28th June 1998
Silent and remote
Rajpal Abeynayake spoke to Femina Editor Sathya Saran last week on many topics- India, women and chauvinism being just some of them. The Femina Editor was on a three day tour of the island. Femina now sells over one million copies in India alone.
Q: How would you classify the current status of Indian women. Are they emancipated, downtrodden. Iím asking for your personal view, not the outlook of your magazine.
A: They are both the same. I think the Indian woman is on the verge of a quantum leap. The number of women doing business at home in India today is amazing.
She also has strong cultural values, which she doesnít give up. She may go in a two wheeler, but she will be wearing a sari.
It is a balance that the western woman does not have. It is something that maybe the extreme far eastern women are not capable of. But again, Iím talking of a small percentage of Indian women. The rural Indian woman still has a long way to go. She still has to fight chauvinism and society. But with women getting representation at the panchayat level, I think it is getting betterÖ.
Q: You mean the quota allocated to Indian women in the legistlature
A: Yes, now it means they legally have a voice and can make themselves heard.
Q: Isnít there something slightly ďdeviantíí about giving woman a special place. Because when they donít compete in a level playing field, they are automatically classed as inferior.
A: They should compete equally if everything was equal. It is like the representations for the minority. You will find people in the minorities who would never have had a chance if they were not given job quotas. If you grow a nursery of flowers, and some of those flowers grow on rocks, you will have to give some extra care to those flowers if they are transplanted to normal soil.. The same applies to women. If they are put in positions in which they are to govern, you have to give them crutches for a while. In most homes, the man decides what goes and what doesnít, at least if he earns. If he says you are not stepping out of the house, then thatís it.
Q: But donít you think giving preference can perpetuate a more subtle kind of chauvinism as well.
A: No, it depends on the kind of women who have to be chosen. The women should not be chosen to make up the numbers. If the quota is not met with capable people, then donít meet it. It is that kind if balance that is required. And perpetuating a myth that a woman is secondary is not a myth. It is a fact.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: If you look around, you will see how many women who are at the top say they are hampered. We did a cover story on women who are at the top of their fields, and 98 per cent of the women who were surveyed said their husbands cannot cope with their success. So the women have to make an extra effort to tell their husbands ď baba you are the boss.ĒInside the home you are my lord you are my master.
Q: So if you donít mind my striking a personal note, you are probably much more famous than your husband who is an amusement park consultant. You are the Editor of Femina. So does your husband have the same coping problems with you ?
A: Well in my case ó touch wood, touch wood many many times ( she touches the table ) you could say my husband is not a typical Indian man, a typical man even. He is not threatened by me. There is little age difference between us. He is eleven years older than me. He has nurtured me. When I married him I was just 19, and very shy. I had my opinions but I wouldnít express them. He is the person who helped me grow, showed me how to mix with people Ö. So I think he vicariously shaped my mind. He never felt threatened even though there may have been one or two battles in the beginning. When I first joined the magazine, we got an invitation to a show which said Mr and Mrs Sathaya Saran. He said Iím not coming, this is not for me. But now, there are occasions at which he introduces himself as Mrs Sathaya Saran. Today we laugh about it.
Q: Is part of the India womenís psyche also a little confused. For example, when the Miss World contest was held in India, there were protests by Indian women, at least some of them saying such contests are degrading to womanhood etc., But a great many Indian women are proud they have produced two or three beauty pageant winners such as Aishwarya Rae for example. So you as an editor of a womenís magazine , do you also feel torn between the sentiments of women who want beauty pageants and those who donít want them?
A: I think the group who think beauty pageants areexploitation is a very small group. I have a feeling they do it more as publicity and to be heard and I doubt they really believe in what they say. It is a nice little handle to hold and beat someone with. As for our Femina Miss India contest is concerned, it is not a beauty contest. Thatís very clear. The most beautiful girl doesnít always win. When we had Aishwarya, she did not win,. She was second.
Q: That was before she became Miss India?
A: Right. What really happens during that contest is personality development. We train women on how to walk, how to talk, how to face interviews and how to present a confident image of themselves in public. I think Indian women have never had this chance. In Europe you have Switzerland and you can go there and attend a finishing school. Indian women have never had such a professional chance to finish themselves and I donít think I see any debate, or two faces on this issue. If a woman wants to project herself as a glamour person, then she has the right to do so. In our contest, women know they are in good hands, they know they donít have to sleep with someone in order to win.
