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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 17

Not in the Image of God

Monday 14 April 2008, by Ragini Nayak


“So God created man
- in His own image,
- in the image of God
- He created him.”

Woman, as per the Holy Bible, was not even perceived by God until He realised “it is not good for man to be alone “and so out of the ribs of ‘the first man’ came the woman, his “helper”.
- “…She shall be called ‘woman’
- For she was taken out of man.”

From time immemorial woman has been perceived through the male gaze and no doubt she emerges as his second half…’subordinate’, ‘secondary’,’subservient’,’inferior’ so on and so forth…

I sometimes wonder, is it because of the religious scriptures, holy books and the assertion that Eve, “the mother of mankind”, was made out of Adam’s body which gives rise to such deep-rooted ideas and patriarchal notions of ownership of males over women’s bodies, sexuality, intellect, labour, reproductive rights, mobility and the level of autonomy? Then, my imagination flies back to the Hindu mythology, which proclaims that woman is ‘Shakti’ incarnate, not just as a Goddess or ‘Devi’ but the fundamental creative vital energy underlying the cosmos. One faction of the Hindu mythology asserts that a woman should be looked upon as the Hindu Divine Mother—as the absolute, ultimate Godhead. But, has that changed the status of women in our part of the world? Are we doing any better than our Western counterparts? Well, one need not look at the statistics collected by the National Crime Records Bureau or the National Commission for Women to reveal that women in our country face high levels of violence and discrimination; even a random glance at the daily newspaper would give us the answer.

Gender based violence and discrimination is a serious problem in our society more so because it is deeply entrenched in the cultural and social relations between them. Over the years there has been an alarming rise in atrocities on women in India. According to one of the reports of the Home Ministry, every 26 minutes a woman is molested, every 51 minutes a woman is sexually harassed, every 54 minutes a rape takes place and in every 102 minutes a woman is burnt to death. These are just statistical figures, the reality is much more grotesque.

• A DU student gets gang-raped in a moving car near Dhaula Kuan in Delhi.

• A German lady gets raped by an auto-rickshaw driver and his accomplice in Jodhpur.

• Both the hands of a woman were amputated in Indore because she protested against child marriage.

• Minor tribal girls from Chindwara, Madhya Pradesh are systematically kidnapped and sold in the flesh market in different regions of the country.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of incidents of such physical, sexual abuse and culturally justified assault happen every day. Almost every woman in this country experiences some sort of violence in her lifetime and fear of violence becomes an important factor in her life. It determines what they do, when they do it, where, how and with whom. These acts shape their attitude to life and their expectations of themselves. It should be taken into account that it is not just physical and sexual violence but also verbal, emotional, financial, social and intellectual violence that they have to face. It leads not only to the denial of various fundamental and moral rights but also deprive her of her identity as an individual and robs her of her dignity and pride. Even gender discrimination is an inherent part of the social fabric in India. Ranging from gender-based division of labour to the alarming rate of female foeticide/infanticide, our society has it all. A look at the turn of the century census reveals that there were 972 females per 1000 males in 1901 whereas the figure is 933 females per 1000 males in 2001.A combination of gender based economic pressure (especially related to dowry and property inheritance) and traditional/religious beliefs (family lineage and pious obligations/rites) explicitly favour male child over the female. While growing up also, usually the male children get better diet, clothes, education etc. Even the division of labour in a society like ours is directly tied to the socialisation pattern within them. The different reproductive roles that stem from biological differences between men and women form the basis to divide tasks at home and in the public sphere. Women are confined usually to the household chores, upbringing of children and looking after older members of the family, whereas men act as the breadwinners and perform tasks related to the public and productive work. Even if women step out of the framework of the household, since most of them fall into the unorganised sector they are overworked and underpaid.

