Why Chetan Bhagat is part of the problem

In June 2011, Nielsen released the Women of Tomorrow report which is one of the ‘most comprehensive examinations into what women watch and buy’. The survey covered 6,500 women from 21 developed and developing countries. It was conducted online among women (over 18 years of age) and cut across social and income class. This report found that Indian women were the most stressed in the world, with 87% of Indian women saying that they felt stressed most of the time. They are followed by women in Mexico (74%), Russia (69%), Spain (66%), France (65%) and Italy (64%).

I recently came across a column written in response to this report in the Times of India by Chetan Bhagat titled ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. He begins by calling the Indian woman ‘the most beautiful’ in the world. He then gives us 5 ‘tips’ on how to become less stressed. Chetan says we need to ‘give it back’ to our mother-in-laws, quit our jobs if our bosses don’t value us, ask our husbands to ‘take a hike’ when we become economically independent,not worry too much about work-life balance as no one will remember your designation on the day you die and not to be competitive with other women because she has lost more weight than you or makes her husband a 5 tiffin lunch.

I wonder who this Indian woman is who he speaks to? One who can quit her job and leave her husband when fancy strikes. How is this is any way sound, well thought out advice? Even if he targeted this only at the highly educated, young Indian women living in the Indian metros, it doesn’t hold up; let alone the vast majority of Indian women across the country, making their living from hand to mouth.

He is in essence telling the Indian woman that the reason for her stress, that the problem is not our overwhelmingly patriarchal society. The problem is not that women are treated as property. The problem is not that we are still discriminated in the workplace, in society, at home. The problem is not that female sexuality is demonised by the Indian ‘culture’. The problem is not that women are trapped by traditional expectations. The problem is not the non-existent support structure or negative attitudes towards women in society that limits women from achieving their true potential. The problem is not the complex bias that women have to grapple with everyday. The problem is not that people like him- IIT/IIM educated, young, influential- think it is ok to patronise us, think that calling us beautiful is enough to blind our eyes to the real issues with which we juggle. No, Chetan says that the problem is merely our response to all of the above. Just change our response and we will become not only the least stressed but the happiest women in the world.

I wish he had had the young men of India in mind when writing this and targeted these ‘tips’ at them to help them reduce the stress in the women in their lives.

1. Treat women, including your wife, mother, mother-in-law, as your fellow human beings, your equals.

2. Don’t discriminate against women in your workplaces. Value them, recognise their true potential. It is just good business sense. The recent Credit Suisse Research Institute study found that firms with women on their boards have consistently outperformed those led by only male directors. Ernst & Young recently published a white paper which identifies women as ‘one of the world’s most promising emerging markets’. Harness the talent.

3. Give women better access to higher education. Studies have shown that educating women reduces infant mortality rates, leads to better education for children, better family life and a more balanced, empowered society. Allow them to become economically independent. Confident women can can step up to lead their families and communities.

4. Team up with your wife. Remember it is your home too. Take pride in contributing to keeping it beautiful.

5. Treat each woman as the unique individual she is. Don’t categorise, label, judge, patronise. Help them confront the causes of their subordination and powerlessness and transform their relationship with men.

Chetan was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2010. Someone in that position should have thought long and hard about the message he wants to send out, how he wants to influence India. He represents an important part of Indian society- the educated, young, modern Indian man. In their hands lie the power to change patriarchy. And the power to treat women differently, fairly. If we can get every Indian man to think a little differently about the women in their lives, to think of them as fellow human beings, that way lies progress and a better India. If that happened, although we may still not become the happiest women in the world, we will at least stop becoming the most stressed, the most vulnerable and the most exploited.


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