Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gender Stereotyping - Catch them young

The Oscars are just around the corner, next Sunday to be more precise.
One of the bloggers at Backstage Unscripted had written about women in comedy and how they are getting their due during this year's Oscars. Women were not appreciated as much as men for their gift of evoking laughter from others. The said post beautifully illustrates how even cinema is now divided into flicks aimed at girls and guys.

There are so many gender stereotypes that we blindly swallow from the society and culture around us.

I highly recommend the movie, "Bend it like Beckham" to illustrate my point. I've heard that "Billy Elliot" is based on a similar premise, too, although I've yet to watch it.

I - In the cradle and nursery:

As most of my friends have either had babies or are expecting, I get to see this whole pink for girls - blue for boys fashion in its full glory. In India, prenatal revelation of the gender of the fetus is banned by law as this enables some male-chauvinistic families to abort it if it is a female so people can't really buy gender-specific stuff in advance for the baby.
We do see little girls decked up in pink frilly dresses but I had never seen the color-coordination rage as much until I came to the United States. Not only does the stereotyping extend to color but decorations of baby rooms and toys. Thus, one gets to see 'Bob the Builder' plastered all over a little boy's room and a lot of Lego sprawling on the floor but go to a little girl's room and we get to see Barbie dolls, mermaids and princesses from every conceivable fairy tale. Dora from the modern ages would probably make it, too.

                                           Boys' room decorated with 'Bob The Builder'

Lego recently introduced some toys specifically designed to attract girls with their pastel color combinations. There has been a lot of controversy regarding this. Just read this article and the comments on the Huffington Post.
Some people say that boys are naturally more inclined towards building, construction, tinkering and the like whereas girls are naturally attracted to playing house and dressing up dolls. In short, machines and tools are more boy-friendly whereas anything to do with people skills, babying and housekeeping is more girl-friendly.


II - The wedding princess stereotype:

Well, if it was just some innocent child's play, it could be left at that. But wait, it gets more complicated as kids grow up. Boys are taught not to cry, not to be a wimp and girls are taught to be 'nice'.

Every romantic Hollywood comedy talks about how, since she was a little girl, the heroine had always dreamed of 'this' day (meaning her wedding day) when she could wear a stunning white gown and a sparkling diamond ring on her finger and walk down the aisle to meet her Prince Charming, her knight in shining armor.
The drama around weddings sells TV shows and movies which otherwise don't have that much to say, really.
A little side note: [I thought Bollywood and Indian weddings with their 1000-plus guest list of everybody and their cousin plus a pirate's booty worth of gold jewelry and exquisite silk garments, not to mention our three-course meals with at least ten dishes, was so much of excess. However, I was mistaken. 
Indian weddings at least don't bother with who sits next to whom. They don't have bridesmaids and best men and maids of honor and all the family drama that goes along with it. And, since alcohol is never served at traditional feasts, Indians don't have to worry about a drunk ex-boyfriend ruining the party with embarrassing disclosures.
I have yet to see an Indian bride throwing a diva-like tantrum because, honestly, if you are marrying into an Indian family, you better be on your best, modest, ideal daughter-in-law behavior on your wedding day. Most Indians are still deferential towards their parents and elders and, added to it all, if Mom and Dad are footing the bill for the entire shindig or at least a huge chunk of it, you would be grateful, isn't it?]

It is good that, amongst the cheesy, romantic Hollywood stuff, a smart writer and director could come up with a hilarious, ironical movie like "Bridesmaids" that causes the viewer to both pity and laugh at the leading ladies.
As a woman, I can't understand the wedding day craze. As a young girl, I did have different ideas of what Mr. Right would look like but I never actually fantasized about getting married, not as far as I can remember. In fact, I once remember having a nightmare about my wedding day, he he he.

I doubt most women around the world dream of wedding gowns and a five-star dinner party. Most would probably dream of a happy family with a home, children and dogs. Or maybe going to work and coming back to a nice home-cooked meal, preferably with a helping hand from the darling husband. Or being able to achieve something professionally and yet have a happy family to take vacations with.
They dream of a happy marriage, not necessarily a perfect wedding.
Of course, all girls want to look pretty and be admired on their special day. But beyond that, there definitely seems to be cultural conditioning at work.

In short, women have many of the same dreams as men do. They want to travel around the world, see the 'Aurora Borealis' and the pyramids. Many want to be acknowledged for their professional contributions. Many would like to make a positive difference in the world in some way. Some want to be famous. Some want to be rich and own a big house with a swimming pool and a luxury car.

