By Anuva Kulkarni:
For years and years, the ‘Question of Women’ has been one of the most challenging social issues. It is widely discussed and debated, drawing supporters and spearheading movements for women’s rights and welfare. Feminism has become a powerful word and the demand for justice for women and their rights is now stronger than ever. And yet we never seem to really get there. Equality of the sexes is always wanting.
A few hundred years ago, women were crushed under the thumb of the so-called traditions, religion, or any other reason on earth that served to mask the real reason for their oppression: their sex. Forced to live in purdah, denied education and their freedom to step outside the threshold of their homes, with the prevalence of the gruesome custom of Sati, women languished in misery for ages. Education encourages thought and independent thought can ask the most important question of all: Why? Why must I tolerate secondary treatment and hide myself in purdah? Why must I be forced into marriage and sent away with a strange man I have never seen before in my life? Why should I be denied learning, so that when I hold a book, all I see are strange symbols? Why must I be burned alive because my husband is no longer living?
Without literacy and learning, no woman dared come forward to question and to challenge the obsolete customs. No woman could imagine that it could all change. Instead, they remained mute, bound by their shackles and there was nothing in their world but darkness. It is heartbreaking to think how society destroyed so many women’s chances of doing something with their lives, of being someone, and making sure they weren’t forgotten as though they had never existed. Heaven knows how many Indira Gandhis, Kiran Bedis and Kalpana Chawlas never saw the opportunity to be what they had in themselves to be.
Mercifully, with the dawn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the women’s empowerment movement caught momentum and things began to change. Reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought tooth and nail against Sati practices. British suffragettes influenced India, and with women’s rights being fought for all around the world, we did not lag far behind. The bleak, age-old picture was painted over and a modern society emerged, with a new identity for the Indian woman. (Tagore’s novel, Home and the World, sheds some light on this transformation period, among other things)
Then why, we ask ourselves, have we still not achieved the empowerment and equality that we set out to achieve? And how much longer is it going to take for this dream to come true? The answer is one that stares us in the face, a part of everyone’s everyday life – so obvious and yet so elusive.
There are two forms of subjugation — the obvious, and the underlying, hidden kind – the kind that eats away at the foundations of the empowerment movement and slowly hollows out what has been built so far. The kind that today’s women have to face every single day at home and at the workplace.
In my previous article, IÂ underscored the fact that in millions of households, the responsibility of balancing professional life with the family still falls solely on the woman’s shoulders. She comes home from work to find the maid absent, the laundry still in the basket, the dining table bare and the kids slamming doors. Her husband doesn’t take much notice of these chores, because they’re somehow magically going to be taken care of when he wakes up in the morning. By elves, perhaps. Or maybe just his wife. Well, it doesn’t matter which one of the two.
Taken for granted by her in-laws every step of the way, the hard work she puts in to keep the bonds of her extended family from fraying, go unappreciated. In the internal war between seeking what she wants and sacrificing all for her home, the latter usually wins. Thousands of women are labouring under the illusion of being the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker, and in ‘thinking from their hearts’, stowing their self-respect away in the backseat. What they don’t realize is that they can be both — the heart and soul of the home, and the confident individual who can stand up for herself, assert herself, and be heard and appreciated. The key here is that a woman should realize that she is important, that she matters. What she wants matters. It should matter to those around her, and they should treat her as she deserves to be treated: like an equal. Without this realization, women will be a spanner in the works for their own empowerment, trying hard to breathe under the crushing force of guilt and the idea of selfless duty.
Then we come to the misogyny and sexism that dominates workplaces, corporate life, politics and everything down to women drivers in the traffic on the street. Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia famously blasted the Leader of Opposition Tony Abbott for his sexist remarks. “What if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?” Abbott had asked, along with calling Gillard a ‘witch’. The resentment of female power is evident in this excerpt from the Business Week: “The environment Gillard describes may be familiar to longtime female executives on Wall Street, where in the old days; at least, they might find condoms on their desks or strippers in the trading rooms.” The increasing number of sexual assaults and rapes and the ridiculous excuses given by our authorities in their wake is testament to what these policemen and Khap panchayats really think about the place women occupy.
Who is responsible for this dismal state of affairs, where there is an outrageous lack of regard for the fairer sex? Partly to blame are the women who let themselves be dominated and do not fight back, and those mothers that failed to teach their sons to respect womanhood.
The empowerment that we seek is not just about reservations in the government, jobs, paid maternity leaves and seats on the bus. We seek a new social order, a system of values that is based, first and foremost, on equality. We need educational reforms so that we can have young people who can think, rather than just amass degrees for good jobs. If girls are not taught to think, they will inevitably wind up in the same cycle of guilt, delusion and powerlessness that we are trying to avoid. Just as it is essential to teach your daughters self-respect, it is also essential to teach your sons that it is not okay to walk over a woman as if she were a doormat. Unless women become the Julia Gillards of their own homes, their workplaces, and let the world know that they are important, they are individuals to be respected, they will not be cast aside and they will not quietly endure the sexist jibes thrown at them, we will never achieve that empowerment. Empowerment needs courage; it is strength, and one needs to remember:
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”Â -Mahatma Gandhi