Do young women in India enjoy the same freedom and opportunities as young men? Certainly we've come a long long way but have we come far enough? I don't think so.
Yes, education is a 'right' for girls born into middle and upper class families. But at various levels, there's still the implicit understanding that padhna-likhna sab theek hai (studying is a good thing) but acche ghar mein shaadi (marrying into a good family) is of prime importance.
So let's say a young woman completes her graduation and then an MBA - she is about 23 years old. She has just entered a first job. There is much to learn and adjust to. She would like to spend the next few years on building a career. WAIT A MINUTE!
Ladki chaubis ki ho gayi hai (the girl is 24...) Ab to shaadi ka sochna hi padega (Now we parents must think about marriage). Guys? They can safely wait till 28, even 30 and still be considered 'eligible'. And they would essentially be looking for girls 24-25 years old to marry.
Now there are exceptions. Some young women simply put their foot down and don't toe the line. But a majority agree to start 'seeing boys'. Progress is visible on two fronts:
a) The more liberal parents will at least ask 'Koi hai to nahin' (Is there someone you like?) And if the guy is from a decent (similar or better class family) and in well paying job, they are happy enough to agree to the marriage.
In many middle class families, qualification seems to be the most important criteria. Both studied MBA/ engineering together? Great. Punjabi marrying Bengali is OK. Kam se kam Hindu hai na (At least both are Hindus). Now to a non-Indian that might seem parochial but I think it is a LOT less rigid than in the past.
b) Many, many young people are meeting through the internet. While dating sites have a pretty sad ratio of girls: boys (about 1:10 seems to be accepted standard!), matrimonial sites boast a healthy number of girls (and many profiles appear to be registered by the girl herself and not the parents).
Unlike the traditional matrimonial classifieds the online version is much more egalitarian. And builds a certain comfort level. The girl and boy may exchange some emails or have chatted on messenger prior to meeting in person.
Still the whole process of finding 'a suitable boy' is fraught with tensions and complications. Yes, guys go through it when looking for a girl but not to the same degree. The difference lies in the answer to the question: Will I really be able to pursue my career after marriage?
It's amazing how many families - and guys themselves - want highly qualified wives but see their careers mainly as 'hobbies'. My 25 year old cousin, an MBA and banking professional who is currently meeting prospective grooms has really interesting stories to share.
One guy she met was a software engineer in Gurgaon. His views on women and careers: "The girl can work after marriage but should be home by 5 pm". Uh huh. Like ANY job except school teacher would match that description.
The good thing, I assured her, was he was very honest in stating his expectations upfront. Unlike many others who may pretend to be very supportive before marriage and then make life difficult for you later.
Bottomline is, even my cousin is not a wildly ambitious career woman. But, she says, having slogged to get this far, "I want to be able to make my own choices."
Maybe she will give up her career at some stage and look after home and babies - as many professional women are wont to do the world over. But it should not be because the husband or in-laws decree that.
Double standards continue
As teenagers, girls face far more restrictions. Parents claim to 'trust' daughters yet constantly lay down rules for them that don't apply to their sons. Staying out late with friends, going to parties - these are still areas where double standards apply.
These double standards continue to apply throughout life. Young women should be educated (you see MBA boys want to marry MBA girls!) but they should be willing to compromise when and where necessary. So if your husband is transferred to the US you should not think twice give up your job and move with him.
Yeh sab karna padta hai... the elders remind us.
What young women want to know is: Kya taali donon haathon se nahin bajni chahiye?