Leadership coach, author and columnist Nirupama Subramanian’s new book Powerful: The Indian Woman’s Guide to Unlocking Her Full Potential (HarperCollins, Rs 299) challenges gender stereotypes in India and subverts cultural archetypes to empower women instead of keeping them chained. An excerpt:
By Nirupama Subramanian
Powerful goddesses—Durga, Kali and Shakti—are divine energies that saved mankind from evil, Lakshmi can bring prosperity into your life or take it all away at her pleasure; but your average woman is not allowed to be a goddess. There is something fearful and even dangerous about a woman in her full power. To survive, we have had to deny our power, the Shakti energy in us. There have been times when I have felt powerless.
I am a ‘good girl’ from a privileged family. I was an intelligent, hard-working, confident student and felt comfortable enough to use public transport in Class XII. Yet, when a rough male hand groped my body in a crowded bus, I froze. My mouth dried up and I felt a nauseous sensation, that I later recognized as shame.
It did not last more than a few seconds and by the time I decided to do something, the man had merrily moved on. After that incident, I made sure that I never boarded a very crowded bus ever again, preferring to wait or walk a distance to await a ‘ladies’ special’ bus that ferried only females.
During meetings at work, senior clients would speak to my male colleague rather than make eye contact with me. Even if I made a statement, the next question would be directed to my colleague. I would get annoyed but never brought up the issue with anyone.
It left me feeling just a little less confident as a leader. I dismissed these clients as male chauvinists, but wondered if I had somehow diminished myself. Did I not appear to be someone capable of holding a position of power?
The turning point came when my eight-month-old daughter fell ill with a severe E. coli infection and had to be hospitalised. With her nanny also hospitalised for an emergency surgery, it was a harrowing time for me, as I dashed and darted between the two hospitals, my office and my home, trying to hold everything together.
I felt both helpless and angry. Guilt and shame drained my energy at home and at work. I quit my job and vowed never to be in such a situation again. A part of my identity as a supermom, who expertly juggled work and motherhood, had just collapsed. I felt like a failure.
Recently, I travelled to Bengaluru on work. I always make sure that I land before 9 pm, but my flight took-off late. By the time I got out of the airport and into a cab, it was 11 pm I was tense throughout the ride to the hotel and more so when the driver took a desolate road. I stayed glued to Google maps verifying the route throughout the journey, and was immensely relieved when we arrived at the hotel by midnight. I shouldn’t have to feel this way, I thought.
I felt powerless because of my gender. But this incident drove another point home: the occasions when I have felt powerless, the powerlessness has almost always been rooted in my gender.
The workplace also reflects this power–gender imbalance. In more than two decades in the field of leadership development, I hardly saw any women in senior roles in the companies I worked with. The number of women, in fact, dwindled as seniority levels rose.
In 2018, I set up my own firm GLOW, Growing Leadership of Women, along with my business partner, Aparna. As I started working with women as a coach and facilitator, I noticed how strong those old messages were.
Women face challenges that are a little different from those faced by men. We do believe we are in a brave new world and that the glass ceiling can be broken. We do want to integrate with the rest of the world and embrace ‘modern’ values without letting go of our traditions. Women are heading companies and thriving as doctors, lawyers, performing artists and entrepreneurs, yet we struggle with questions that mostly never trouble men.
Should I fast on Karva Chauth for my husband even if I don’t believe in it?
Can I disagree with my bosses when I have been brought up to obey my elders?
Will I be a bad mother if I leave my child in a crèche and go to work?
My husband is an abusive alcoholic. My mother tells me that the husband is on a par with god; so he is my ‘pati parmeshwar’. Should I leave him, or keep trying to make it work?
As I spoke and engaged with more women socially and at work, I noticed patterns in their actions, language and stories. I realised that there were certain stereotypes that were perpetuated by the world outside, such as the ideal mother or ‘adarsh ma’ and the good girl with right values or ‘sanskari ladki’.
I saw certain energies that resided in the women, either flowering fully or struggling to emerge. I saw certain shifts in the way women were portrayed in contemporary films and books, and also the strong grip our age-old stories have on the collective consciousness of women.
This led me to become more interested in the power of archetypes and stories as a source of energy. I realised that progress and feminism for me were not just about claiming positional power, or of putting men in their place. I was excited because I realised there was a possibility for wholeness, for living an authentic life. I don’t claim to have reached there. I am still a work in progress, but I know I am on the journey.
Excerpted from Powerful: The Indian Woman’s Guide to Unlocking Her Full Potential by Nirupama Subramanian with permission from HarperCollins India