Do Women Writers In India Face Sexism For Their Writing?

FB Live discussion women writers

If you are a woman, the propensity of facing barriers in carving out a career in any given field is high. The literary field is no different. Women writers are often dismissed as writing either ‘chicklit’ and ‘romance’ or being too sentimental and ‘feminine’ in their writing. In a world where mansplaining and male chauvinism are everyday norms, do women writers face a plethora of challenges because of their gender?

SheThePeople.Tv spoke to some women writers to know if they felt they were ever bracketed unfairly because of their gender.

Feminine experience dismissed as “domestic”

Author and Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.Tv, Kiran Manral said, “Through the centuries, women writing about the very real issues women face have been consistently dismissed as domestic. We see it with the writing of Jane Austen who wrote brilliant social commentary and very subversively for her times, but was condemned to be considered a lesser writer because her themes were women’s issues. Women writers also place their protagonists, women, at the fulcrum of their narrative, using their storytelling to define and emphasize the feminine experience. Writing about home, children, love, life, are themes that are strangely so integral to our day-to-day but considered domestic and therefore consigned to the trivial. I think it is unfortunate that women’s writing continues to be a sub-genre rather than just writing, without the imposition of a gender lens upon it.”

Author Shuchi Singh Kalra says that it bothers her that stories with a male protagonist are perceived as regular stories whereas stories with a female protagonist are classified as ‘women’s fiction’. She believes this alienates a large chunk of readers.

 “In my observation, many reviewers seem confused about the genre and tend to bracket every woman-oriented story as “chick-lit”, which is quite a dismissive term, especially when a book talks about core issues plaguing women,” she says.

Gender bias faced by women authors

Author Sudha Menon recounts an experience that best illustrates this gender bias women authors face.

Person 1: “Oh, you are an author? Chick-lit haan? Or romance?”
Me : “No. I write books on women and leadership, among other things. I write about the inspiring journeys of real-life heroes. I write about gender, inclusion and such topics.”
Person 1. “Self-publishing must be tough.”
Me: “No. I’m not self-published. I have been published by one of the country’s biggest publishing houses.”
Person 1: “That is unusual. Mostly women write romance or chick-lit. Who reads them anyways?
Me : Smiling sweetly (or at least pretending to: ” You should drop in at a bookstore and see women are writing about everything from international relations to crime, mystery, politics and sports.”

Walk away leaving Person 1 perplexed.

Writer Kiranjeet Chaturvedi said at SheThePeople.Tv’s Women Writers’ Group, “A lot of readers do approach books by gender, when the writer is female. Many men simply do not pick up women writers’ work because of a few related reasons, all to do with gender. Women do read male writers and hardly ever stop to think of not reading something by a man just because he is a man.”

Writer Ira Mukhoty Jayal says, “I find that as a woman writer of non-fiction, I am definitely questioned more on credentials and methodology than would a man. Also, since I have dealt with historical figures who incidentally happen to also be women, I am categorized as a writer of ‘women’s history’. Whereas we never specify if it is ‘men’s history’!”

Disparity between men and women awarded literary prizes

Talking about this pertinent issue, Kiran Manral observes that the juries often are primarily men and because of the fact that books written by men are reviewed more than books written by women as per a recent survey conducted. “Since women’s writing is often dismissed as domestic and therefore not considered ‘worthy’ of the broader canvas that literary prizes wish to impose,” she tell us.

Working from Home has its own bias

Sudha Menon asserts that she has worked for two of the country’s biggest publishing houses with a work-from-home agreement for two decades. She has also led an independent bureau for a newspaper while still working from home and the struggle is immense.

“If you work from home, the perception is that your work is simply a hobby or an indulgence. My close friends and sometimes extended family think my writing is just a way to while away time. Friends call me up to go shopping in the middle of the day and the matriarch of the household sometimes asks me why I can’t get myself a job,” – Sudha Menon

“She cannot fathom why I choose to sit at home at my desk and write all day and get so little money in return. With great compassion she often suggests that I should get myself a job so that I am not in penury.”

According to Yamini Pustake Bhalerao, “People fail to take your work seriously especially when you are a married woman and you don’t earn from your writing. That phase between identifying as a writer and yet not being published is the worst. People discredit your work as a hobby or time pass.”

 Author Archana Pai Kulkarni says, “I have never been conscious of my gender as a writer. Having said that, before I go to my desk, my conditioning ensures that I put the house in order, ensure that meals are cooked, everyone is fed, the house dusted. Working from home has its benefits but the biggest disadvantage is not being taken seriously and the belief that I can accommodate uninvited guests or unsolicited intrusions. I’m also perceived as a recluse who shuns company in spite of my presence in the house.”
“If I were to write autofiction, I’d be a bundle of nerves, worried about upsetting the delicate balance of my relationships. As for exploring Erotica as a genre, I would be wary of being branded as that kind of woman and of the speculation about my personal life. The general perception that women’s writing is domestic is downright unfair. Think Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood. Also, I don’t understand the derision that domestic themes seem to invite. It is as if the domestic is insignificant, just tosh, and irrelevant. I don’t think that would deter me from writing about home and hearth though. So the daily challenge lies in moving away from the domestic grind to assert my need to write. If in the process I ruffle a few feathers, I have come to accept that it goes with the territory,” Pai adds.

What can be done?

“Whether you are a man or a woman, your writing is taken seriously only when you achieve success,” opines Shuchi Singh Kalra.

Yamini, on the other hand, believes that writers must stop hiding behind tags like “part-time writer” etc.

“Stand in front of a mirror and repeat ten times “I am a writer.” When you yourself take your work seriously, when you come out all guns blazing, others start taking you seriously as well. Plus, it helps when you treat work-from-home as solemnly as an office job. Fix a time to write and stick to it daily. Just refuse to be disturbed while writing. In the end, it’s your attitude towards your writing which lets people know that they need to take you seriously,” she suggests.

Celebrate women writers

Kiran Manral says that it is time to celebrate women writers and make more space for them on bookshelves, in review columns, in award lists, and have men and women pick them up to read regardless of the gender of who wrote them.

She also expressed delight at the fact that this year we’ve seen some fabulous books by women writers winning prestigious prizes. “I will be even more delighted when the ratio between men and women being awarded literary prizes becomes completely equitable, because women are writing fabulous books. As are men. We need to champion both,” she sums up.

Shuchi Singh Kalra says that marketing women’s literature like any other piece of literature can help do away with the bias. “It is important to break the conception that women’s literature is literature meant only for women readers,” she asserts.

Read Also: Meet Maya, From Shuchi Singh Kalra’s A Cage of Desires