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Caught between traditional values and modern ways

Even among female graduates of India's most prestigious business school, very few pursue careers in business.

During a recent trip to Dubai, I caught up with some old friends. Renu and Sid (not their real names) met as students at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), arguably India's top management school. They've lived in Dubai for many years and were part of a vibrant IIM-A alumni network.

Many of the couples in the group had met while doing their MBAs. They dated all through business school and had gone on to make lives and families together. There was, however, one troubling pattern:

Among the dozen or so couples, only one woman worked. The rest were doing interesting things - running an arts council, doing research on local textile traditions, training to become a life coach, raising gifted children - but not working full-time.

They were homemakers, or housewives, as Indians put it. What happened to the high-achieving young women who had cracked the impossibly hard Common Admission Test (CAT) to get into IIM-A? Business Week recently reported that getting into IIM-A is harder than getting into Harvard. The Harvard acceptance rate is 13 per cent yet, the magazine reported, the institute "offered spots to only 0.25 per cent of applicants for the 2012-14 academic years".

The women who met their spouses at IIM-A were part of this intellectual elite. Yet they appeared to have thrown it all away to raise families. Naina V, a management consultant calls this "haldi-kumkum feminism," alluding to the haldi (turmeric) and kumkum (vermilion bindi) that traditional Hindu women wear in the centre of their foreheads.

Her theory is that South Asian women of this generation are caught between the traditional roles set out for them by their mothers and western notions of feminism that they take from a western college education. While these women may be outspoken in online forums, they come home to become wives and mothers - like the generations of women before them. In other words, they don't walk the talk.

I know countless women like this. Indeed, I have been accused of being a haldi-kumkum feminist myself. Like "limousine liberals", who spout liberal values and egalitarian ideals while cruising around in the back of a luxury car, these feminists are smart women who look like they could rule the world. Except that they don't. They rule their homes.

What disconcerts me about this particular species is not the fact that they are homemakers, per se. It is just that they behave like they could be so much more. You know the kind? These are women you meet at parties: educated, smart, and in many cases, more engaging than their husbands. Bimbos, they are not. What happened on the way out of that MBA degree? Why didn't they cash in on it?

One businesswoman I know thinks that women are genetically programmed to take pleasure from the home and hearth. Her theory is that most young women aren't cut out for business life.

Often, especially after the birth of children, they find work life boring. Running a home, planning play dates, devising recipes, dealing with staff, and throwing parties may look boring to men, but women revel in it. They don't miss the stress of working and while they question their lack of career trajectory, they also lack the will to stake out their territory in the corporate jungle. I fit this profile to a T. All through my life, I have never held a job. I cited a variety of reasons: lack of a green card when I was in America; becoming pregnant when I did get one; and so it went, for years on end.

My daughters will be different, I hope. They will become ruthless, focused career women, who will reach for the stars. They will marry equal partners who will help them achieve their dreams. They will go from being enablers of the family to become an equal player in it. Or so I hope.

Choice is a great word and one that we women use to kid ourselves: "It was my choice to stay home and raise a family." But sometimes a choice is a compromise and we are too blind to recognise it as such.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

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