Can an advert for tea really change India’s sexist attitudes?

Can an advert for tea really change India’s sexist attitudes?

The scene is an Indian middle-class living room. A young girl tells her mother she is going out to play badminton with her brother. The mother, without looking up from chopping vegetables, says a firm “no” – the boy may go, but the girl has to stay and help her in the kitchen.

It’s a dialogue that can be heard in infinite permutations across millions of Indian homes every day. But this exchange forms part of a TV advert by Tata Tea, a global conglomerate whose accompanying petition urging the Indian government to make gender sensitisation classes mandatory in schools has now collected almost 1 million signatures – the point at which Tata Tea will deliver it to the minister in charge of India’s education policy.

The advert – with its tagline “Inequality gets learnt. Equality needs teaching” – is the latest in the company’s Jaago Re” marketing campaign which, over the past decade, has encouraged Indians to “wake up” to what needs changing in society – including tackling corruption, voting for clean candidates in elections, and discouraging the giving of bribes.

Yet despite the advert’s success, Tata Tea seems strangely reluctant to talk about its own gender equality policies. With women making up about 40% of its employees worldwide, according to a spokesperson, the company is doing well in comparison to other global brands such as Google (29%) and Facebook (35%).

However, when asked what special policies it had put in place to encourage more women to join the company and then rise to senior positions, Tata Tea’s corporate communications department was unable to comment, saying only that “all the relevant people are travelling”.

While some may dismiss the campaign as a marketing gimmick, it has certainly captured widespread public attention, tapping into the debate over crimes against women and the rampant inequality they face which has raged ever since the 2012 gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi.

A second TV advert shows a girl coming first in a school race and a boy second. The boy’s father looks pleased and calls him over to pat his head affectionately – then ruins it by saying: “So you were beaten by a girl, eh?”

The idea of gender sensitisation classes is to target boys in their formative years, before negative ideas about women can take root. In the few Indian schools where these have been introduced (in Mumbai and the state of Jharkhand, for example), research shows that two years of classes have “resulted in a significant shift in attitudes of girls and boys toward gender equality and egalitarian behaviour”.

“When boys are young, it is the only time you can have impact,” says Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research, which is supporting the Tata Tea campaign. “Later their mentality and attitudes are set, and this gives Indian men a sense of entitlement that makes them think they can get away with anything.”

Comments attributed to two of the lawyers who defended the 2012 Delhi rapists encapsulate such attitudes. In interviews for the BBC documentary India’s Daughter (which was banned in India), one said that by going out alone at night, a woman was inviting rape. The other said he would set his daughter on fire if he ever found her indulging in pre-marital sex.

In contrast, one of the supreme court judges who heard the 2012 gang rape case, Justice R Banumathi, believes gender equality studies should be part of the school curriculum. Currently, India stands a lowly 125th out of 159 ranked countries on the United Nations’ gender inequality index.

“In our tradition-bound society … [a] change in the mindset is needed to respect women and to ensure gender justice,” Banumathi said when putting forward her proposal in May, as part of the supreme court’s recommendations for ensuring women’s safety. “Right from childhood years, children ought to be sensitised to respect women.”

“It is our firm belief that true social change can only occur when we address the root cause of a social issue,” said Rishi Chadha, Tata Tea’s head of marketing, in a statement. “To effectively combat the rising cases of violence and discrimination against women, we need to dispel the incorrect notions of male superiority that are knowingly or unknowingly taught to young children, and then continued into adulthood.”

  • Read more about the petition to make gender sensitisation classes compulsory in India’s schools here
  • Follow the Guardian’s Inequality Project on Twitter here, or e

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