ‘nurture’ a home. We do not have to look at the rural women, I have had people on campus wondering how am involved with insti activities and stay late while the husband waits at home post his work. Initially, I would be irritated bcos it’s none of their business; now i understand that it is their frame of reference and perspective- i can decide how I will lead my life ; i cannot spend precious moments of it explaining to people why am doing so! there has to be a change at the grassroot level; the family system; the education; the activities of daily living that are gender centric- we need to bend a lot of rules, myths and traditions…notions of right and wrong!

  12. Sathya Prakash said,

    June 25, 2010 at 5:59 am

    The discussion around here is not really general. If we can think of getting better status for women among human beings, we should certainly feel the same for other living beings also. For example, why should we not think of the same for animals, plants etc with the same vigor? Please do not mistake my statement, because a person with a intent different from mine can easily charge that I was equating women with animals!!

    Quoting a line from Pritesh:”Their ‘quarters’ (believe it or not, most rural parts of India still have a women’s “part of the house”) are often shared by the cattle (as women take care of them), poorly lit and ill-maintained.” – The focus was on getting better living condition for women. While I respect that fully, why should we not think of getting the things we put into “good facilities” even to the animals? Most often we make remarks like, it is an animal, it does not require these things!! Who are we to decide?

    Most of those who responded give a positive thought by telling that things will change. I hope it is the same even with animals and plants too. Hope we understand this earth/universe and not take things too much for granted.

    Vinod said that the oppressed will get their chance one day. If that day comes to animals and plants, then I think humans will have no chance but to become extinct!

  13. Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said,

    June 25, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Dear Sathya,

    Before there’s a onslaught of rebuttals (which I very much think will come), let me express my support for what you have said. In fact, the same kind of illogical inequalities exists between the halves of the population (not necessarily human) created by any bisector. Between rich and poor; between informed and uninformed; intelligent and unintelligent; beautiful and not-so-beautiful; plants and animals; humans and animals …even living and non-living. Looked at deeply, no one can justify all the inequalities in the quality of life between the parts of any of these pairs. In its purest form, the problem is philosophical. And that raises the probability of its intractability to almost 100%.
    Given that, the practical problems are far more pressing and need quick working solution. Particularly, some atrocities on our womenfolk is so intolerable and barbaric that any sane person may be driven one out of his mind. Even if incomplete, even if heuristic, some solutions must come quickly. let’s begin at some point. Establishing true equality an easy thing to do. It requires changes at deep level. So, it’s going to be an expensive and slow process. Hence, one has to prioritise anyway. So, where do we begin? Starting with those who are most similar to those who are already enjoying a good status seems most intuitive to me (or will you dispute even that?), and probably the most manageable step too.

    But I admire you for the courage to try putting the question in a wider perspective. It requires some courage to do so being in the circles of empowered women passionately fighting for the rights of their not-so-empowered brethren (what’s the feminine of that word?). 🙂

  14. Sathya Prakash said,

    June 29, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Dear Sujit bhai,

    Hope this does not turn out to be a dialog between the two of us! Thanks for taking the comment seriously, because many would not see the point raised and assume it to be a uninvited joke!

    Your way of approaching the problem is nice. Starting from what is closest and make the neighbourhood clean. Then go on to solve bigger things. Good. I agree with you.

    You have also told that the problem is there whenever the line is drawn. It is true. In fact, many times, I say this to my students: “The universe is like a plain sheet of paper. It looks divided the way you draw the line.” The easy way out is not to draw lines at all, and if situation demands, draw them, but make sure they are not permanent lines. In fact this, told in another way becomes,”Give your unlimited Love to all and everything.” Believe me, if we can do this really, being conscious every moment at every step our mind takes, and keep giving our infinite love to everything (I am purposely removing the line between the living and non living too), we might realize that this discussion need not continue!!

    Love to universe

  15. Pritesh said,

    June 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Sathya, I do completely understand the sentiment that cattle deserve good living conditions too. I didn’t mean to belittle the cattle’s needs. But the fact that for men, these two become equivalent is saddening. We have to agree that cattle don’t need soap to clean their hands after dealing with cow-dung cakes. We have to accept that there are basic monthly routines women go through that demand attention, but the women there often deal with the same in very makeshift ways and land up catching infections etc. And well, while I am at it, let me tell you, when cattle catch infections in the villages, they are treated with medicines properly bought from a veterinary stores. Women don’t get that privilege. The average of cattle dying while giving birth is far lower than that of women dying in childbirth.

    I probably also am addressing the fact here that women’s contribution as a work-force is taken so seriously for granted! For example, I come across men saying things like “What do you have to do, you sit all day at home?” to house-wives (how I detest this term!!!) and don’t say a word of appreciation to a hot, delicious meal on the table at the end of the day, clothes ironed and in place, kitchen clean and sparkling, a well-stocked fridge, children’s rooms neat etc.

    It’s largely about appreciating the contributions, whether from humans or from cattle. That said, I have to commend the men of my generation. I know some fantastic ones (my husband tops the list) who not only respect women for what they’re doing but actively make efforts towards educating other men too. 🙂 All’s not well………but we’ve started in that direction.

    PS: Sujju, do I still sound like a feminist? 😀

  16. Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said,

    June 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Yes Pritesh! And why shouldn’t you?!
    I am witness to those instances of abysmal hygienic things which you have mentioned and know that it’s every bit true. And it’s shameful. All said, I have absolutely failed to do anything about these in my own family (as in, native; not the nuclear one). Earlier, they used to be kept secret from us as some well-kept secrets. Afterward too, when we started doubting, and eventually understanding, there’s a very effective mechanism woven with taboos, and even more importantly, by matriarchs advocating those practices, which prevent us from saying anything on such matters, however ridiculous we might find them. Another things I feel really hurt about but incapable to affect is:
    – Women not bothering about their food

    Well, far from calling any names, I would actually request you suggest some way of handling this and many other situations. Well, preferably, off the public forum initially.

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