IAS officer Saumya Pandey getting her newborn to work is about the need to change workplaces to accommodate the biological needs of women, and make men more accountable.
“In whichever ways women are different… their difference is considered to be an inferior difference, not just a difference, or not a superior difference.” Thus writes Nivedita Menon in her brilliant, hard-hitting and piercingly insightful book Seeing Like a Feminist.
Think about this. Every time we speak of biological differences between men and women, we always take the male as the ‘norm’, as the standard to which the female must measure up. Society quotes these differences to project women as inferior. Women, too, have internalised the idea that any ‘female’ traits or differences they exhibit will be signs of weakness.
Nothing drives home this point like the recent case of IAS officer Saumya Pandey (nodal officer for COVID cases in Ghaziabad), whose picture of herself holding her newborn baby while performing her official duties went viral on the internet. She was called an inspiration for her ‘dedication’ to her work. Both women and men quoted her as an example of someone who was completely committed to her duties.
Contrary to this, there also emerged a clamour of voices claiming her to be ‘irresponsible’ for ‘endangering’ her newborn in times of Covid 19—and also for setting ‘wrong precedents’ for other women, causing them to be judged for actually availing of maternity leave.
Both these voices—the ones that idolise Pandey and the ones that shame her—are actually missing out on the glaring problem here: a system that thrives on being contemptuous of the ways in which women are different from men; a system that refuses to acknowledge that equality is not defined by ‘sameness’, refuses to acknowledge that having varying needs and biological differences does not make one person less equal than another.
A system that considers women not competent enough if they avail of the leaves—that are legally theirs—or holds them in contempt for needing ‘special privileges’, as men refer to them.
Not very long ago, we witnessed a huge debate on the issue of menstrual leave, with senior journalist Barkha Dutt being one of the vociferous opponents of the idea.
The general belief is that a woman would not be equal to a man if she displayed the slightest bit of difference. So even if the menstrual leave were made optional, the women who availed of them would be looked down upon, while the women who did not would be hailed as ‘committed’ and ‘dedicated’.
It is exactly the same mindset that interprets a woman taking maternity leave as weak or incompetent, and therefore heaps pressure on women to get back to work immediately, disregarding their bodies’ needs and differences.
Most significantly, this is a system that refuses to acknowledge that men, too, need to shoulder their half of responsibilities towards children and home.
Would a man ever have to bring his newborn child to work? Why not? Why is it not an equal responsibility of the co-parent, the father, to care for the child? Even in the 21st century, why is it still the norm that the primary and sole caregiver for the child must necessarily be the mother?
In Indian society, the predominant narrative has always been one that glorifies women who, while pursuing their careers, are also ‘balancing the family’ and ‘not neglecting the home’ while no man is ever questioned about his duties towards home and child— about his role in parenting and caregiving. A woman’s dedication to her professional duties is consistently brought under the scanner, yet no man’s dedication to his childcare duties is ever brought under the scanner.
A woman, then, is forever under pressure to prove herself ‘as good as a man’, while no man is ever under pressure to prove himself ‘as good as a woman’. Simply because women are never considered the standard for measure.
What Saumya Pandey chooses to do is her individual decision, and she has every right to choose what she feels is best.
However, as a society we need to question the mindset that heaps all sorts of burdens on women—in the words of Pandey herself: “In rural India, women do their household and work related to their livelihood in pregnancy during the near days of delivery and after giving birth they take care of the child and also manage their work and household.”
This is precisely the situation which we need to reform, and make men more accountable for their responsibilities towards family and childcare, rather than persist in putting an ever growing burden on women alone.
Let’s stop judging women and judge and question skewed systems instead.
Image source: Twitter
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Zehra Naqvi is a journalist who has been writing for a decade on gender, literature
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