VIOLENCE and discrimination have become a tool that men use constantly to control women; this is the a result of highly internalised patriarchal conditioning coupled with legitimacy for coercion to enforce compliance. But, what I find really strange is that even while this reality is so much in the face, where there should have been joint outrage against an intolerable suppression and exploitation, there is instead a denial and the largely passive acceptance of ‘the way things are’. It is even more incomprehensible how women are routinely blamed for provoking or calling upon this violence and discrimination by the way of their dress, manner or their character. Both the blame and guilt always fall upon the women. This approach has many unfortunate consequences. It makes women alone responsible for their safety and welfare. If something uncalled for happens to them, it is assumed to have happened because they have not followed the rules. It not only restricts women’s freedom and autonomy but also reduces their self-confidence and makes them physically as a well as psychologically dependent on the support or protection of others. So discussions, programmes, policies and laws on women’s issues have to begin from the recognition of women’s ‘right to a life free from violence and discrimination’ and from a perspective that this responsibility lies with the society as a whole and not with women alone.

I certainly agree that after independence and especially from the Fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-78) there has been a marked shift in the approach to women’s issues from welfare to develpoment. In the 1950s, the Hindu personal laws were overhauled banning polygamy and giving women the right to inheritence, adoption and divorce. The National Commission for Women was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1990 to safeguard the rights and legal entitlements of women.The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments (1993) provided for reservation in the local bodies of panchayats and municipalities. Domestic Violence (Prevention) Act was passed in 2006. But I am forced to concede that this is only a beginning and we have a long way to go. There has to be a combined effort of national governments, local authorities, law enforcing agencies, the education sector, the mass-media, community based organisations, women’s organisations, NGOs and human rights organisations.

• The legal system directed to elimination of all forms of gender violence and discrimination has to be strengthened and strict enforcement of all relevant legal provisions along with speedy redressal of grievances has to be ensured.

• Measures to prevent and punish sexual harassment at workplace, protection of women workers in the organised/unorganised sector and strict enforcement of laws like Equal Remuneration Act should be undertaken.

• Women cells in police stations, family courts, counselling centres, legal aid centres and Nyay Panchyats should be expanded.

• Widespread dissemination of information on all aspects of legal rights, human rights and entitlements of women should be carried out.

• Integration of gender awareness, anti-violence and human rights should be effected in the curriculum and educational materials at both school and college levels should be provided to enable the youth to challenge stereotypes and attitudes on gender based discrimination.

• Use of different forms of media to communicate social messages relating to women’s equality and empowerment.

• Involvement of voluntary organisations, associations, federations, NGOs, trade unions, women’s organisations to ensure formulation, implementation, monitorong and review of all policies and programmes in this regard.

• Promotion of societal awareness and sensitisation on gender issues and women’s human rights.

Apart from all these, the focus of the drive for women emancipation should be the individual. It must be realised that change like charity would also have to begin at home and if we really want any positive change in this direction we ourselves have to be the catalyst. If each individual would not just be aware about his/her rights but also be sensitive towards others, society would automatically change. Gender sensitisation too would have to begin at home. Females from early childhood are moulded in the prominent gender perspective by being taught ‘appropriate mannerisms’ but no such training is given to the male children. They grow up taking hints from the female behaviour in different roles, finding them all subservient to their wishes. Male gender sensitisation is one of the biggest challenges ahead of us. It has to be ingrained in their minds that women are their equals in every sense of the term, in their childhood itself. They would also have to be warned that when they misbehave with a woman, they have to beware of the fact that their mother, wife or sister is as vulnerable as their victim because somewhere there would be another man waiting for his chance. Societal attitudes and community practices would not change overnight. It would need persistent mainstreaming of the gender perspective in the thought process of every individual. Only then women can have both de jure and de facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom on an equal basis with men in all spheres—political, economic, social, cultural and civil.

I know it’s a long process and there are lots of obstacles on the path but each step taken in the right direction will bring us closer to the ultimate goal. And probably after all this persistence God will smile from heaven and say that woman too is made in His image after all.

The author, a former President of the Delhi University Students’ Union, is the National General Secretary, NSUI.

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