There was a startling photograph seen a few days back, of female scientists sticking on mustaches and thick beards on their faces, in a symbolic gesture to be taken as seriously as male scientists.
It is an old gender stereotype that girls are not as good as maths and science than boys; that myth has been debunked many times over, but female scientists—if at all there are hired for important projects—routinely face gender discrimination.
This led to photo exhibition and documentary called The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging The Face Of Science. According to the website, the project’s mission is twofold. “First, to celebrate the inspirational and adventurous women who choose to dedicate their lives in the search of clues to the history of life on earth. And second, to educate the public on the inequities and prejudices that exist in the field of science, with special emphasis on the geosciences. In 2014 Dr. Ellen Currano and Lexi Jamieson Marsh met for dinner. Both were frustrated with the way they were treated within their professions; both women working in a traditionally male dominated fields. To lighten the mood, Ellen suggested putting a fake beard on her face as a way to “finally be able to do her job” and fit the mould. To her surprise, Lexi took that suggestion seriously and ran with it. The next morning, the two joined forces, collaborating art and science to begin The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science.”
This brings us to a very different type of gender stereotyping in the recent hit film, Mission Mangal (directed by Jagan Shakti), that women may achieve whatever they want, provided they remain feminine (dressed in saris, with mangalsutras round their necks and gajras in their hair) and do not neglect their domestic duties.
The film opens with ISRO scientist Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan), praying and doing that ‘fanning holy smoke over the home’ ritual; it is an important day for her, the GSLV satellite is to be launched, but in her household, nobody is bothered. She fixes breakfast, the daughter complains of the toothpaste getting over, so she picks up a rolling pin to squeeze out the last bit. The iron is on the blink, so she makes her son who is glued to the computer sit on it. The husband is requested to pay the electric bill, but he behaves as if he has been asked to move a mountain.
It makes one wonder about the years spent in the marriage before this day— in spite of having a mother with a busy (presumably) work life, the husband is an unsupportive dolt, and the kids incapable of doing the most mundane tasks, like buying their own toothpaste. Later, it turns out that the son is secretly studying the Koran with the idea of converting; the daughter lies about her whereabouts and goes drinking and dancing at a pub. There is an unspoken rebuke built into these scenes—see…if you give too much time to your career, this is what happens!
At the launch, a stupid error by Tara ends up wrecking the launch, for which the project director, Rakesh Dhawan (played by Akshay Kumar) chivalrously takes the blame and accepts banishment to the neglected mars division. Later, when there are budget problems in the Mars Orbiter Mission undertaken by Dhawan on a dare — because a NASA snob said it couldn’t be done– Tara suggests that they use equipment from another project that is on hold. “Why waste, na? she says. To which Dhawan comments that women turn leftovers from dinner into breakfast, because, why waste? Their superior quips, “You women can’t tell the difference between home science and space science?” Mission Mangal constantly condescends to women, and has a laughably slapdash attitude to space science.
The lower grade scientists assigned to Dhawan, include four women, one of whom is mocked because she cannot drive; another is nagged by her mother-in-law for her childlessness (she is also fat-shamed by Tara with a truly tasteless dialogue). The single woman among them smokes, drinks and sleeps around, and immediately becomes a lust object for the young-ish single man in the group. (The other man is old and on the verge of retirement.)
That wonderful photo of women celebrating the Mangalyaan launch, that seems to have inspired Mission Mangal (that and Hollywood film Hidden Figures) was of administrative staff, not women scientists. Still, the mission had three women on the team (with 14 men), did they not have real, inspiring stories?
The film is a big hit, as was only to be expected, because Akshay Kumar is a box-office magnet, but also in some measure due to its trendy faux feminism. This is the kind of attitude many women achievers in conservative societies have to face—they are “allowed” to reach for the skies, but they have to ensure that the gas cylinder is replenished on time (because the husband can’t even pick up the phone to order it), and there are hot puris on the dining table. It is the woman’s primary job to make sure the husband is not inconvenienced, and the kids do not go astray. The boat of gender status quo must not be rocked.
At the time of the film’s release, Akshay Kumar tweeted a poem from the promo:
Yeh kangan shor machaayega, ek sapna raat jagaayega
Jitna ooncha ho asmaan, yeh sindoor door tak jaayega!
Mangalsutra gale mein hai aur mangal pe hai nazar gadi
Bharat ki beti ki udaan kal saara jag dohraayega
Yeh sindoor door tak jaayega
Hai aankhon mein brahmand basa, kaajal se hai itihaas racha
Yeh naya naya sa swabhiman ek nayi subaah le aayega
Yeh sindoor door tak jaayega
Anginat sitaaron se tera anchal hardam aabad rahega
Yeh kaanch ki chudiyon ka loha sadiyon tak sabko yaad rahega
Yeh teen rang ka dhwaj apna tere dam pe lehraayega
Yeh sindoor door tak jaayega
Maybe it’s time for Indian female scientists to reach out for that stick-on beard!
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated August 28, 2019)