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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 51 New Delhi December 12, 2015

Unfortunate Woman

Sunday 13 December 2015, by Sangeeta Mall


‘Oh poor India!... How sad! The country, whose male population is unkind, unreligious and unaware of the distinction between good and evil and doesn’t care about justice and fairness and where abiding by rituals is the chief preoccupation of religion, should not give birth to girls!’ In the 19th century, noted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar gave this lament. Have things changed much since then?

Last year I happened to spend a few hours at Dubai Airport. As I sat in the waiting lounge and observed the travellers, one thing that jumped out at me was the number of women who were travelling alone. I contrasted this with the situation in Mumbai, where almost all the women were travelling as a part of a group, mostly a family. Since this was an international airport, most of the women were well-off by Indian standards. And yet, there were hardly any unaccompanied females. They were also much smaller in number compared to their male fellow-travellers.

An Indian friend settled in Australia recounted his dismay when his adolescent daughter declared her intention of going to India on a study tour. That’s what Australian students, boys and girls, do after high school. They take some time off to go to foreign lands and assimilate those cultures. It makes them better prepared to live in the world as adults. My friend responded with unadulterated horror. Anywhere but India, he pleaded with his daughter. My motherland isn’t safe for women.

As women in India, we have become accustomed to being somehow inferior. We are shameless hussies who need to be tamed constantly in order to uphold Indian values. This is the narrative that we must endure if we are to survive in this country. If we live as professionals, making choices and taking decisions, we are admired for being ‘bold’. Thousands of young women who enter the professional arena every year are told by society that they are simply supposed to bide their time until they finally ‘settle down’. If a woman asserts her rights, she is labelled ‘bold’, an euphemism for ‘promiscuous’, and nine times out of ten, judged ‘available’.

A judge of the Bombay High Court allowed a litigant to express himself about how modern dresses invite rape, claiming it was the common man’s view. The court didn’t specify what the common woman’s view is.

An entire village in Haryana stopped sending its girls to school because of the harassment they faced from the boys in the neighbourhood. There was no question of publicly shaming the boys or stopping their access to public services.

In a village in Maharashtra, every girl is called ‘no name’, in denial of her very existence.

In recognition of the fact that the participation of women is central to the prosperity of a community, a development organisation in the field of agricultural growth made it mandatory for its village council to have fifty per cent female participation. And only those families that joined the village council became eligible for assistance. In northern India, particularly Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, while women were enrolled as members, they weren’t allowed to attend council meetings as mingling with men was against their ‘culture’.

Studies show that South Asia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. India as much as the rest. And as women’s aspirations grow, as they try to take their rightful place in society, as they step ahead to contribute to the country’s economy, almost every part of the country’s dispensation is doing its utmost to hold them back.

For centuries, girls in India have been treated as inferior beings, a burden on society, on their parents, vessels for producing and raising children, and seldom anything more. Every religious practice either ignores women altogether, as though they aren’t even worthy of consideration, or assigns to them an inferior status. There are still temples in India that deny entry to women, there are still rituals that only men can conduct, and the clergy continues to defend overtly misogynistic practices like triple talaq.

The situation of women in a country reflects its overall status. No matter how one paints it, India’s situation remains dismal in world rankings on various parameters. On the Human Development Index, India, in spite of its claims to being one of the world’s superpowers, continues to hover towards the bottom, competing with countries like Pakistan and Iran. Why should this be the case when incomes continue to grow, when we enjoy one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world? If we are growing economically, shouldn’t this be reflected in our overall position in the world? Why should we still face horrendous maternal and infant mortality rates? Why are we at the bottom where sanitation and personal hygiene is concerned? In large swathes of the country, malnourished children continue to be born and raised because women, even if pregnant, are not considered deserving of medical or nutritional attention.

Can simple economic prosperity overcome these obstacles to our country’s growth? We always claim to take pride in our ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’. A key aspect of this heritage is the status of women. How can we take pride in a culture where one-half of the population is considered permanently inferior, from birth to death, and even beyond, judging by the haste with which many widowers remarry?

While we keep emphasising our technological advancements and aspire to a permanent seat on the Security Council of the UN, in our backyard we have the situation of menstruating women being quarantined, a custom probably derived from times when female hygiene during menstruation was a cumbersome proposition. For the practice to continue into this era shows the utter lack of commitment our society and political class has towards modernisation.

