In a move that drew a lot of raised eyebrows today, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram proposed the setting up of a special Public Sector Unit bank that would be run by and cater to, only women. The first thought that came to my mind (sorry, my mind has officially been numbed by the idiot box) was “What an idea, Sirji!” Sheer genius even, I would say considering the ongoing outrage against the shameful treatment of women in the country. What better way to soothe frayed nerves than a promise of ‘empowerment’ and ‘financial inclusion’.
I did a bit of research (read Googled) about the existence of such banks in the world and I was quite surprised that this isn’t a new development. Women’s branches in the Middle East were born out of practical necessity (to protect women’s virtue of course) but, more recently, banks have opened women-only branches in east Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Mexico, Italy and Bulgaria. Apparently, it’s not just the Arab and Middle Eastern countries that enforce this gender based segregation. In 1964, The National Commercial Bank opened a women’s branch in Scotland where “it would take more than a ravishing smile to get an overdraft”, and the walls were panelled in a willow shade “toning delightfully with a seaweed green carpet.”
Now personally, I could see the benefits of such a bank. No longer will women have to deal with the misogyny of bank employees. Women are paid less than men, and it is much more difficult for female entrepreneurs to receive funding for their own ventures. Joan Indiana Rigdon, in her article “A Women Only Bank for America” cites many familiar examples of the double standards that women face today. It seems male bankers are more comfortable dealing with the sensible men of the household rather than the frivolous women.
There are of course, conflicting opinions. Noted economist Dr Surjit Bhalla chose to comment, “It’s the worst idea I have seen anywhere, and in any budget. Why not establish an Islamic bank, SC Bank, ST Bank?” Personally, I think this comment is flawed. As of 2012, out of the 1.22 billion people in India, 591.4 million were women. And gender, unsurprisingly cuts across religion, caste and creed in both importance and number. If this all-women bank indeed functions as it supposed to, I think it would be a huge blessing. Providing capital to women entrepreneurs, funding social cooperatives, creating employment opportunities, allowing women especially from the smaller towns and villages to approach banks on their own and creating a sense of self-reliance and purpose – all valiant goals.
So much of the success of this bank lies in its implementation, and that’s where the government and the country, usually fails. This announcement has already been wrought by screams of “Women have to be gender equal too!” and the like. All I have to say to that is, unless you’ve lived it, you can’t really say it. Sorry bro.
I guess Chanda Kochhar, who heads ICICI Bank put it very succinctly. “Most of the banks in India are run by women, but the proposed bank is for women. The focus seems to be to fund women entrepreneurs and give them encouragement. I don’t see anything wrong in that.” And honestly, neither do I.