III - Women in science, engineering and technical fields:

The stereotypes extend into the professional sphere as well. The geeky boys are into the technical/engineering stuff  and women march off to non-technical stuff. At least, the majority do. At various IT firms that I have worked in,  men outnumbered women in all the high-end technical positions such as development of software and I am not even counting the statistics for American women and foreign-born ones.
Are we unconsciously discouraging girls from building, tinkering and finding out how stuff works?

I haven't spent that much time around kids so I can't honestly say, given a certain kind of toy, if a boy or girl will be more inclined to play with it. But I know that girls are interested in science kits and Scrabble and brain-numbing puzzles, too. Maybe even Lego. The other day, I was in the Lego aisle, purchasing a birthday gift for my friend's son and I went, "Wow! This stuff looks cool, I should try to assemble one of these..."
In school, we girls participated in science projects and I remember trying out the experiment of wrapping an electric wire around a magnet with my father that resulted in somewhat dangerous results of sparking.
When I see the solar power kits and other science mini-projects for children these days, I feel a slight pang of longing. If only we had these things as children...

There was a Japanese series called 'Giant Robot' on the state-run Doordarshan in India that I watched when I was a child. A little boy commanded a gigantic robot to save them, using a control on his wrist watch, maybe it was a device that looked like a wrist watch.  We children played 'Giant Robot' in the dusty playground outside our housing area just like we played 'Doctor, doctor' and housekeeping in kindergarten. My mother told me stories of the English scientist, George Stephenson and his steam engine invention, as she fed me dinner (I may have confused his story with James Watt).
I watched the puppetry series 'Fireball' on the same limited-channel television and dreamed of becoming an astronaut when I was barely learning to read and write. Girls would love to understand science, too. Maybe boys would play with dolls, too, who knows?

There is one point I concede, though. I have seen very few girls in my social circle that actually tinkered with stuff. My brother was fascinated by cars and mechanical instruments and would have loved to take them apart. Even today, he knows his computer stuff from the motherboard to security administration on the desktop. I loved science and was curious about a lot of things ranging from microprocessors to micro-organisms but never saw myself as a technical person, getting down on my hands and knees to fix broken machinery.
Sometimes, I was just scared to break things. Overall though, I am just not that inclined towards breaking apart and fixing equipment of any kind. Maybe girls are more afraid of experimenting because they worry about consequences. On the other hand, women get too complacent if there is a guy around to do things for them and the current disposable culture where the cost of fixing a TV is probably at least a quarter of what one would pay for a brand new one does not help that much either.

However, my mother is a Jill of all trades who would fix leaking taps and find use for every little stray object that she had saved, handle the finances and tutor my brother. She is a woman who is also politically savvy and avidly reads newspapers and magazines and knows the current political, economic and social climate. Unfortunately, she grew up in an age when women were not encouraged to go out and work and get advanced degrees. For a home maker, she has been a fiery, intellectual one and I owe a lot of my achievements to her prodding and encouragement.

IV - Prejudice in the office and soft technical environments:

When I started on my first job at a software company, I was told bluntly by a somewhat cocky young man that women are simply not as good when it comes to technical things and another female coworker agreed with him. If this were quantum physics or rocket science or even a large boiler plate factory, one would probably have to possess some outstanding technical chops to shine. Ditto for a hardcore software product development firm like Google or Apple. However, this was a small, services-oriented software company where young college graduates with hardly any experience were launching their careers. This young man was probably not that much far ahead as compared to some of his female peers yet the notion that the male brain is inherently superior, existed.


In the geek movie, "Social Network", girls were just party companions and freeloaders, arm candy for the dudes who changed Web history. Of course, keeping in account actual events, women may not have had much of a role in Facebook's or Napster's early days. However, it was sad to see most of the girls depicted as little more than the stereotypical, hard partying, vacuous college girl as aptly captured by another Huffington Post journalist here.

I've read about the 10,000 hours rule in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. If you practice any craft for 10,000 hours, working on your weaknesses,  you will get better at it. Talent does matter but by itself, it does not amount to much. Most of the brilliant programmers I've seen started writing code while they were still in school so by the time they are in their 20s, they are far ahead of the pack that simply graduated from college with a degree in computer science but never actually developed a single application.

Women who are truly interested in programming should start tinkering around. You will get better. One day, you could launch a kick-ass product with a pink and purple background and Wall Street might be clamoring for you to go public.

It is not about getting better than men, it is about developing one's own innate abilities, gifts that we never even knew that we possessed.

