“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenges of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
– Kofi Annam, Former UN Secretary General
It is impossible to think about the welfare and sustainable development of India unless the condition of women is improved. “It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing,” Swami Vivekananda more than a hundred years ago. Addressing about 6,000 women sarpanchs (a sarpanch is an elected head of a village-level statutory institution called the panchayat) from across the country on International Women’s Day 2017, Prime Minister Modi said, “If women, who are 50% of the country’s population, participate and are included in the nation – building process, our country can achieve great heights.”
So, what is the status of women in India? In many ways, today might be the best time in the modern history of India to be a girl. Girls are defying all odds and showing killer instincts. PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar became the unlikely heroines and saved the country’s pride from returning empty-handed from the Rio Olympics (2016) for the first time since Barcelona, 1992. In other words, today’s India offers a lot more opportunities to women than before, with women having a voice in everyday life, the business world as well as in political life.
Yet an alarm is sounding, revealing a disturbing portrait of millions of girls missing and others struggling. Though India is moving away from the male-dominated culture, discrimination is still highly visible in rural as well as in urban areas, throughout all strata of society. While women are guaranteed equality under the constitution, legal protection has a limited effect, where patriarchal traditions prevail.
With the whole world celebrating International Women’s Day with great pomp and show, it would be only apt to refer to three or four incidents that took place in the first three months of this year to describe the position and space Indian women, especially the young ones, occupy today.
We live in the age where tweets, WhatsApp forwards, and Facebook status updates have taken over as news. Often, it is mindless celebrity gossip and random tripe, but occasionally it leads to something more troubling. Trolling of “Dangal” actor Zaira Wasim, martyr’s daughter Gurmehar Kaur and teenager singer sensation Nahid Afrin exposes our biased mind about women’s achievements.
The controversy surrounding Zaira Wasim – who was trolled on social media for her success in “Dangal” and for meeting Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who described her as a Kashmiri role model – has only exposed the bigotry and hypocrisy of some of the pro-separatist lobby in Kashmir and elsewhere. She was subjected to sexist abuse. The pressure heaped on the 16-year-old forced her to tender an apology for her success. She went on to say, “I am being projected as a role model for Kashmiri youth. I want to make it very clear that I do not want anyone to follow in my footsteps or even consider me as a role model…”
A similar kind of trolling happened to Gurmehar Kaur, an English literature student from Delhi University and daughter of an Army martyr, who had found herself at the centre of a social media storm over her stand supporting freedom of speech. She had opined that war had killed her father, not Pakistan, and challenged the ABVP (an all India students organisation affiliated to the RSS) following the violence at Ramjas College. She withdrew from the campaign and opted out from the mega march against violence. Kaur sought privacy, tweeting, “I’ve been through a lot and this is all my 20-year-old self could take.” Sources said after having faced rape threats and vitriol on Twitter, Kaur left for her hometown, Jalandhar.
Lastly, just days after a Muslim girl from Karnataka was trolled and slammed for singing Hindu devotional songs, a pamphlet was issued against the 16-year-old singer Nahid Afrin from Assam, the winner of a TV talent show, by 46 clerics to stop her from performing in public.
Against the backdrop of such wholesale bigotry and misogyny, these young girls are indeed a role model for youth, especially women, across the country – and should be encouraged to express their views.
The targeting of young girls (or women) reflects the epitome of emerging intolerance in the country. How can opinions be suppressed like this? Our Constitution gives all citizens freedom of speech. A difference of opinion does not mean that attempts should be made to muzzle voices with uncivilised threats.
Recently, an Indian movie, “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, made by an Indian woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), about Indian women, was blocked from Indian theatres by an Indian man (Pahlaj Nihalani, Chairman of the national censor board) even as it collected awards at international film festivals. In the movie, four feisty women in a small-town in India try to chase their personal dreams, desires, and fantasies through secret acts of rebellion. It appears that even the government statutory bodies like the Central Board of Film Certification are very interested in perpetuating the male gaze, and anything that is an alternative point of view makes them uncomfortable. I think everyone dreams about what they do not get or want to have in reality. If filmmakers are trying to show facts about the life of women, why are some people, in the name of society, so eager to ban such efforts?
It appears that a woman’s abhivyakti (expression), khvaab (dream), and kaplan (fantasy) frightens us. And we want to regulate it by any means possible. In recent years, we have seen a spate of honour killings in the country, especially in North India. According to data, between 2001 and 2015, love/marriage was the main recorded reason for such murders, suicides, abductions, and culpable homicide cases. On an average, there are seven murder cases, 14 suicides and 47 kidnapping cases every day. Terror, on the other hand, killed 3 to 4 people, including civilians and security forces, in the same period.
Many of these murders and/or suicides are the result of a hopeless situation created when the state allows its citizen to be targeted by autocratic institutions, like Khap Panchayats that want to maintain caste and class hierarchy through honor killings. These are men’s panchayats, which believe that women need to behave in a certain way, look a certain way, and above all maintain the ‘nest’ and hook themselves to a man.
It appears women are not born, but made. What better than India to exemplify this statement by Simone de Beauvoir. Therefore the chains that tie women down are not only external but are welded together invisibly by dint of growing up in what is still a patriarchal society. In order for women to free themselves from these shackles, they need to be made aware that they are there in the first place, and this is where de Beauvoir’s ideas are unfortunately still of relevance today. Even if society’s mores have moved on from those described by de Beauvoir around 70 years ago, the essentials remain the same.
Most of us will agree with de Beauvoir that women should not allow themselves to be limited by other people’s ideas of what they are or how they should behave or what they should look like. But this needs an enabling or conducive environment.
We have to recognise that we can control a woman’s body, lock her in the house, cover her face with a veil, but her mind cannot be truly domesticated.
“Today women are more eager to learn new things in their workplace. They have proved to be more sincere,” says PM Modi. And they know how to mobilise resources to complete an assigned task. Hence, we have to create a conducive environment where women can chase big dreams and contribute to the country’s welfare and development.
In my paper, “Empowering Women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, I argued that there is an urgent need for formulating a feminist agenda to empower women living in highly patriarchal and traditional surroundings with several obstacles. The ‘agenda’ is based on the premise that efficient policing, stringent punishment and legal measures would reduce the incidences of crime against women, but these cannot eliminate growing gender inequality in India unless and until the mindset of the society is changed. The article suggests that women-centred reproductive healthcare along with enlarged education and employment opportunities for women may alter patriarchal constructs despite strong structural resistance. And this feminist agenda will contribute significantly towards women’s empowerment and reduce the gender gap significantly.
The State and society have to support this endeavour, like the Assam chief minister, the Union law minister and a chorus of other voices spoke for Nahid Afrin, defending her from the clerics. Such support, in turn, emboldened Afrin as well.
From small villages to big cities, snug families to alienating urban neighbourhoods, young women are going the extra mile to earn their living and carve out new careers. They need holistic skilling solutions and last-mile connectivity to chase their dreams. In her new book, “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young”, Somini Sengupta, a former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, explores today’s India through portraits of seven young people who, despite many obstacles, aspire to mobility and opportunity. Hope India’s policy makers, as well as the public at large, are listening.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog. It has been republished with permission.