There are enough examples to show how badly we treat our women, from the different rites attending the birth of a boy versus a girl, to the lack of appreciation of a girl’s special needs during menstruation, to a disregard for her dignity and a complete disavowal of her agency as an individual. Women in India are particularly disadvantaged because they bear the dual burden of caste and gender.

The mindset is so deep-rooted that often it seems impossible that it will ever change. Recently, a leading politician, responsible for the political emancipation of the backward castes, complimented a TV news anchor during an interview in the aftermath of a stunning election victory. He was indulgent and almost fatherly towards her, as though she wasn’t a highly respected journalist, but more impor-tantly, a younger woman, almost a daughter. Indian men have a need to deny a woman’s mind, in order to assert their superiority.

There are very tiny, thin rays of hope in this scenario. The various governments, in the States and at the Centre, are offering incentives to get the girl child into school. Almost every day, newspapers feature stories of inspiration with women as the heroes. In a landmark decision, the Indian Air Force has now allowed women to fly combat aircraft. But the rate of change is almost glacial. While women across the world are taking their place in every possible profession, from the highest to the lowliest, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, in India we are still struggling with issues related to the female identity. Is a woman first a woman, and then everything else?

Can this rate of change be ramped up? How can it be? How can we keep mouthing platitudes about female empowerment without examining the roots of this oppression? Everything in our ‘cultural heritage’ emphasises the role of woman as secondary or non-existent in the growth of society. If we remain unwilling to examine this context, how can we move to the next stage of entitlement? The irony is that every narrative is now trying to reimagine that heritage. In the new discourse, women are shown to be actually ‘strong’ in our mythology. Examples of Draupadi and Sita, both considered the epitome of righteousness and valour, are given. Primetime TV shows are now trying to represent women as powerful beings. The principal of my son’s school declared that it was nonsense to say that women are treated as inferior beings in this country. In fact, she said, in no country are women as respected as in India, whose pantheon of gods have strong female figures like Lakshmi and Saraswati. She repeated the very common defence that while monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam have males at the top, it is only in Hinduism that women are accorded a place of equality. The hypocrisy of such storytelling is mindboggling. Two dimensional caricatures of famous women can in no way compensate for the daily humiliation of almost every woman in our society. And retelling mythology to cast a rosier hue on its women cannot change the horrific interpretation of women’s role in society by our scriptures. Unless we learn to question these scriptures, perhaps even to disown them, how can we ever change the way we perceive our women?

It is facile to laugh away our religious heritage, while, at the same time, accepting it. If we are to take our due place in society, must we not invite the environment to disown this horrible legacy? Mere whitewash can never cover the structural weakness of our roots. In a country where the largest and most powerful social organisation, the RSS, encourages celibacy amongst its leaders at a time when such preferences are being questioned even within the Catholic world, what hope is there for women unless they teach themselves to ask the right questions?

Indeed, the odds against women’s emancipation in India are overwhelming. Religion, society, the political class are all against it. The last is particularly ironic, for when a government benefits women, it is most likely to be voted back into power. Therefore in which direction should we move to release one-half of our population from bondage in perpetuity? Certainly not in the direction of whitewashing our history and mythology. Nor in the direction of venerating our cultural legacy. Nor can we afford any more patriarchal interventions like glorifying the role of the mother or wife in our culture. In fact we fail our women most when we talk of ‘respecting’ them. Women don’t need, and often don’t deserve, respect. Just as men don’t need or deserve it. What women need is the right to exercise free choice, choice over their bodies and their minds, without feeling beholden to society. A good beginning would be to ensure that all girls till the age of sixteen go to school. At the same time, the curriculum must contain a healthy dose of human rights education so that both students and teachers are sensitised to their rights as individuals.

It is true that greater industrialisation weakens the militant nature of patriarchy. In India, unfortunately, there’s a strong lobby that wishes to ‘protect’ the Gandhian ideal of the village economy. But is there a viable alternative to urbanisation where women’s rights are concerned? Urbanisation is inevitably accompanied by the dilution of caste-based identity and a feudal social structure. In the Indian situation, urbanisation is also accompanied by the march of exogamy, a necessary, if not sufficient condition, for female empowerment.

Is a new dawn of women’s liberation appearing in India? There doesn’t seem to be an answer in these dark days of rising fundamentalism and militant Hindutva. But perhaps we shall get pushed towards it by the rest of the world, even if we kick and scream all the while.

Sangeeta Mall is an author of two novels. She is the former Managing Editor of The Radical Humanist and former Editor of the International Humanist News. She can be reached on @livingbyondpink.