Journalist, Author, Nilanjana Bhowmick chats with Ananke’s Empower Fellow Zara Ahmed on revealing the truth about patriarchy and women’s care work in South Asia
What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism and focus on international reporting?
I have always been passionate about social justice and women’s rights. After graduating with a degree in English, I enrolled in a Master’s program. However, I soon realized that academia wasn’t for me. I wanted to be out there telling stories, and journalism seemed like the most logical next step. I started my career at the BBC World Service Radio in London, and even after moving to India, I continued to report for them. Initially, I didn’t plan on focusing on international reporting, but I soon discovered that there were stories beyond the stereotypical portrayal of India as the land of snake charmers. I told those stories, and fortunately, the international media took notice and were interested in publishing them.
As an independent journalist, how do you identify issues and report on stories that are important to you?
To me, choosing which stories to pursue involves a combination of personal interests, values, and expertise, as well as the needs and interests of my audience. Firstly, I prioritize staying up-to-date on current events and trends related to my areas of interest. I regularly read news articles, academic papers, and social media to keep informed about emerging issues and trends.
Once I have identified an issue or topic that interests me, I conduct in-depth research to gather as much information as possible. Although not all topics will develop into stories, they leave behind a wealth of knowledge that can be useful later on. I set aside a couple of hours each week to read the latest reports and studies in my areas of interest.
Additionally, I believe in engaging with people at the grassroots level, whether it’s the common man or woman, or activists. Some of my best stories have emerged from conversations with people.
How do you perceive the role of journalism in promoting democracy and social justice in India?
The purpose of journalism is to safeguard democracy and promote social justice. However, in today’s world, this is often overshadowed by the pursuit of profit. The media is not immune to these influences and can easily change sides based on where the money lies. Unfortunately, in India, the money and resources are currently in the hands of right-wing groups or those who support them. Capitalism has had a detrimental effect on the media worldwide, and idealism is often forgotten. Sadly, India is not immune to these influences.
Which story stands out as particularly memorable for you and why, from the issues, you have covered related to South Asia?
All of the stories I have covered have been memorable for me because I only choose to tell stories that I care deeply about. However, covering the COVID-19 pandemic was a soul-crushing experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
In 2022, you published a book, Lies Our Mothers Told Us. What inspired you to write about the lies mothers tell their daughters about patriarchy in the middle class?
I have pitched these stories many times, but most often, gender stories are turned down unless it’s a publication focused on women, or Women’s Day is around the corner. In 2017, I published an opinion piece in the Washington Post where I spoke at length about how feminism has left behind so many women in India. The response from readers was overwhelming. Many requested that this topic needed to be explored more. At that time, I was in the middle of writing my novel and was reluctant to take on another writing project. However, I realized that the stories I told did not have any lasting impact. Writing a book would give me the chance to tackle the subject as a whole and would have a greater impact. So, I set aside the novel and wrote ‘Lies,’ which addresses the issue of feminism in India and the challenges faced by women in patriarchal societies.
Your book features interviews with women from different backgrounds and experiences. What were the commonalities that emerged across their stories?
That they were overburdened with unpaid care work. That they have little to no decision-making powers at home. Abuse, physical as well as emotional, was widely prevalent. And most importantly, women have had enough. They want a change. They are ready for a change.
You have also emphasized the “unpaid care work” done by women. How does the burden of unpaid care work affect the personal and professional lives of South Asian women?
Unpaid care work is a significant burden for women globally, particularly in South Asia where gender roles are rigid and women are expected to be the primary caregivers. They end up shouldering a disproportionate burden of the care work. A study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2018 found that women in South Asia spend an average of 4.1 hours per day on unpaid care work, while men spend just 31 minutes per day. The burden of care work leaves women with little to no leisure, it limits their educational aspirations and professional goals. This is why it leads to high levels of stress and burnout for South Asian women, often leading to physical and mental health issues. Many women also drop off the labor force, unable to balance the demands of this “double shift”. And that is more than obvious in the low women’s workforce participation rate across South Asia. According to the World Bank, the female labor force participation rate in South Asia was just 23.6 percent in 2020, compared to a global average of 47.2 percent. Apart from its debilitating effects on women’s lives, it is also detrimental to a country’s economy. A country cannot progress by leaving half its population behind.
