By Sahil Sood:
Several researchers over the years have failed to distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ correctly. While a person’s ‘sex’ refers to his/her physiological structure, ‘gender’ on the other hand is dictated by a person’s individual choices- or in most cases, societal order.
Thus, male/female conforms to the biological stratum, while man/woman conforms to the societal/individual stratum of classification. This commonly practiced nomenclature needs revision since it holds dubious relevance in the current scenario where the ‘third sex population’, i.e. people with transgendered and asexual identities, has started recognizing itself as such. However, in India, sex and gender are used interchangeably. Textbooks on gender studies define primary sex as ‘male’ and secondary sex as ‘female’.
In India, gender norms are governed by the various social categories in which a particular sex operates. If one understands ‘gender’ as a relationship of power between a man and a woman, gender discrimination would mean discrimination against women on the basis of their sex since female sex is considered to be weaker in comparison. This ideology is perpetuated by the patriarchal order of society that grants men special privileges in social and economic sphere, over women. It is interesting to note that the same system has been criticized for forcing men, who continued to be largely oppressed in the framework, to re-allocate their gender identities over time.
As a result of gender biases operating in favor of men, women in India continue to face discrimination in terms of schooling, job opportunity, healthcare, and nutrition. Casual sexism, cultural stereotyping, and media objectification in everyday life have further led women to unquestioningly accept their subordinate position in society.
According to the 2011 Census, female literacy in India was 65.46% as against 82.14% of male literacy. Educating the girl child is seen as a bad investment as she is bound to get married and leave her paternal home someday to assume the role of a housewife. Thus, women who lack basic secondary education (10+2) find difficulty in sustaining in the highly demanding job market. Moreover, the work done by a woman, mainly household duties, is not accorded a quantifiable monetary value while estimating a country’s Gross Domestic Product, which is an overall index of growth in an economy.
Not only in education, in case of family food habits, too, it is the male child who is accorded primary preference in terms of nutritious food. Poor food habits in childhood often result in anemia and difficult births at subsequent stages of womanhood. As per the last recorded census, maternal mortality rate was at 178 deaths per 1-lakh live births.
In some parts of India, women don’t even own their names: Custom demands that they change their last name, and in some cases, first name after marriage. Most of the laws in India hark back to the colonial era when a wife’s chastity was a man’s property. The adultery law in India is explicit about the fact that it is a crime committed by one man in respect of other man’s wife, and the law is there to solely punish such a man. Thus, most laws in India straitjacket men and women into strict gender roles.
Gender inequality manifests itself in manifold forms. Earlier, I talked about the power schism that separates gender identities. Perhaps the same schism is responsible for the increase in the number of incidents of violence against women. Before proceeding ahead, I’d like to clear the misconception attached to the word ‘violence’ that limits its understanding to a strict physical sense, by saying that violence against women means and has always included physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitration of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
In a survey conducted by World Health Organization in 2013 on Gender Based Violence (GBV), it was found that partners are the primary perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse. Among ever-partnered women, almost one-third (30%) of all women experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partner. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), or ‘Domestic Violence’, as it is understood in the Indian context, is any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to those in the relationship. Such behavior includes physical aggression (slapping, hitting, kicking, or beating); psychological abuse (intimidation, constant belittling, and humiliating); sexual coercion (forced intercourse and other forms); controlling behaviours (isolating, monitoring, restricting); and battering (when abuse occurs constantly in the same relationship).
Domestic violence is considered to be the most prevalent and practiced form of violence against women in India. Despite the enactment of Prevention of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, women find it hard to avail legal succor because there is fear of retribution, shame, or disbelief, in asking for aid. Thus, most cases of domestic violence remain largely unreported.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a traditional custom that is practiced in many religious communities in the world. In India, – especially in the Bohra community – it’s still openly practiced in some pockets but finds little mention anywhere. FGM is a cultural practice involving the excision of various parts of genitalia of girls and young women. In their book, ‘Overcoming Violence Against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem’, Dr. Michael L. Penn and Dr. Rahel Nardos write: “A reason commonly given for female circumcision is the preservation of female chastity by making sex physically impossible. Both men and women thus see the practice as an important means of maintaining morality and preserving family and cultural honor. It also meets men’s demands for wives who come as virgins and who remain faithful. Other commonly invoked functions of female circumcision include elevating the sexual pleasure of men; rendering women ‘clean’ by removing those parts of the female sexual organs that are considered dirty and impure, and exposing young women to the preparatory pain that serves as a metaphor for the pain of childbirth.”
