Superstar Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan has generated a particularly devoted female fandom across Asia and beyond. Unlike most other Indian actors, Khan is known for his sensitive, vulnerable portrayals of heartthrobs who, though they sometimes engage in caddish behavior, win the hearts of impossibly beautiful women by caring for, listening to, and of course, dancing and singing with them in absurdly glamorous locations. Swooning ensues on screen and in the audience.
Economist and author Shrayana Bhattacharya, in her bestselling book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s lonely young women and the search for intimacy and independence, reports on her research on the state of working (heterosexual, cisgender) womanhood in India. Now 40, Bhattacharya is a graduate of Delhi and Harvard universities, and lives in New Delhi where she works for the World Bank. Over the course of her career, she has conducted extensive surveys of working women across much of Northern India—notably for SEWA, the largest group of self-employed women in India.
Bhattacharya noticed that many of these women were fans of Shah Rukh's new brand of Indian masculinity. She wondered: did Shah Rukh's movie characters give them the courage to demand more of their relationships, to assert their freedoms and attain economic independence in a highly patriarchal society? Was there a Shah Rukh effect among India's working women?
Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh combines a discussion of economic statistics with detailed profiles of several Northern Indian women from very different caste, religion and socio-economic backgrounds, who all share the same characteristic: they earn an income.
These women are a minority, it turns out. Development economists told us for decades that girls’ and women’s rising education levels would result in their greater economic and social empowerment. But statistics for paid female employment in India over the past decades are quite surprising for those who, like me, haven’t followed them closely. The graph below kicks off the book.
Look at the green and purple lines. India’s rapid modernization and economic liberalization in the 1990s did not result in greater paid employment for women. In fact, India’s rural women are much less likely to be in the labor force today than they were in 1995. “As India’s economy grew at an average of seven percent between 2004 and 2011, the share of women in the labour force fell to 32.6 percent before plunging even further between 2011 and 2017 to a historic low of 23.3 percent.” COVID drove even more women out of the workforce, especially in cities. Never mind the gender pay gap, this is a massive gender employment gap, including in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai, despite the rapid rise in girls’ education and the decline in fertility throughout the country. India today has the dubious claim to being one of the most gender-unequal economies worldwide.
What gives? Is it because government statistics don’t factor in women’s informal labor, such as the part-time, home-based sewing and embroidery work that so many women and adolescent girls perform across India? No, explains Bhattacharya, government surveys now go beyond full-time, salaried workers to include casual laborers, self-employed and part-time workers, domestic workers, street vendors, freelancers, those without written contracts or formal working arrangements, and those working in family businesses. That leaves out people in unpaid, subsistence farming and foraging—now mostly women given the mass movement of rural men to cities and towns for construction and factory work over the last two decades. And of course, unpaid house and care work.
It’s also not because women don’t want to work for pay. As Bhattacharya notes, surveys consistently show that young Indian women would like the opportunity to earn their own money, but they are stopped by a number of factors that no Shah Rukh effect has been able to overcome.
First, (heterosexual) marriage and motherhood remain a social and economic imperative for women in India. Although Indian women are marrying later than previous generations (the average age of marriage for women was 21 in 2011), 80% of them are married by the age of 29. Arranged marriages (84% in 2016, with nine out of ten within the same caste) remain the norm, although an increasing number of these marriages involve the woman expressing her views about prospective grooms. Bhattacharya is sympathetic to women's plight: “In the absence of a supportive state, through love and matrimony, many women hope to secure a safe and profitable human arrangement. Women transact in the ‘patriarchal bargain’—putting up with all kinds of indignities imposed on them by men and family life, because the gains from cooperation seem vital.”
Bhattacharya is very candid and often amusing about her own humiliating struggles with intimate relationships in Delhi as she documents her “terrible choices” in men, Sex in the City-style: “In Delhi, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be busy building his harem.” To her own shame, she recounts how, while searching for love and marriage, she put up with appalling behavior from several men. One elite boyfriend, “The One," makes clear that women's ambitions are of no interest to his posh circle, and even berates Bhattacharya for discussing a prospective job during a dinner with his friends: “You behaved very badly today. This kind of behaviour just won’t do. Learn to speak about other things. Or sip your drink quietly.” Certainly no Shah Rukh vibes there! More Johnny Depp or Jonah Hill.
