HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Sisterhood Economy Of, By, For Wo(men) by Shaili Chopra

Review: Sisterhood Economy Of, By, For Wo(men) by Shaili Chopra

Shaili Chopra’s Sisterhood Economy Of, By, For Wo(men) is an engaging read that examines the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary women trying to break away from the cycle of gendered roles. She interviews more than 500 working women and homemakers across classes, castes, cities, and ages to understand why they are an invisible workforce, why the burden of daily chores falls on them, and whether housework should be measured and monetised.

Almost a decade ago, Chopra, a broadcast journalist who excelled at telling stories of people who made it, decided to quit her cushy and well-paying job to tell stories of women who did not. She went on to launch SheThePeople, a platform “to discuss life, work, insecurities” of women, and to get to the crux of “why do only one in five women work?”

258pp, Rs599; Simon & Schuster India

The idea of this book germinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stories of urban men spending time in the kitchen were being celebrated, and the patriarchal world woke up to the “quantum of chores that needed to be done” – by even salaried working women when they got home.

Chopra reminds readers that when Indra Nooyi came home after being crowned the CEO of Pepsi, her mother shut her up and sent her out to fetch milk. That’s the fate of women even when they break glass ceilings. One can only imagine the fate of the lesser-known ones – like a wife working in the same organisation as her husband telling Chopra she was nervous about an impending promotion and praying she didn’t get it as that would upset her marriage.

Chopra spends time meeting women across the country to figure out why they undersell themselves and settle for low-paid jobs. Is there a lack of role models for women? Are top business positions only held by women from business families – who are basically “puppets” in the hands of men?

Parents need to invest more in their daughters. (HT Photo)
Parents need to invest more in their daughters. (HT Photo)

She argues that right from the time girls are born, they are seen as “paraya dhan”, with parents refusing to invest in their education or health care. The relatively well-off households educate their girls till a suitable boy comes along and handpicks their daughter like a fruit from the neighbourhood market.

She dedicates an entire chapter to India’s arranged marriage culture. 90 percent of marriages are arranged and the divorce rate is as low as 1.1 percent, she informs. This skewed statistic is often used to advocate arranged marriages, even as hundreds of women die as a result of harassment over dowry, or are murdered or compelled to take their lives.

Chopra’s style of writing is conversational, and it is unlikely that a reader (especially a woman) will not feel charged. The questions she raises hit home: Why should patriarchy decide which career is appropriate for women? Why are women not encouraged to have careers in traditionally masculine fields such as commerce, the army, and sports? Why is the idea of a clean house more important than following one’s dreams? Why are gender pay gaps so huge? According to the WEF Global Gender Gap report of 2019, it would take 257 years before the world would erase the pay imbalance between men and women – that’s the year 2277!

To drive home her point that more women need to urgently join the formal workforce and demand equal wages, Chopra cites global management consulting firm McKinsey’s projections: if Indian women are given equal opportunities they could add up to $770 billion, more than 80 percent, to its GDP by 2025. She also cites a World Bank report of 2020 to show that India’s female labour force has decreased from 30.27 percent in 1990 to 20.3 percent in 2019 and that it is the lowest in South Asia.

No amount of money can make up for the drudgery of house work. (HT Photo)
No amount of money can make up for the drudgery of house work. (HT Photo)

She explores the idea of making housework paid. “Does the handle of the broom come printed with the words: To be operated by women only,” she quotes a change.org petition started by social worker Subarna Ghosh to highlight the “non-activity”, the daily grind that is seemingly a woman’s responsibility alone.

“No amount of money can make up for the drudgery of housework but we have finally begun a debate on why housework should be measured and if it is measured, what impact it can have on women. Could putting value to housework add to an ongoing power struggle between men and women? Will paid housework relegate women permanently as homemakers and further discourage them from having careers and aiming for high-paying jobs?” she asks.

To emphasise how deep-rooted these girl stereotypes are she recounts what entrepreneur and UN activist Navya Naveli Nanda, granddaughter of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, told her. “I have been conditioned to get up and serve water to the guests when they are home,” even as her brother sits around. This is the story of one of the country’s most influential households.

Chopra takes a peek into how popular culture views women – as “devi or dayan” – and that women lack agency in both reel and real life. She speaks to Shikha Makan, the writer of Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, an unconventional TV show (a take on Ugly Betty) that aired in the early 2000s. Makan tells her that she had to exit from the TV show when Jassi, an average looker was transformed into just another sanskari, pretty girl.

Other interesting insights she provides is of fathers-in-law interfering with the economic ambitions of their daughters-in-law, and the inherent misogyny in medicine – doctors dismissing a woman’s pain as psychological. She speaks of a woman needing eye surgery and the doctor advising her to postpone it till her marriage.

Chopra advocates a sisterhood economy where women back each other up and “break that trope that a woman is a woman’s worst enemy”. She states that digital tools are empowering women even though the backlash and hate are killing them.

READ MORE – Interview: Shaili Chopra, author, Sisterhood Economy: Of, By, For Wo(Men) – “Caste and gender inequality go hand in hand”

Through hundreds of stories and her empathetic writing, Chopra succeeds in highlighting the daily miseries of women across class and caste – as serious as the double discrimination of Dalit women to women not drinking water for hours, even in urban areas, due to lack of access to toilets.

The most heartfelt parts are when the author reveals her own story. Divorced at 21 with her mother trying to hide her divorce from everyone, and urging her to take up a job that’s less demanding so that she has time for housework.

Shaili Chopra (Courtesy the publisher)
Shaili Chopra (Courtesy the publisher)

Unfortunately, Chopra often slips up when mentioning facts and figures. For her, Amal George Clooney is a Khan, and Esther Duflo, not Malala Yousufzai, is the youngest Nobel prize winner. She cites McKinsey’s projections a couple of times, and the figures vary each time. In the early part of the book, she writes that if women are given equal opportunities they could add up to $770 billion by 2025. Later, that figure changes to $700 billion. Similarly, the percentage of arranged marriages changes from 90 to 95 in the latter half of the book.

Often, the source of studies is not disclosed. For example, she writes: “A study shows that 52 percent of girls in India are absent in schools due to frequent illnesses. The most prominent illness among girls in India is related to the lack of menstruation cycle. 23 million women in India drop out of school when they begin menstruating.”

Chopra bats for a “sisterhood economy” but voices from the minority communities are sadly missing. This oversight is glaring as she has interviewed hundreds of women across the country. However, the reader can seek solace in the fact that the beautiful book cover by Mridu Agarwal has a woman donning a hijab.

Nevertheless, this is a good book to understand how and why it is important for women to stand up for themselves, be counted in the formal workforce, and be at par with men.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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