Sunday March 10, 2013
CULTURE CUL DE SAC
By JACQUELINE PEREIRA
Increasingly we hear the phrase — even utter it ourselves — that women are the future. But how close are we to that reality?
EACH year March 8 rolls up and, in marking International Women’s Day, themes are formed, slogans shouted, events held. Awareness grows, women take note and the day passes, just as the years do one after another.
The gender agenda is never far from female minds, but most women just get on with life. With their work and whatever they want to achieve for themselves, their families and their communities. A group of women I recently interviewed for a book project fully drove home this very point.
“Busy”, an inappropriate, purposeless word often worn as a badge by some, hardly begins to reveal the full extent of the lives these women entrepreneurs lead. Thoroughly engaged in their work, they find themselves guardedly rationing their valuable time. Working in teams and with staff to support, they realise that their businesses do not belong to them alone. In raising their families and managing their homes, sacrifices are made.
Pinning down a date and time for each interview was like negotiating our city’s traffic-ridden streets to get to an appointment on time. Almost impossible.
It’s either back-to-back meetings or bid proposals they needed to get out the previous day. Some were and still are travelling, either for leisure or work. One was back in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of nights before jetting off elsewhere. Another had a daughter’s wedding to oversee in the same month. A couple postponed their interviews several times because they were pulled away at the last minute for more meetings, events or emergencies.
When I finally managed to sit down with these women, the allocated hour seemed to pass in seconds. Representing a variety of ages, backgrounds and races, these very distinctive women willingly shared their inspirational stories.
Yet the measure of their success eludes easy definition; each one articulated in her own way the rationale for her ambition, determination and perseverance. Ranging from filmmakers and fashion designers to PR mavens and restaurateurs, they had a single common denominator – their palpable passion. And this means they are willing to do whatever it takes.
These women choose to diligently focus on their work, but ensure that domestic helpers, extended families and husbands take care of the other aspects.
Despite transforming their companies into successful businesses, many started with nothing. Most significantly, these women are unapologetic about being defined by what they do.
This brings to mind a paragraph I last read two years ago: “This clever young Nair lady has got on by her own efforts. She is headstrong, mannish and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes.”
This paragraph is from the early 1920s, when the Dewan of Travancore M.E. Watts replied to C.W.E Cotton, an agent to the Governor of the Madras Presidency, on his enquiries about a certain Lakshmikutty known to be sympathetic towards India’s independence cause.
That was how the first generation of Malayali feminists were regarded. Long before today, in many societies women pursued and furthered their own causes in their own way. Although not many succeeded or received due recognition, each woman held her own and fought for what she believed.
Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba, film director and producer, was one of those I interviewed for my project. In her inimitable fashion, she has a very thought-provoking film in development. I can’t wait to watch Regalia, which pays tribute to the vibrant and intelligent life of a Malay-Bugis warrior’s daughter. Known as the daughter of the “Fire Prince”, she voluntarily sacrificed love to honour her father’s desire to unite the warring factions under the Johor Sultanate in 1824.
This woman, Tengku Puteri Raja Hamidah Raja Haji, the keeper of the royal seal, is included in the www.guide2womenleaders.com Women in Power: 1800-1840 list. And she is in the company of some fascinatingly formidable female leaders. Yet I had never heard of her before.
These two examples of women from centuries past highlight the fact that women have always been fighting their own battles, without fanfare.
Yet, just weeks ago, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, was disparaged for her book, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead, to be published on March 12. The criticism directed against her – emanating mainly from women writers – includes her privileged position, her earnings and her audacity, “blaming other women for not trying hard enough,” as quoted in The New York Times. However, she is simply questioning what’s stopping more women from rising to the highest positions of power.
Recently, another new generation woman leader, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has become fodder for disgruntled, flexi-hour-loving, company employees. She has banned telecommuting at Yahoo, after discovering that her staff were taking undue advantage of working from home. She also faces censure, especially by other working mothers, for custom-building a fully-staffed nursery for her new son just before announcing her unwelcome rule.
Sometimes its other women who hold women back.
With female undergraduates outnumbering males by more than two to one, certainly the future looks feminine. But women must first want that future.
Let’s hope that future Women’s Days continue to create awareness, celebrate achievements and inspire the younger generation. But let’s also remember that, to succeed, each woman needs to choose her own path.