Second, household management and caregiving (child and eldercare) remain primarily women’s duties. Bhattacharya points to the 1985 groundbreaking study by feminists Devaki Jain and Nirmala Banerjee, The Tyranny of the Household. That study was the first to quantify the time poverty of India's rural women, who in addition to their unrelenting work in the fields, put in hours of housework every day. Jain and Banerjee’s methodology was adopted by government surveys in the 1990s. These later surveys confirmed Jain and Banerjee’s findings and showed that, across India, men had on average eight more hours a week for sleep, leisure and recreation than women. According to one survey, men spend less than 30 minutes a day on housework or child and elder care, writes Bhattacharya. This compares poorly with men worldwide, who on average put in two hours a day on unpaid household and care work. This marriage penalty helps drive Indian women out of the workforce.
Third, cultural norms about women’s sexual and caste purity remain strong. Bhattacharya notes that “families that can afford to rely exclusively on men for money will continue to guard women’s access to jobs because of an obsession with sexual purity. In 2021, a well-designed Pew survey on social attitudes found that more than sixty per cent of all Indians wanted to ensure women did not marry outside their respective caste groups.” Families across India control women’s mobility and employment to reduce any chance of boyfriends or romances from taboo communities.
Instead of boosting women’s employment, economic growth thus allowed millions of families to withdraw women from paid jobs in order to uphold conservative values. In a phenomenon Indian sociologists call “Sanskritization,” lower caste families (who tend to be much poorer) have emulated the puritanical practices they observe in the higher castes, resulting in female employment in the lowest castes reduced by half over the past 15 years. This reminded me of philosopher Michel Foucault’s description of how the growing French bourgeoisie in the 1800s sought to replicate the social arrangements of aristocratic families: as family incomes went up, French bourgeois women left public spaces and became confined to the home to focus on domestic tasks and religious devotion.
It doesn't help that public spaces in India are often unfriendly, hostile and even dangerous environments for women and girls. This reinforces societal norms about keeping them under tight surveillance and contributes to driving women and girls away from education, paid employment, and public affairs. The shocking gang rape and murder of a 22-year-old physiotherapy student (“Nirbhaya, the fearless one”—her name was Jyoti Singh) in Delhi in 2012 is perhaps the most sensational example of this reality, but it’s hardly the only one. The case horrified India and the world. Despite the legal reforms that ensued (principally focused on criminalization of violence against women), women and girls do not feel safer, notes Bhattacharya: “Claiming comfort in public space, being at ease with one’s body in the company of strangers, remains an everlasting hurdle for Indian women. According to a large-scale survey by Save the Children in 2018, three in every five adolescent girls felt unsafe in crowded spaces. One in four feared being abducted, physically assaulted or even raped if she ventured outside her home. Two out of three adolescent girls were worried about being verbally abused, stalked or being inappropriately touched in public. Most families and men felt young women could be kept safe by simply abdicating their right to enjoy public space.”
According to the India Human Development survey of 2012, eighty per cent of Indian women needed approval from a family member to visit a health center. In 2015, only forty-seven per cent of urban women could go unchaperoned to a public space. The young women Bhattacharya met at Nirbhaya protests in 2012–2013 begged her not to tell their families she had seen them there. Things might have improved since, but if they have, that improvement is very slow, writes the author.
Given these obstacles, Bhattacharya wants to understand what motivated the small minority of Indian women who earn their own income. What is their story? She does this through portrayals of working women of different castes and classes and their struggles for affirmation, personhood and love. I cannot fully appreciate the impact of Shah Rukh's persona and oeuvre on the feminist yearnings of Indian women who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. I hope some of you will weigh in to tell me what you think! But I appreciated the author's clever use of pop culture to have conversations with women whose lives are radically different from hers. And it also gave a lot of media exposure to the book itself!
The women Bhattacharya interviews persevere despite feeling unwelcome and unsafe in public spaces and in jobs, and despite their families’ control tactics. Take “Manju”, a young Muslim woman who grew up in a small village in Uttar Pradesh. She attended school until the age of nine, acquiring rudimentary math and reading skills, something older women in her village did not. Primary education only became free and compulsory for children aged 6–14 in India in 2005, and quality teaching remains elusive. Yet Bhattacharya observed that what little education Manju and her peers received had made them aware of the limitations of their lives: “By realizing that girls could not go to school if the separate toilet was not functional, by being unable to keep up with their lessons because of housework that was expected of them but not of boys, by being so proximate to the freedom boys enjoyed in public that was denied to girls, Manju and her friends had acquired a restlessness that was distinct from the equanimity displayed by their mothers and older sisters.” After leaving school, Manju becomes a home-based textile worker like her mother, and lives in purdah (customary seclusion). Her marriage is arranged when she is 20.