What if we let children play with everything in sight? Maybe the boy you thought would become a great rocket scientist may end up being the next great Gandhi of human rights and the little princess you thought would get a degree and a regular office job might be the next Marie Curie or Kalpana Chawla.

Note: This post has undergone a minor correction and the last two images have been altered for correct Java programming syntax (it may not be perfect) since it was last published - a few minutes ago.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A short story from me

Last month, I participated in some creative story-telling on the site, "Backstage Unscripted", an excellent blog that is maintained by working and aspiring actors. This blog chronicles the challenges, the daily struggles and the passion of these young people who are trying every day to do what they love. I find it extremely inspiring.

The challenge was to pick up a photo from the list of images of orphaned shoe/s and spin a tale explaining how they came to be without their owners.

Here is my yarn on that site. Enjoy!

Love in the time of Prejudice and Cynicism

The title of this post is inspired by the famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, 'Love in the time of Cholera'.

Valentine's Day came and went by last week. For most of us in free, democratic countries and even some totalitarian states, it was an occasion to celebrate with our loved ones, to give and receive tokens of affection and in some cases, go through a wasteful ritual that felt more like duty than real love.

We should be thankful that we are able to freely express our feelings for another. Think of centuries past when gays were not allowed to show who they are, or for that matter transvestites or anybody else.
People of different races could not marry each other when slavery was commonplace.
Openly showing attraction for a person of the same gender could get you killed a few hundred years ago. Even today, homosexuality is a crime in many countries. [And then there are some countries where masturbation and sodomy are still punishable offenses in some countries because of religion or just because of archaic laws that have never undergone a modern revision.]

Sadly, even in places where the law is enlightened and truly values individual liberty, culture and societal restrictions still influence and limit expression of love. India, the country where I was born and raised, has a plethora of religions, languages and castes (among Hindus). While these differences do not make a difference in daily civic life or working life, it is a deal breaker when it comes to matrimony.

Things have changed in India, at least in the urban metro areas but a lot still remains the same. Arranged marriages typically are essentially matches made between couples who hail from the same caste, linguistic community and religion. A note about arranged marriages for my non-Indian readers though: arranged marriages are no longer just parents deciding whom their children marry, rather, it is more of a matchmaking carried out by family members and the potential bride and groom do date at least long distance over the phone or internet before they tie the knot. Whether this always results in true love is a moot point.
For many young people, though, there are obstacles to overcome such as parental opposition when they fall in love with someone who is not from their background. The law of the land does not impose any restrictions on whom one can date or marry but family sometimes does.

That is why there are umpteen Bollywood movies made with story lines that revolve around the theme of falling in love with someone whom one's parents or one's sweetheart's parents do not approve of.
For all its glamor and emotional dialogues, Bollywood rarely mentions the word 'caste'. Heck, even a movie like 'Bombay' that dealt with the romance of a Hindu guy with a Muslim girl against the backdrop of the Mumbai (then known as Bombay) blasts and riots in the years 1992-1993, rarely gets made. That movie did irk some people who went berserk claiming that it offended their religious sentiments.

So what you get is a rich boy-poor girl story or the girl being already pledged/betrothed to someone else as in 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge' or 'Dil To Pagal Hai' and the song-dance drama that follows with either the hero's charms winning hearts or just plain dumb luck.
However, things have come a long way now from the ultra-submissive to the ultra-rebellious with extra-marital affairs and the main characters leaving their marriage for someone else (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna) and live-in relationships (Salaam Namaste). 
In real life, too, upper-crust and middle class Indians who live away from their parents have live-in relationships and love marriages have become more common in metro areas. However, in some villages, unfortunately, young lovers are murdered for dishonoring their families or going outside the status quo. Romeos and Juliets still exist, tragically...
That was about trying to merge love and the institution of marriage.

Then there is love that challenges every social norm.

Today, in progressive, enlightened societies such as in Western countries,  love outside the boundaries of marriage is condemned. People try to 'work it out' in their marriages, to affair-proof their unions but falling in love with someone else when still married is a taboo, a tragic situation which one just has to silently suffer or try to get over. I do think that cheating on your partner is wrong and one should be honest with one's significant other when something like this happens.

Is it really possible to make oneself so committed to one person that one does not even entertain the thought of another?
Are our relationships merely a reflection of our deepest needs or our religious beliefs and influences of popular culture?

