A Conversation With Author Sindhu Rajasekaran: On Girl Bosses, Economic Power and Feminist Choice

By Raiyah Butt

Sindhu Rajasekaran is a literary nomad and transgressor of genres. Her debut novel Kaleidoscopic Reflections was nominated for the Crossword Book Award. It told the tale of an inter-caste Tamil family. Her collection of short stories, So I Let It Be, explored love, loss and female sexuality. Her upcoming book of non-fiction about Indian feminism(s) is titled Smashing the Patriarchy – A Guide for the 21st-century Indian Woman. Published by Aleph Book Company, it is out from November 5th 2021.


In Part One, we’d talked about beauty and body politics, the expression of gender and sexuality in South Asia, and the troubles of dating. Part Two of this interview explores the later chapters of Smashing the Patriarchy, taking the focus to the working woman, both in the public realm and in the home, our economic power, and the feminist narrative of choice.


Raiyah: Moving on to women in the workplace. This kind of links back to what when we were talking about earlier, the corporatized influence. I don't know how much time you spend on the internet, probably less than me as a typical Gen Z-er who is on her phone way too much. But there is a very liberal, one-dimensional empowerment image of the “girlboss”. Like Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President, that image, which is funny on one hand, but also it projects this sanitized version of feminism, which strips it from a lot of its ideals, and projects a corporatized method of how women should move up in the world. It puts a single individual woman in a better position but then does not help the masses. And this has been critiqued for that reason, employing women to just get with the system or aid the patriarchy rather than smashing the patriarchy. Just “be like men”, move up like men, rather than tearing the system down. I wanted to know whether you share these critiques? And how do you think that women should maybe overcome this?


Sindhu: That's a very interesting question because this is something that I really think about a lot. I'm 34 now. And in the last decade, I've done so many different types of jobs. I think I was revolutionary and radical in my early 20s. When I was at the University of Edinburgh, I was in the anarchist society and everything. I was like that revolutionary person, right. But when I moved back to India, I was in Mumbai, and I worked as a corporate communications consultant. I did that job for a long time. It's like, you do these things in the real world, you can be radical, you can have this ideology. But you also have to get with everybody else to get what you want - people you may not agree with. You can't just live in a bubble unless obviously, you're a politician and you have a particular ideology to propagate or an activist and you have that particular ideology to propagate. If you're not an activist or a politician, and you're just doing an everyday job, you have to deal with your job and do your *activism* at the same time. There are all these contradictions that are there, definitely. And for me, if you look at capitalism, or you look at communism, or you look at socialism. They're all patriarchal. It's not like I think any one ideology is gender-equal or anything like that. Look at China, or you look at Russia, countries where socialism or communism happened. And they did say that now everything, everybody's gender-equal, but that's not the reality that happened after that. And you look at Nordic countries, which are a mix of capitalism and socialism, there is more gender equality there.

But it depends, what I'm trying to say is that there is no one ideology that is gender-equal.

Every woman has to deal with the patriarchy in whatever system or structure she's part of. You could think that the solution would be to completely not work with the system, not to collude with the patriarchy - if you consider all corporations patriarchal, which they are. But if you do not want to collude with it, you do not want to work with them, then you're going to set up something all by yourself, you need capital for that. That's why a lot of women work in corporate jobs, I've interviewed so many of them who are leaders, who run like these billion-dollar companies, who are the girl bosses that you refer to. And those women, they smash the patriarchy from within. And that takes a lot of guts, it's not easy to do, because you have to be there, you have to be masculine, you have to be feminine, you have to be androgynous, you have to deal with all the sh*t that’s thrown at you. And you have to prove to them that you can do a man's work and still be a woman at the workplace. That's not easy.


I think all those women who do that work, I think we should be celebrating them and not thinking “you're not feminist because you’re doing those things”. I mean, of course, you can hold them responsible, call them out for why they're not being a feminist boss, and that I will come to later - that it is important for women to be feminists bosses. And I think that's the future that we should be looking at and what we should be talking about. But as far as “can we work with them?”, “can we not work with them?”, it's not a choice many of us can make. Maybe if you have a lot of privilege, you could choose not to work with any corporation or entity that isn’t ideologically perfect. But everybody cannot do that, based on where you are in society. And talking about corporate culture’s lean-in thing, “be like men and get to the top”, I think that's again a thing of choice. Not every woman wants to lean in and get to the top. Some women just need the money or just pursue their passions or whatever it is. I think it's such an individual thing, but there is no one feminism, there is no one perfect way to be a feminist. I think every woman has to figure out for herself what makes her happy, what gives her mental peace and work towards that.