How can we effectively present the argument of unpaid care work done by women to our families who counter such issues with the argument that men earn and work outside while women look after the house, creating an ideal and balanced lifestyle where men cannot help with household chores?
The time for arguments is over. I think women must now demand that this invisible labor is recognized. Working women must demand that their double shift needs to be shared by their male partners, too. It is estimated that the value of unpaid care work in South Asia could be as high as 20-30 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP). This estimation is based on the assumption that if unpaid care work were to be paid for at the minimum wage rate, the value of unpaid care work would be equivalent to a significant proportion of the region’s GDP. Governments in South Asia should think in terms of a caregiving dole for women who are unable to participate in the workforce due to the burden of caregiving. The pressure of caregiving affects a woman’s entire life cycle. Girls are taken out of school to help their mothers at home, they must consider a thousand things before accepting a job, and most of those thousand things are related to worries about caregiving and domestic work. Countries like Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Canada already have such policies in place.
How do children, particularly girls who are confined to their homes, internalize patriarchal values when they witness the subtle but harmful ways in which patriarchy affects their mothers and themselves? Is it important for boys to witness and identify these realities to break the cycle of patriarchal attitudes and values?
Children grow up in gendered households, where they observe and learn the gender roles of their parents, with the mother typically seen as a nurturer and caregiver, and the father as the breadwinner. Even if the mother is a working woman, this gendered division of labor often remains the same. As a result, both boys and girls internalize these gender roles and replicate them in their future lives. Boys grow up to become entitled men who expect to be catered to and cared for by their wives, while girls become burdened with an inordinate amount of unpaid care work, mental and cognitive labor, and the inability to say no to all of these responsibilities. They internalize the idea that all other roles they play in life are secondary to caregiving, perpetuating the cycle of gender inequality.
How do you think feminism has made progress in India, especially its impact on the upper and lower middle classes?
Feminism in India, like in most other patriarchal societies, has only been accessible to a privileged few. While there have been some advancements in empowering women at the grassroots level, the upper middle class often views feminism through a distorted lens or ignores it altogether. This is partly due to the common misperception that feminism is an extreme movement that promotes man-hating and bra-burning. We have yet to shift the narrative to one that recognizes that feminism is about achieving equality.
Despite thought policing, restrictions, and threats, feminists, political activists, civil society members, and intellectuals remain committed to the cause of resisting extremism and polarization in India. However, if the crackdown on their activities continues, do you believe that their activism and progressive efforts may eventually lose momentum and fade away?
Not at all. The Indian feminist movement has a long and rich history, dating back to the early 19th century when Indian women began to organize themselves to fight for their rights and social justice. They were able to influence the passage of several landmark laws and policies aimed at protecting women’s rights and promoting gender equality. These include the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, and the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017, among others. Without a doubt, these laws and policies have helped to improve the legal and social status of women in India. The movement has survived deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes and systemic discrimination against women for decades now and it will continue to fight against forces that try to disenfranchise women.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists, particularly those who want to focus on issues of social justice?
Reporting on social justice is a significant responsibility. Often, these stories involve the most marginalized members of society. It’s crucial to avoid exploiting their stories or appropriating their voices for personal gain. Instead, let them tell their stories in their own words. Listen to them with empathy and understanding, without jumping to conclusions. Examine what they say against the backdrop of their conditions and circumstances.
Zara Ahmed is a media professional, based in Pakistan. She has always been passionate about writing and publishing stories about issues, particularly concerning human rights and social taboos. Zara is seeking to explore opportunities for learning and experience in my field of interest.