Q: If I may ask, do you think all that you said is necessary for Indian women. Do they need to be ďfinished offíí; why do you need toÖ?
A: Why do you need to give them that opportunity to groom themselves?
Q: Iím not saying that, but why do you think that Indian women should think they need to have this extra social poise and finished touch. I mean isnít it all part of the subtle continued exploitation of women ?
A: Not at all. Look at me at fifty. Twenty years ago I was the same person. But if I went to a room full of people I would be so scared I would hide in a corner. If I went to a restaurant, I wouldnít be able to order. But I did it the hard way, and now with exposure, I am much more confident today. I feel if you give me a job, whether it is climbing a mountain or bringing up a child, that confidence is the final residue of that leadership. Social graces are only the outward show. That gives you a confidence which makes you a better mother, a better wife etc.,
Q: But as you said, I think that comes through experience and living doesnít it ?
A: But everybody is not given that experience
Q: But do you think a finishing school can impart the same kind of finesse that experience does ?
A: It may not give you experience, but it will give you the confidence to want to experience.
Q: I wonít use the word aping , but donít you think that notwithstanding all of what you say, itís all part of following the Western tradition? It is in the West that you get the coming out parties, the debutantes the finishing schools and all that type of thing.
A: In ancient India, there were people teaching royalty how to dance, how to appreciate music. That was all to give the body grace. It was to give you voice control, to give you breath control. You know that if you take a deep breath, you get more oxygen, and the oxygen gives you the courage to face situations.
I donít think it is aping the West, and if the West can teach you how to be more assertive, why not learn the lessons.
Q: But do you have to look up to the West for that?
A: Well, the part about teaching royalty in our culture is now history. That milieu now doesnít exist. So there is nothing wrong taking things from the West. I donít see why the West should always be treated as the villain. There is not much harm in taking whatís good in Western civilisation.
Q: But isnít it like opening the floodgates? You think you are taking in something good, but with it comes all that is bad and all the dross.
A: The moment you are born you open the floodgates.
Then you should refuse to be born.
Q: No, Iím saying that you have the discernment to take what is good and reject whatís bad. So are you using that discernmentÖ?
A: We are telling the woman ďall this is there, but you can choose what you want to takeíí.
Q: But Iím thinking aloud. Femina organises these contests, and you must be coming in for some flak
A: I find there is a voice here and a voice there, but by and large the mothers always say I want my daughter to be part of the contest and I want my daughter to imbibe the social graces Ö.. its the motherís wish to present her daughters with opportunities she never knew. It is a shortcut.
Q: A shortcut to what ?
A: It is a shortcut to understanding the world. There was a beautiful girl whose father was a policeman,. When she joined the contest, she couldnít speak English or walk the ramp. Now she is a model in Paris, and there was something about her outlook that made her want to win and come out of her surroundings.
Q: To what extent does Femina, apart from building confidence and all of that, work towards retaining the femininity of the Indian woman?
A: We do that, but also we do something towards bringing out the femininity in the Indian man Ė the more caring side, the more compromising side.
Q: Femina dwells a lot on the glamour of womanhood?
A: Sure, beauty is such an important part of womanhood..
Q: But at the same time, how do you balance it with the need not to cast women as mere sex objects, something quite objectionable to the so- called liberated woman.
A: We appeal to the thinking woman,. Itís like a dish Ė dehi vada. Dehi vada can be dehi and vada or you can dress it up with coriander and make it into a good dish. It still has to be soft, absorbent. Just because you want to look beautiful, you cannot let your inside become hollow ó you have to be who you are.
Q: Do you think that Indian women are becoming more liberated, in their sexual orientation for instance?
A: More aware of their sexuality, yes, but not liberated. Society is still very compratmentalised, unfortunately due to the high Indian culture that you have been talking about.
Q: Are you saying that Indian men are just chauvinists?
A: Unfortunately, 90 per cent of the Indian men are. When it comes to having more and more cars, he may have improved, but when it comes to the value system at home, he has not budged an inch.
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