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Case Analysis: Change The System

The neoliberal values will have to be replaced by new set of values that are pro-woman and pro-planet

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In conscious living history of our humanity, women were subaltern in patriarchal, feudal and monarchist systems that prevailed in the past. Denied of mainstream economic and political power within this hegemony, women did possess some freedom of expression in private space of their homes or confines of janana khana (women section in residential complexes), where they lived with reasonable dignity in India. In more recent history, a socialist, egalitarian and democratic world order has replaced the old system in all western and developed countries as well as India, that promises women constitutional rights for acquiring privileged resources, which earlier were reserved for only men. However, it can be debated, whether in India or globally, woman has really gained from the new paradigms of social and political governance and is able to express her identity authentically through her own vision of womanhood.

The case raises the issue of women’s dignity and respect in globalised India, when consumer Arundhati Dayal strongly objects to online advertising of women’s lingerie by Kora, which deliberately makes models in undergarments look sexually titillating. She argues these POP ads do not address women who are the real target audience for lingerie items, but cater to male fantasies of women as objects of sexual desire to be voyeuristically enjoyed through the ads. Several senior female corporate executives, academicians and lay public in the case reaffirm that most women find such portrayals demeaning and disrespectful and believe this indirectly contributes to legitimisation of sexual abuse and violence towards women in society.

After reading the case, one is left wondering why women executives at Kora preferred to remain silent and indifferent to this practice within their organisations, and did not voice their objection until Arundhati, a customer raised the issue. The commentary that follows, seeks to answer two important questions: First, have the modern political and economic ideologies helped the cause of women with respect to their safety, social standing and image in society? Second, why are educated women executives blind and dumb regarding other women’s indecent representation on social media by their organisations?

Since 1980, neoliberalism that entails rule of market, deregulation, privatisation, cutting public expenses on social services, and replacing the cause of public good and community with individual responsibility for own development has been the dominant world ideology. Propagated by partisan groups of academics, media, shareholders, financial operators, industrialists, national and multi- national corporations, and powerful constituencies like IMF or WTO, the doctrine assumes that economic forces cannot be resisted and maximum productivity and competitiveness are the ultimate and sole goal of human actions and organisations. Human behaviour is motivated by attributes of rationality (economic gain), individuality and self-interest (selfishness), and the social is only relevant as long as it is quantifiable variable in the equation of economic gain. By this reasoning Kora is concerned about Arundhati’s anger regarding indecent portrayal of women in its ads because she and her likes may adversely impact company’s profitability and so now, a nebulous virtue like safeguarding image and respectability of women makes sense, because it is quantifiable with respect to organisations growth.

Neoliberalism achieves the oldest dream of capitalism - the establishment of framework for accumulation and distribution of profit according to Darwinian principles. Those who own material, social and cultural capital will invariably be ahead of others because they frame market rules in a manner that ensures their supremacy. By same token, criteria for what counts as culture will also be decreed by elite class or gender; and any other group seeking to improve its relative standing in the social space and be counted closer to elite will reinforce the same definition of culture. Thus sanskritisation of hitherto oppressed groups inadvertently strengthen the very structures that serve dominant class’s interests and perpetuates subjugation of unprivileged classes. The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ actually work for the same set of values, which are designed to keep societies hierarchical and polarised. Tara Baig, Lata Vishesh and Keya Chinoy: our corporate women are privileged minority , but also represent the world’s discriminated majority women. While competing with men, they seek to increase their personal capital by playing the rules of the game set by men; and by ‘dumbing’ to women’s issues align with male aggressors to negotiate their upward mobility.

Historically the male gender of upper class/ caste have owned religious and economic capital in all societies and they have been the architects of women’s social identity. Under neoliberalism, there is a new articulation of male social power and privilege in terms of giving rise to neopatriarchy , and in global market place the western male attitude defines how women should be. The new world order is not innocent, for while it tolerates women becoming pilots or bankers, it resists genuine reform in gender division of labour, pay parity and top positions in organisations . Bourdieu , the French philosopher, says: danger of neoliberalism is that its doxa is enforced by transnational networks of globalisation dictated by dominant Global North, through agency of governments of developing nations, who have been arm twisted or brainwashed into accepting it as the only alternate to growth. And because social agendas of nations get progressively sidelined by neoliberalism, all collective institutions fighting for social justice and capable of standing up to the ‘infernal machine’ are starved and rendered ineffective.

The sinister amalgam of neoliberalism and neopatriarchy has further polarised space in which women can express themselves with dignity. In some cultural geographies, women’s bodies are veiled and hidden and they negotiate their survival by managing male gender through fear and obedience. In others, they are plucked and shaved to be smoothened, sliced to flatten stomachs and build bosoms and botoxed to plump pouts, so as to arouse and appease the male to secure personal safety and survival. Ironically the covered woman and exposed woman are united in the common shroud of male subjugation and the hypothesised evolutionary trek towards authentic gender equality has just not happe ned under neoliberalism. The educated woman executive has become as aspirational as the male, but she will not rock the boat in which male peer outnumbers her. Trying to meet gruelling competitive corporate targets, balancing biological and domestic responsibilities and trying to live up to the male fantasy of the eternally sexy woman disassociates her persona. Neoliberal “reform” of India’s economy in the 1990s has not emancipated women; in fact, it has defeminised the labour market, led to more crimes against women, with honour killings, dowry deaths, abortion of female fetuses and sexual assaults becoming a norm in middle classes in India’s most prosperous states.

Are there any solutions? The case itself gives a clue: if profitability is all that matters to organisations, then the voice of women consumers is large enough to force the masculine corporations to focus on their cause. Arundhati should kick start women consumers activism, which demand that real needs of women be addressed by corporations and their representation on social media and billboards be responsible. Second, more women should be entrepreneurs rather than be in service of companies run by men, so that they can set their own agendas in their own voice. Third, through social processes women need to be educated to leverage their constitutional rights, which promise gender equality, and avoid playing into the hands of neoliberal values. Individual freedom and single-minded pursuit of prosperity through personal growth though attractive on the surface are designed to increase social problems like alcoholism, depression, dowry, violence against women, marital conflict and disharmony in families. Finally in her quest for liberation, the neoliberal woman should stop de gendering: using technology to delay birthing or renting a womb to purchase surrogate babies even when medically fit is not natural behaviour. These actions lead to denaturing of biological and psychological essence of womanhood and alienate her from her social moorings, making her vulnerable to illness and exploitation. Westernised and denatured corporate role models pose the danger of teaching self-centred values to whole generation of younger women and her poorer aspirational sisters. The power of collectives is extremely important to fight social injustice and women across class, caste and geographical space need to unite for sake of their cause. Neoliberal values ensure that woman remain subaltern, hence these values will have to be replaced by new set of values that are pro woman and pro planet.

Only women can think of these values as they are gifted by nature with power to create life; and her feminine psychology is geared to sustain it. Women have to raise their voice to another decibel to be heard and not be dumbed by lure of personal material gain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Mala Sinha

The writer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Business Ethics at Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi. Her research interests are women issues and Eastern spiritual philosophies

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