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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015

Exploring Women’s Spaces

Situations, Battles, Experiences

Saturday 10 October 2015

book review

by Noor Zaheer

Indian Women: Contemporary Essays, editors: Devaki Jain and C.P. Sujaya; Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broad-casting, Government of India; 2015; pages: (i)- (xi) + 235; Price: Rs 335.

Feminist criticism grew from the moment attention was slowly but definitely focused on images of women in societies and particularly urban, escorted analysis of the socio-economic developments. Women’s effort to construct a movement to represent their voices, mainstream and marginal writings, art, folklore, and most importantly the efforts to ‘be’ in an acutely patriarchal world order are all efforts that need to be taken stock of, investigated and examined to discover the reasons that led to these churnings, the routes taken, the destination reached and the diversions and detours that are now a possibility.

Indian Women: Contemporary Essays has been published by the Publications Division and edited by Devika Jain and C.P. Sujaya in an effort to explore the various dimensions of women’s lives in contemporary India. Women in this book recount their situations, narrate both negative and positive experiences, share the variety of the battles they wished to fight and the struggles they were forced to take up.

Though the book tries to explore ‘all women’, this is just not a possibility as admitted in the introduction. In any exploration of women’s movements, growth, development or even just an attempt to cast a comprehensive view on the situation of women in a diverse country like India so many get left out; this however is not to be counted as a shortcoming of the book because it does take up/deals with most of the important issues concerning women like justice, rights, discrimination and control.

Romila Thapar believes that though women have been central to the narration of Indian history, women’s personal histories had not emerged till the 20th century while Shyamala Pappu pays attention to the critical need for legislative reforms in order to allow more women to compete and win. The struggle for 33 per cent reservation has not even begun yet and is already out of Parliament.

Vimla Ramachandran takes up a very important field today—education of girls—and traces its advancements. She draws a positive picture claiming that if there are large gaps in many issues there are also some successes that raise hopes for the future. Caste remains a strong and dominating factor though even in the backward regions both mothers and daughters have changed their perception towards education. In her essay ‘Graded Inequalities in Literacy’ Vimla Ramachandran counts out 31 different sets of gendered inequalities for the reader to understand how the issues are bound to get intertwined when words are used with broad definitions like rural, urban, female, male etc.

Caste seems to be the running thread in this book, raising its head in a variety of ways to be used as a form of regression and suppression.

Nidhi Sabarwal explores how Dalit women encounter caste-based discrimination and gender-based discrimination from both men and women of upper castes and there is no bonding between Dalit women and women of the upper castes.

Can all women be differentiated by and conveniently put into categories of caste, religion, location and language? According to Syeda Hameed, Muslim women refuse to be defined as a ‘separate entity’. They share all their defini-tions with women of every community, provided they also share the Muslim woman’s class. Her description of the situation for the Muslim woman in India after the partition is a painfully intense picture where she is caught between the crevice and the deep sea: poverty and the Muslim Personal Law.

Neerja Chowdhury delves into the basics of a democratic state and writes how politics treats women. Victories in elections that should be celebrated also come with uncomfortable questions like the portfolios allocated to the elected women; are they befitting of their status? Do these women represent and speak only for the women of their constituency? Neerja points out that 182 male politicians stand to lose their seats if the Bill on the Reservation of Women is passed. Hence its delay while the Bill on Panchayati Raj, incorporating the reservations for women in Panchayats, was passed through Parliament in a jiffy because it was approved by male Members of Parliament who had no interest in what happened at the local gover-nance level. So there is a contradiction of interest within the same male entity.

As a lawyer Indira Jailsingh says that the courts take a different attitude relating to religious laws; while the Hindu law has seen a lot of changes, the government takes a position of non-interference when it is a question of changing the marriage laws for Muslims, Christians and Parsees.

However, if times have remained stagnant in one place, they have changed and moved on in another. Renana Jhabvala and Betwa Sharma describe how the perception to education has changed not only for girls who are viewing it as economic independence but even their mothers who no longer view college as an overture to marriage. So not just the girls, their mothers too seem to have grown up.

What is significant, the book has the contours or shades of change as continuity; changes that have taken place or are still a process among women of all backgrounds; in education, age of marriage, issues of rural areas and of the urban ones. They showcase the change in perception of the women among themselves and the next generation. Marriage is no longer the ‘be all, end all’.

With the positive results of education and leaning towards economic independence the book also shows that in many cases the younger generation has already carved the way out as India witnessed in response to the brutal gang rape of December 16, 2012.

An important question raised in several essays of the book is the persistent surfacing and resurfacing of newer forms of gender inequalities. Though some successes have been achieved, patriarchy in various forms is never far away. There is an effort to provide explanation to these resurfacing.

Tables and graphs in each of the essays show the poor health of women the rate of school drop-outs and comparisons between socio religious categories in terms of education and work participation.

The book also gives quite a lot of statistical data on a number of family issues like the falling sex ratio which interestingly shows a much higher number of female children per one thousand males amongst the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes proving that preference for boys is much higher in the so called ‘elite’ classes. Interestingly, A.R. Nanda and O.P. Sharma, through many statistical sources, make a prognosis that by 2030, Indian women shall form the largest number of women in any country. However, they also show the jump in aging, particularly 75 plus groups, increase in the proportion of widows raising questions about their well-being.

What, then, would be the condition of women in 2030, has to be addressed now. Violence is the outcome of gross inequality and exclusion. In the years to come would there be more missing daughters in India? Only the future will show the situation of girls who are allowed to grow up to being women in India

In the end there is a huge question-mark on the phrase ‘all women’ that gives a single identity to all Indian women.

With contributions from well-known scholars, lawyers, planners, and activists and gender analysts working at the grassroot level, the thirteen essays included in the book have drawn pictures, reflected on the content and highlighted the journeys of Indian women in the last and present century.

The reviewer is a writer, researcher and the President of the Delhi State IPTA.