On the other hand, I personally feel that there is an invisible, mysterious spark that binds two souls together. When that is present, people overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles such as addiction or family and economic issues.
Mira Kirschenbaum has explained this beautifully is her book, "Is He Mr. Right?". She calls this factor 'chemistry' based on different dimensions. As she says, when the chemistry is not present, no amount of compatibility will compensate.

Some people are now moving on to polyamory while still staying married to a single partner. Polygamy and polyandry are not legal in most places but no law or government can legislate whom the heart should open up to and how many people a person can love.

There is a saying in Urdu that is featured in one of the songs of the film 'Dil Se' that says,
"Ishq par zor nahin
Hai woh aatish ghalib,
Jo lagaaye na lage,
Jo bujhaaye na bujhe."

The translation is roughly: There is no force upon love, it is a spark that cannot be struck deliberately and cannot be extinguished deliberately.

Psychologists and scientists try to explain love in terms of DNA, evolution, brain chemistry and a whole lot of factors but they still have not been able to explain what that spark is, why we feel so powerfully for someone and how each love is so different. There are some loves that are sexually powerful, some that are intellectually potent, some that are emotionally soulful, some who are equal in every department. Some loves fade away with time, there are some that we can't let go of and they live in our hearts forever. In one of my previous posts, I compared each human being to a chemical element and the relationship between two people as a compound that is unique just like the people. It is really hard, probably impossible, to cook up a formula for everlasting love.
Relationships do take effort but good relationships and particularly those that are romantic, are not really so much hard work that it feels like work.

I was reading Paulo Coelho's novel, 'The Witch of Portobello' which is an eye-opening story based on spirituality and philosophy, somewhat in between 'The Da Vinci Code' and a biography.

In it, one of the characters says about love,
"... People either feel it or they don't, and there isn't a force in the world that can make them feel it. We can pretend that we love each other. We can get used to each other. We can live a whole lifetime of friendship and complicity, we can bring up children, have sex every night, reach orgasm, and still feel that there's a terrible emptiness about it all, that something important is missing... ".

That is why I feel that articles like those in Psychology Today, "Are you with the right mate?" that say that basically any decent husband/wife who is not abusive, habitually unfaithful or addicted to something can be Mr. or Ms. Right if you put in the effort and stop fantasizing about the ideal relationship, seem to be missing something. All our friendships are not equally close or deep so why expect that all romantic relationships that fit some criteria are equally loving, good and deep?

I am a cheerleader for lifelong marriages that are based on true intimacy - emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual but don't agree with the camp that says that hey, you did date this guy/girl so how come you did not find anything amiss/incompatible then? There are some issues that surface after living together for years, there are ways we change that we could have probably never imagined and life itself is unpredictable just like people.

The biggest struggle in a society that is free enough to allow everyone to choose their partners regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or even sexual orientation, is how to reconcile the fact that sometimes,  lifelong togetherness in love is shattered, with the idealistic notion that love conquers all.

We do not understand love fully just like we do not understand the Universe or the soul or that Divine consciousness called God.

May peace and true love be with you all throughout your lives...

"Ishq par zor nahin
Hai woh aatish ghalib,
Jo lagaaye na lage,
Jo bujhaaye na bujhe."

These are lines from the famous Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, as explained on many sites on the Internet. I haven't provided a single reference because there are many.


Note:  There is a correction needed in this post. I mixed up the words, 'arcane' and 'archaic'. I meant to say outdated laws, so the correct word should have been 'archaic' instead of what I had typed in -'arcane'.

For further reference, please visit



Sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Death and this fragile life...

Today, I got to know the really sad news about the death of the husband of one of my friends.

I was reading this post by Steve Pavlina - Making Peace with Death. The death of someone one knows or a major natural disaster always tends to make one more aware of one's mortality. Just the other day, I was also thinking, just like Steve Pavlina had mentioned, how insignificant our time on this earth really is. We are just a blip on the cosmic radar.

Above all, death makes us question our integrity and compassion towards others. If we had a truly loving relationship with the deceased, we at least have the satisfaction of having made him/her happy while he/she was alive.

I remember reading in C.Rajagopalachari's version of the Indian epic, "Mahabharatha", Yudhishthira, says something to the effect that everyday people die on this earth, yet we don't believe that it could be our turn.

Steve Jobs' famous Stanford commencement speech says - Death will soon clear us away from this planet, too, to make way for the new.

What are we doing with our lives and how are we treating our loved ones that we would regret from the Great Beyond?

In the meantime, my heart and prayers are with my friend and her family and all those who have lost very dear ones, especially the ones that have died with many potential years still left unlived.