All men are born equal, it has been said - but some are more equal than others. On a similar note I would say that all women are born unequal, but some are more unequal than others.
I am looking chiefly at equality in terms of opportunity to pursue the education of one's choice and subsequently a career and lifestyle as per one's own free will.
The pecking order goes something like this.
a) Lowest rung
Girls from poor urban and rural households
If the family can afford to send just one of its kids to school, it will always choose the boy child. While most can now see the merit of studying at least upto class 4 or 5, beyond that the question is 'kya fayda'? (what's the additional gain?)
The girl is anyways expected to settle down and become a homemaker. Or, do menial jobs to supplement her income. So she is more usful to the parents as an extra hand to look after younger siblings, help the mother doing jhaadu-pocha in other people's homes, helping with family chores like cooking.
Lower middle class households
Here the girl will probably study upto class X or XII definitely. If she insists or has a parent who is progressive and family circumstances which allow, she may complete graduation. If lucky, she may even take up a low level clerical type job.
But at a fundamental level, this young woman does not believe she can aspire for or ask for more. She does not have the confidence, she has never been made to feel her own self worth.
She will marry in her early 20s and happily settle down to a domestic life - completing adjusting to the husband and family's needs even if she has a job. In many cases, she has little say in how what she earns is spent - it's all simply handed over.
In the worst case scenario, her education may prove to be an impediment. According to a recent newspaper report, young Muslim girls are pursuing education more keenly than boys who prefer to drop out after class 10 and become mechanics/ shopkeepers.
So Muslim women who complete college find they can't get a suitable match. One such young woman recently agreed to marry a rickshaw driver who is not even matriculate after her family failed to locate a boy who was a graduate.
b) Medium rung
Middle and upper class girls from small towns
These girls invariably complete college - in some cases even a professional education like medicine or engineering. But the parents never fail to remind the girls that 'marriage comes first'.
So, a young engineer I know from a reputed college in Punjab rejects an offer from a Delhi-based IT firm, instead doing a Master's. The ultimate aim is to become a college lecturer which her parents feel is a 'good job for girls even after marriage'.
Some young women will not acquiesce to their parents' wishes so easily and may go for the jobs. In which case they may also go on to become career-oriented, marry someone of their own choice or in the rare case not marry at all.
The only hope for this independence lies in escaping the small town where there are no opportunities for educated young people - men or women. That's why we are currently seeing an exodus of small townies to call centres (the most easily available job). And also to seek their fortunes in the media, glamour world.
Metro girls from conservative families
They do exist. These girls complete their education, then and get married as per parents' wishes. They may pursue a vocation as a hobby. A serious career is not forbidden per se but it is understood that it's not required because the husband earns enough is liye zaroorat kya hai (where is the need?).
Later in life, these women may work from home or do a part time job to 'keep busy'.
c) Higher Rung
Metro girls who choose marriage as a career
Yes, these girls could have gone for careers but they just did not have the ambition. So lack of career is a personal choice. They wish to marry a well settled (preferably rich!) guy and be his glamourous biwi.
Life as a memsaab is quite happy and comfortable, as long as the husband and in laws aren't dominating or stingy. Servant, car with driver, annual foreign trip keep these women happy. And they aren't behenji types either - these are in fact the young women who join gyms, get their hair coloured and shop at Phoenix mills in the daytime, splurge on designer clothing.
These young women do occassionally feel a pang of jealousy/ insecurity when they bump into a former classmate who has gone the career way. On the other hand, career oriented women sometimes feel the same pangs of jealousy when they note the aaram ki zindagi (easy life) these less ambitious women lead.
The solution: Memsaab joins a fashion designing/ interior design course so she can claim to be doing something other than being a housewife next time she meets Career Girl. Career Girl recalls her last 3 day weekend spent at home and thanks God she doesn't have to undergo such torture every day of the year!
Career oriented girls with middle class values
These are the girls for whom working is really important - they derive their sense of self worth from their careers. They also enjoy the independence an income brings.
Like boys, these metro girls from middle class families have had equal access to an education of their choice and believe it would be a waste to not make use of their qualifications. Their families have encouraged them to achieve, and also to take up demanding careers.
Yet, these girls are quite traditional at heart and wish to settle down 'at the right time'. And although they often marry for love (batchmates/ workmates) they are not averse to arranged marriages.
Career Girls believe in 'equality' of the sexes and find to their grief that in the real world it isn't always so. The first few years usually go fine. The husband is adjusting, accomodating, both work long and hard at their careers.
As time goes by (esp. once kids come into the picture) Career Girl finds it is she who has to make more compromises. In some cases, to an extent, maternal instincts take over and she willingly becomes a stay at home mom/memsaab . In others, practical considerations (lack of parents/ in laws/ maid to look after baby) mean she unwillingly quits the job.
Even if she continues working full time, her middle class value system and the her desire to excel at work are incompatible and create stress. The guilt of neglecting the child and the pressures of juggling both responsobilities takes its toll and these women feel unhappy despite having the 'best of both worlds'.
d) Highest rung
Girls who have REALLY chosen to live life their own way
If they don't want to do something - they don't. And then live with the consequences. This could mean having a great career but choosing to remain single because they never did find the right guy. Or they may marry but can walk out of the relationship if it doesn't go too well or interferes in their careers.
These girls don't care as much as their more conventional counterparts about 'log kya kahenge' (what will people say). They don't have kids because ab shaadi ko paanch saal ho gaya hain (now it's five years since we've been married) but when they feel ready to be mothers.
More than MBAs/ engineers I find these are usually girls in professions like media (journalism, advertising, TV) and glamour (acting, fashion, ). The poster girl for this species is Sushmita Sen, who after several well publicised romances chose to become a single mother by adopting a child.
Glamorous as it may sound, not all these women are necessarily happy. You have to be very strong to stick by an unconventional choice and as these women get older they do feel lonely or feel the need to marry/ have children. But while a man may find he can possibly marry at 35, or 40, women at that age rarely find a suitable partner.
So there is a broad spectrum of 'choices' for the naye zamaane ki ladki.
Conclusion: I think many more young women secretly desire option d) ie REALLY living life their own way but settle for being Memsaabs/ Career Girls. And I think that will continue to be the case.
So, parents, sit back and relax. We aren't going to tear apart the fabric of Indian society. Not just yet.