My article, published in The Hindu:

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything there was to know about gender equality. It seemed so straightforward: “If a man can do it, a woman can do it as well.”

Much later, I realised there were entirely different angles to the issue than I had imagined.

A story I recently heard (source forgotten) went like this: In an argument between a man and a woman about this world-famous question of equality, the man said, “If you want to do what a man does, go climb a coconut tree.” Without missing a beat, the woman retorted, “Why don’t you go climb one and show me first?” The debate went no further, naturally.

Another incident, this time from my own life. A few years ago a colleague called me up on a Sunday morning and began discussing work. There was something urgent going on. There always is. I listened for a while and said, “Look, it’s a Sunday. I have so many chores to catch up. We’ll talk tomorrow.” Every household task I had left unattended during the previous week was glaring at me. The work week had already been quite hectic, and all I wanted to do was get some sleep.

My colleague replied, only half in jest, “Well, if you want gender equality, you got to work as hard as I do.”

Wait a minute. You mean all the household chores and mommy duties aren’t hard enough? Don’t get me started, Mr. Colleague. You aren’t even married yet. He wasn’t worth the argument, anyway, so I left it at that, because if I get launched on the topic, not even I can stop myself. No doubt he gossiped with abandon about my reluctance (as well as his delightful willingness) to work on a Sunday.

When the mother of a five-month-old was eyed with sarcasm because she had to leave “early” (around 9 p.m.) while the entire team worked round-the-clock to manage a crisis, I was unclear how equality was supposed to work in the circumstances. The crisis was a crisis and it had to be resolved at all costs before the dirt hit the fan, but the technical lead could not stay to see it through because there was a different crisis brewing at her home.

“If there is equality,” asks one person, “why do women scientists or entrepreneurs get so much attention? They should be given just as much coverage as any man. Don’t run newspaper special reports on ‘the women behind the success.’”

“The answer is in your question,” I reply. “We aren’t there yet. We’re still on the way. Right now, we focus on the women who stand out, so that more and more are inspired. Then one day we will stop and complain that there are too many women on the scene.”

In my childhood, there were not many lady doctors or women drivers, so every time I met one, I was full of admiration for them. As time passed, we started referring to ‘lady doctors’ as ‘doctors’ — an important transition, because it was no longer necessary to specify whether it was a man or a woman. Drivers are still referred to as a ‘women drivers’ especially if she has parked the wrong way, or if she does not drive fast enough, or if she takes a wrong turn, or if she shows any other kind of incompetence on the road. If it’s a guy, he gets an obscene gesture, that’s all.

I had been too young or too naïve to understand that the roles of men and women are not always interchangeable. Women can do most of the things men do, but not all. And vice versa. I doubt if you would find a man getting pregnant or

giving birth to a child any time soon, equality or no equality. Nonetheless, there’s a middle ground where equal opportunities make sense.

Which is why, later in life, when I saw men being appreciated for “staying through the night at office” (with no mention of productivity) over women who had to leave every evening because they had a family, I knew it was unfair, but I did not know what the solution was.

We have come a long way, though. History tells us that barely half a century ago women were mere shadows, their duties confined to keeping the species from going extinct and keeping their men and children happy. Though there are still places in the world where things haven’t changed much, elsewhere, today, women can vote, and dare to have an opinion, and fly airplanes, and have the freedom to shout or dance in public, and dress as they please (on second thoughts, strike that; let’s leave the dress topic for another time).

So far so good.

All this while, in my mind the abstract idea of “a woman can do what a man can” was translated to, “a woman can be as good as a man.”

Wise people have long, long ago figured out what occurred to me merely a few years back. As always, the unexpected wisdom came from a popular television medical drama. A family of five was brought to the hospital in very critical condition. The family members were either dead or unconscious or unable to recall what happened — in other words, apart from the fact that their car shot off a bridge and plunged to the river, no one knew anything. After an emergency surgery performed on one of the patients, one doctor says to another, “The dad was drunk. He must have driven them off the bridge.” The other doctor snaps indignantly. “Why? You don’t think a woman is capable of drunk-driving and killing her family?”

The laddoo finally burst in my mind. Of course! Women can be as bad — or evil, or crooked — as men too. That’s what equality was all about. Not just being “as good”.

One evening a few months ago, when my son and I were returning home in a cab through a bylane with no streetlights, we passed a woman driving a scooter, with one hand off the vehicle, talking on her mobile phone. Yes indeed, if they can break the law, we can too. Whoever said equality was confined to the good things?