Raiyah: That's interesting, I wanted to know how you think that we should navigate that dichotomy. And a lot of that is the route to your own financial or economic freedom, your own choice, it is a means to an end for a lot of women. I think as I’m in my early twenties, I just finished university where I got into reading radical theory and trying to embody that in my political beliefs, as you said you were yourself at my age. That's why I think it's a really interesting conversation because I'm now in the position where I need to start my career and I'm having trouble with it, especially because I have a political background. I’m trying to figure out “how do I navigate my way through this system holding my beliefs and moving forward”. And I think it's also a bigger challenge as well for women of colour particularly. “Lean in” is a good example, because that “lean in” book was written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, I believe. But then I listened to a really good podcast where a panel of Black women were critiquing that, because leaning in is something that only white women can afford to do. There’s an article as well written by a Black woman, I can’t remember who by, but it’s called something like “why leaning in gets you kicked out”. But for Black women, and Asian women too, who are masculinized in negative ways and dehumanized using racist tropes, such as “aggressiveness”, you don't really have that allowance. If you even get your foot in the door in your workplace as a woman of colour, you're then faced with that, too. You have that on top of the feminist issues to navigate as well. If you want to share anything more on that, feel free. Or talk about being a feminist boss, please elaborate.


Sindhu: What you said is true, I came into this world thinking, I'm going to be perfect, just keep my ideology the way it was when I started off. But the most important thing that I've learned is to listen to other women and understand why they make the choices they make and do what they do. If you're like a stickler feminist, you might think, “oh, that sounds so regressive”, or “that’s so capitalist”, everything can sound bad. But if you listen to that particular woman's choices and her story, and why she did what she did at one particular time, you'd see that she was doing it to survive in her life, that she needed to do that to survive. But having said that, it's important to be a feminist boss in the sense to be intersectional, because at the end of the day, we are a part of this very masculine and unjust structure.

We do have to do a lot of masculine things, to be masculine subjects, in this patriarchal world, but when we think “the future is female”, or when we speak of a “feminist future”, that cannot happen unless we feminize the world as well. This means we democratize, we try to undo historical injustices and hegemonies of all sorts, we help to mainstream marginalized voices - we should all strive to be good allies.

And of course, corporate structures need to be feminized. Because they do not work in a way that is good for anybody's mental health as well as women’s needs, right? It's important for us to think about those things, and to think about how there can be equality there, and how there can be diversity there and how we can collaborate with each other, all those things are important. And I believe that feminist bosses should look at that. At the same time, I'm not going to say “don't do this job, because the structure is not feminist”, then we cannot do anything, because what institution do we have, that's like, a super feminist institution, right?


Raiyah: I'm glad you elaborated on that. Thank you. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you've got unpaid labour, which is another issue. In India, women spend three hundred minutes a day on unpaid domestic services, that’s around five hours, while men only spend ninety-seven minutes. This is another failure of society to recognize women's work, childcare, housework, cooking, groceries, all of these things, which are traditionally designated women's roles. And that acts as another barrier to women's economic freedom and labour force participation. But in South Asian culture, typically it's considered the natural role for women to take. There's that additional cultural barrier as well. In your book, you say you explore how homemakers contribute to the economy. Do you think there is a way of overcoming these views and incorporating unpaid labour into India specifically? Because some countries already do actually recognize it and provide benefits to women, What in India's case do you think needs to happen?


Sindhu: I really liked the number that you put out, I wish I had included that in my book. Because that really stands out. Yes, women do so much unpaid labour, right. It's not just childcare, as you said, domestic work. Plus, they do a lot of emotional labour as well for the family to raise those children. In the pandemic, I think we really saw that right away. Most families, even those who thought they were in a gender-equal partnership, I think in the pandemic, a lot of women realized “I'm doing a lot of gender work here”. It’s important to think about what women do and what they contribute to our economy.

Because if we did add that value of unpaid labour to the Indian economy, it will be in billions. There’s so much work right there.

But for me, I think, how do we pay these women for this work? Obviously, the government could do that, like you said, a lot of governments do do that. But in the Indian scenario, I think it's a lot to do with the fact that most marriages are economic propositions, people marry, if the woman is not a working member of the family, say she brought from her mom's house a certain amount of wealth she’s valued at this much money, but it's not hers, because dowries get taken away by men and their family. Women are left with no money and some of these women who do not have careers. The reason feminists say all women should have careers is because of the economic safety net that women should have, and they cannot have that if they choose not to work outside the house. I think to solve that issue, it's important for women to have equal access to family wealth, everything that the family owns should be in the woman's name as well. That's the only way that you can give her that say, give her that importance in that family. Another way, obviously, is to pay for their labour, that's great, too. Both are very, very important.


And the biggest thing that we miss, I think this is a problem not just for South Asian culture, but I think around the world, it's how we see homemakers, right? We tend to think of them as women with no ambition, think they're not feminist. We think that choice is regressive, or it's unconsciously making the wrong choice. That's how we see it, we can not understand that that woman's choice is her valid choice because she wants to do it, it's because it makes her happy. You know, maybe her ambitions are for her family. Maybe she just likes to cook, maybe she likes to garden, maybe she loves to read, and she doesn't want to work some thankless job. Whatever her choice is, I think it's important for us to recognize that. Also in South Asian communities, I've seen that women can be really powerful in the community, in many of these families. It's not a one case thing for all families. Every family is different. Every community is different.