“The Accountant” remembers being angry at not being able to go to the movies, something teenage boys her age could do without objection. In secondary school, she needed her father’s permission just to leave the house and had to enlist the help of her mother and school principal to be allowed to go to university. Determined to succeed, she was groped while waiting in line to pay her exam fees at Delhi University, but said nothing to her family.
“Gold” runs away from ultraconservative Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to avoid an arranged marriage to a foul-tempered man. Before she can become an airline stewardess, she, like other women seeking such work, is forced to undergo an internal gynecological examination to become crew (there were no prostate exams for the men, of course!). As a teenager, Gold was under the constant supervision of her brothers, who had been ordered by their father to escort her everywhere. She now lives in Colorado, married to an American airline pilot. Her father refused to attend her wedding.
Some of the women were so poor they had no choice but to work; they found that they thrived once in paid employment. “Lily,” a high school graduate from a poor district in Jharkhand in eastern India, moves to Delhi for work after her father dies. “Sandhya,” who lives in a slum in Delhi, works as a cook for six middle class families. The income allows her to stand up to her abusive husband. When he leaves her, she adds four more cooking clients to her roster.
I was particularly interested in the constant negotiations these young women engaged in with their families, especially their fathers, husbands and brothers, and by the help they often received from relatives and family friends who recognized and supported their desire for independence. Gold’s oldest brother and sister enabled her escape from Jaisalmer. An older family friend helped Manju secure garment factory employment in a nearby town after she left her husband 15 months into her marriage (she eventually returned to him). Lily’s aunt recommended her for a decent, well-paid position as a live-in domestic worker with an American family in Delhi. A cousin helped The Accountant open a bank account for herself while she still lived at home. Family and personal connections remain key.
In that context, Manju leads Bhattacharya to reconsider a lesson from a Shah Rukh film. In the huge 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride”), Shah Rukh plays Raj, a young Indian man raised in London. On a train trip through Europe, Raj meets Simran, a young Indian woman also from London but about to move to India for an arranged marriage. The two fall in love, but when Simran tells her father about Raj on her return home, he abruptly moves the family back to India. Raj pursues her all the way there, and Simran proposes that they elope. But Raj refuses, saying he will marry her only if Simran’s father agrees. Many difficulties later, Simran’s father acquiesces, and Simran runs and catches Raj's train as it leaves the station.
Bhattacharya, like other critics, had come to view DDLJ’s emphasis on patriarchal permission as regressive. But for Manju, the fact that Raj avoided the easier route of eloping was all important. Raj cared enough to fight for Simran while ensuring Simran was not cut off from her kin. Manju, who at that point was living apart from her husband, felt her vulnerability very keenly: “Women like me have seen what happens when you leave. It’s tough. You can’t rely on others the way you can on your own family.” Listening to Manju, Bhattacharya reconsidered the value of incremental negotiation, of dialogue among loved ones as a path to social change and as the way most Indian women resist in ordinary, everyday lives. That feminism may not smash patriarchy, but it will chip away at it every day.
“In imagining Shah Rukh, the women I encountered tried to imagine an alternative to the masculine worlds they occupied. They forged, out of the gossamer fabric of their hopes and dreams, a man who would support freedom and choice for women—whether to work, rest or watch movies. This imaginary world, with its teary-eyed men who wholeheartedly love women with wide open arms, may not be radical, but it is a challenge to the world we currently occupy, in which so many women feel unappreciated, unsafe and unloved.”
When Manju returned to live with her husband, she taught him to make his own tea and pack his own tiffin (lunchbox). He agreed to let her continue to do garment work, even after she had a son and despite her in-laws’ disapproval. And he takes Manju to the movies. Small but real steps towards a more gender equal world.
Towards the end of the book, Bhattacharya is struck by the fact that, rather than expect a sensitive man to sweep them off their feet, today’s young Indian women seem much more interested in female actors as cultural models of independent womanhood. I hope she explores that topic further.
In solidarity with movie-watching (and moviemaking!) feminists everywhere,