The Woman Condition

The sisterhood of the secret stash: Indian women are scrambling to salvage their savings

Watching women walk on eggshells after confessing to the existence of their hidden stashes is infuriating.

After all the tom-tomming I usually do about sisterhoods, I just found a massive one I am not a part of.

J, the class clown at my yoga-lates class alternately amuses and annoys our small group of middle-aged women who huff and puff together every morning, by counting exercise repetitions faster than the instructor.

She hasn’t counted aloud since November 8. Her silence is not because the usual sarcasm of her arch nemesis, U – a single, self-confessed, “self-employed, self-made success” – at her raucous bonhomie has finally hit home.

I often shared conspiratorial, post-workout eye rolls with soft-spoken R, who has never held a job despite one of those amorphous diplomas in interior design, and wry T, whose Chartered Accountancy qualification is in cold storage, but whose phone rings continuously through class when her children are on holiday.

But two days ago, after shavasan, the yoga pose that marks the end of the class, these women suddenly formed an unexpected huddle – a microcosm of the sudden sorority that stretches across the country: the sisterhood of the secret stash of cash.

Dependence and guilt

U has always condescendingly told us that she needs to be extra careful because “I don’t have a husband to pay my bills”.

I refrain from mentioning the odd bill my freelance career allows me to pay because I know complete financial dependence on a male family member or spouse is common in this country where women’s participation in the workforce is a leaking pipeline that bleeds hard before a few make it to middle management positions.

Unemployment rates are highest for urban Indian women with graduate degrees, which is weird because in a poll conducted last year by the online wedding platform shaadi.com about what Indian men want in a wife, a career-oriented girl was high on the list. A Times of India report on the survey had one respondent saying, “My wife will go mad staying alone for so long. [While he is at work.] Then, to pass her time, she will go shopping and waste money. It is better to have a double income and then spend than to have a single income and spend twice the amount.”

Several women have already internalised the notion that their personal expenditure, as complete dependents, is complicated. They often view this exercise as “going shopping and wasting money”.

And it is easy enough to imagine going mad when even a feminist, child-free, temporary housewife in the West struggles with guilt when making personal purchases. This housewife, Kate Bahn, was an economist who took a break while her husband worked to support both of them. In a 2014 piece in The Guardian, she wrote that her guilt arose from the belief that “What is his treating himself to a personal purchase with his hard earned money is me treating myself with my pin money.”

The web of patriarchy

Indian women do not stand to inherit much either. Though the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 gives daughters and sons equal rights to property with joint heirship, patriarchy fights back with private customs like haq tyaq, or the sacrifice of rights by women, and gentle suggestions by family elders that married daughters should not bother their pretty little heads with the family business, and that it is much better for them to work in the arts or some such.

In a culture where marriages usually have a significant transactional facet, this can become problematic.

A 2005 paper by economists Pradip Panda and Bina Agarwal, based on a household survey in Kerala, found that 49% of women who owned no property experienced physical violence. This figure dropped to 7% if the woman had land and a house in her name. But what is more alarming is that 84% of women with no permanent assets experienced psychological violence.

A Canadian-American directory for victims of domestic abuse lists instances of financial abuse that include several situations that are commonplace for the urban Indian woman. For instance, how many women do you know who have been discouraged from having a career, are given a fixed allowance, and expected to produce receipts for every purchase?

But Indian women are resilient. They not only live like this, they raise children, and provide financial support to parents and other blood relatives, often doing so in secret and with considerable personal sacrifice.

This blog post lists some of the uses the money is put to, and like many of the conversations I have recently had (and admittedly, eavesdropped on), what strikes you instantly is that personal indulgence features low on the list.

Every woman willing to speak to me on the subject has said that even when they do buy jewellery, it is to eventually hand it over to their daughters, perpetuating the subterranean survival strategy of Indian women.

I don’t know why they continue to live like this.

The estimated value of the jewellery and cash squirrelled away in India is estimated to be worth a few hundred billions, greater than the combined Gross Domestic Products of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan.

Instead of buying up a country of their own, and living happily ever after, this dratted sisterhood is trading information and mobilising wealth across support systems to escape not just the harshness of the sudden demonetisation exercise announced on November 8, but mostly, the unpredictable reactions of their male providers-in-chief.

The loss of a hard-wrought safety net is in itself heartbreaking, but watching women walk on eggshells after confessing to the existence of their hidden stashes is infuriating.

Still, there have been fewer fireworks than expected. There have also been pleasant surprises – husbands thrilled at the windfall, and appreciative of the thrift of their wives. But the uncertainty remains.

The circle of sisterhood

The women most at risk in this situation remain, as usual, elderly women, especially widows, dependent on the largesse of their children, usually sons and daughters-in-law. Again, though, daughters and female relatives are being called upon for help. This is, after all, a threat to the sisterhood.

In 2015, a piece in Fortune magazine, like many others, encouraged women to create a slush fund, a personal reserve for anything from medical emergencies to needing a diamond to wanting a divorce. Indian women know the value of this.

But the article also suggested that financial secrecy could be detrimental to a marriage if things came out into the open. Indian women apparently do not know this. Living in the shadow of financial or psychological abuse, they are used to playing ignorant to keep the status quo intact. “He may start giving me less money,” one woman told me. Another said, “He was okay for now, but I worry that in the future he will mistrust me.”

Some have decided to just keep the secret. “I’ve asked my cousin to help me,” R told me. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m saving for my daughters so they don’t have to be dependent on their husbands for everything.”

I am slightly bug-eyed at this glaring contradiction in her statement. R has more money in her cupboard than I do in my bank account. But when I suggest that she should make sure that her girls do not give up their careers after marriage, have bank accounts that they operate on their own, marry as equals, and also mention the economic value of the home-maker, her eyes glaze over. She walks back to the huddle outside the class, the circle of which closes without me.

I have some sort of a career, do not wear jewellery and believe I have no need for a fund hidden from my husband. Today, the sort of sisterhood I offer is as worthless as those Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes stashed in their cupboards. But tomorrow, I’m still going to suggest they pool it all in and buy a couple of countries.

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