Indian Constitution provides for positive safeguards to eliminate gender inequality; the Preamble to the Constitution talks about goals of achieving social, economic, and political justice for everyone and to provide equality of status and of opportunity to all its citizens. Further, women have equal right to vote in our political system. Article 15 of the Constitution provides for prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex, apart from other grounds such as religion, race, caste, or place of birth. Article 15(3) authorizes the State to make any special provision for women and children. Moreover, the Directive Principles of State Policy also provide various provisions, which are for the benefit of women, and provide safeguards against discrimination.
Other than these Constitutional safeguards, various protective legislations have also been passed by the Parliament to eliminate exploitation of women and to give them equal status in society. For instance, the Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, was enacted to abolish and make punishable the inhuman custom of Sati; the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, to eliminate the practice of dowry; the Special Marriage Act, 1954, to give rightful status to married couples who marry inter-caste or inter-religion; the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Bill (introduced in Parliament in 1991, passed in 1994) to stop female infanticide and many more such Acts.
Furthermore, the Parliament brings out timely amendments to existing laws in order to give protection to women according to the changing needs of the society. For instance, Section 304-B was added to the Indian Penal Code, 1860, to make dowry-death or bride burning a specific offense punishable with maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
True, there are various legislative safeguards and protection mechanisms for women but the ground reality is very different. Despite all these provisions women are still being treated as second-rate citizens in our country and continue to be the victim of several atrocities committed on the grounds of gender discrimination. Also, few existing laws explicitly protect the rights of, say, the transgendered community or the gay and lesbian community—the laws do not have much room for gender ambiguity.
How can we achieve gender equality and stop the increasing violence? Education was thought to be an effective measure until the first domestic violence case was reported in Kerala, the Indian state with the highest literacy rate and female to male sex ratio. It was then realized that perhaps there was something more potentially harmful than illiteracy, which was responsible for gender-based violence in general.
Over time, it has been realised that it’s the terribly simplistic boundaries of gender roles drawn by the societal order that is more harmful than any recorded cause. Everything else shares a cause and effect relationship with it. Our flawed approach towards achieving a theoretical anatomic commonality while practicing anatomic differentiation has resulted in an upsurge of violence and intolerance against any sex that practices a norm deviant from the set order.
The need of the hour is to bring a radical change in our everyday sexist attitudes and become more tolerant and empathetic. One way in which empathy can be achieved is through reading literature and viewing artistic/dramatic presentations. Quoting from my independent thesis on society and relationships: Reading and viewing are essential because we know that surface notations are the cheat. That it’s the surface depiction of things what locks us out of the teeming, throbbing, libidinous and emotional world that we inhabit, and that relationship is precisely the arena where all of it comes to the fore.
Literature and cinema provide a language for all the bouts of effect, anger and desire that punctuate life, and escape our observation most of the times. They remind us of what a spectacle our real world is – both inside and outside.
Measures that are appropriate to and through art are radically different from the kind of empirical measures that we can find in the sciences and in the social sciences and in computer science, kinds of things that are measurable. But the measure of the human, the moral, the imaginative, the emotional, the neural, are measures, it seems to me, find their privileged site in art. And these literary texts and films describe, make visible to us, and allow us to share stories where we either connect with or collide with each other and our world.
The current order has led to many men and women re-allocate their gender and sexual identities over time. In India, the third sex population faces legal and social difficulties not experienced by other genders. Not only they’re stigmatized but the legal framework also denies them the fundamental right to dignity and to form a legitimate marriage union. Article 377 of Indian Penal Code criminalizes same-sex union and mating.
Thus, gender is an ever-evolving phenomenon; it’s a socio-political umbrella term for all issues that do not fit into any commonly practiced nomenclature and find their voice with changing times. Gender issues in India need a thorough and thoughtful revision, which should start by ‘gender sensitization’ and ‘gender awareness’.