There are so many communities where women who are homemakers have a lot of say in the family, as to what people can do, what people cannot do, and they have the ear of the patriarch, they can get something done, they can bring about change.

They do have power in a different way, I don't think that they're powerless women, either. I think it's important to relook at all of this and understand that economic power at the end of the day lies with who in the family has the power to say who spends money where and what happens with it. I think that in that sense, women should have control over that money in the family. Otherwise, nobody's going to respect her feminized skills, that's not going to happen.


Raiyah: That follows on nicely to the book’s chapters four and five which have a central theme of choice. Choice is the root in a lot of the things we've talked about, and I'm sure in your book too. Women's choice to work, or like you said, to have children or to follow traditions, to wear makeup etc. So why is choice important to you? And what advice do you give to women who are trying to find self-empowerment through their own choices, their faith, their culture, and their identity?


Sindhu: This is very close to my heart. In the beginning, you asked me about the women who inspire me, this connects to that because the women who have inspired me the most are the women in my family. Like my grandmothers, my mom, my aunts, and many of these women may seem conservative to the feminist eye because they might be dressed in traditional attire, or they might be women of faith. But that's just one part of the story because they’re also matriarchs, businesswomen, bankers and doctors. The grit and the resilience that these women have had in their lives to do everything that they've done, raise children, I look up to that. For me, this is what tradition and what modernity means. It's not like these two exclusive things have nothing to do with each other. For each woman, it can mean different things. What you’re modern about or traditional about, I think it's such an individual thing. It's a choice that we cannot judge for others, from where she comes from. What she's doing makes her happy and it makes sense in her community. I don't think we should just judge things outright, which is the biggest problem in our society right now. We are just judging communities based on what we don't understand about that community. It's just like, we have all these phobias. And this happens a lot, especially with South Asian communities, because obviously, people assume that anything that our culture does is regressive in general, so then women's position in that culture has to be super regressive. We’ve got to be “rescued”. And I'm not saying that's not entirely true, either. Because in certain cases, yes, that is true. But that's not the full story. There's so much more there.

When it comes to choice, especially for South Asian women, since the book is about that, I think women make such choices which might just bamboozle you, you might not understand why she made that choice. She might be educated, but she might just give up her career to just raise her children, that's the choice that that woman might make. Another woman might not want children, a woman might have children, but get divorced and leave the children with her husband, things like that happen. It’s for each woman to decide what she wants to do.

I think it's important for us not to judge another woman. If we want to call ourselves feminists, the first step towards that should be trying to understand another woman's choice.

If you do not understand her choice, and you're just outright labeling her a feminist fail, or anti-feminist, whatever. I don't think that's going to bring us together as women, which is what we need to do. Come together!


Raiyah: That’s a good note to end on. Thank you for joining me, you've given such fruitful and insightful answers, this has been a really great conversation. I'm looking forward to reading the book, especially as a South Asian woman.


Sindhu said, “sorry if I got passionate, I get very passionate about these things”, to which I said she obviously doesn’t have to be sorry for. Passion is what is needed for discussing the issues faced by South Asian women and genderqueer people, and it sounds like her book will be full of it. Smashing the Patriarchy is out November 5th and is available here: https://www.alephbookcompany.com/book/smashing-the-patriarchy-a-guide-for-the-21st-century-indian-woman/


 

More about Sindhu Rajasekaran:

Originally trained as an electronics and communications engineer in India, Sindhu graduated with a master's in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. A queer womxn at the intersection of colliding castes and identities, Sindhu often explores the themes of belonging and unbelonging in her work. Interested in queer pasts and languages, she’s currently researching and writing about decolonizing desire.


Sindhu’s poetry has appeared in the Canadian anthology Very Much Alive and The Dance of the Peacock. Her creative non-fiction, stories and essays have been published by several international magazines. Some of her work can be found here – The Swaddle, Room Magazine, Asia Literary Review, The Selkie, Kitaab, Live Wire, Condé Nast, Bella Caledonia, and Gaysi.


A woman of many avatars, Sindhu is also a filmmaker and communications strategist. She produced a critically-acclaimed Indo-British feature film Ramanujan in 2014, which won the best production award at Norway’s NTFF. Interested in futuristic technologies and their potential to revolutionize businesses, Sindhu has helped various organizations modernize their communications and tell their stories better. Over the years, she’s variously called India, Canada, and the UK home.


Follow the Sindhu on her social media:

Instagram: @sindhu.rajasekaran

Twitter @sindhurajasekar


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