Will India’s Democracy Finally Ensure Equality For Women In The 21st Century?

The weight of the ‘woman question’ is paramount in today’s India. After 70 years of independence, women’s status in the country has not altered significantly.

Despite being the other half of the population, in many cases, women in India do not seem to have attained or be able to exercise the complete constitutional rights of citizenship under the law. They are often relegated to the position of second-class citizens and are subjugated under male dominance.

The old roots of the Indian patriarchal establishment have succeeded in creating a strong foundation for itself in every realm of society, and have managed to shackle women in tethers. Women still face the heat of oppression from men in many forms. They are often marginalised politically, socially, economically and sexually.

The economic liberalisation of India in the early 1990s paved the way for greater external stimulus – and consequentially, unprecedented social change. As India opened its borders to western concepts and culture, its own social fabric began to crumble. With it, women were confronted with a new world of opportunities for them to explore. They began stepping out of the household and participating strongly in the labor force. They began earning income from their jobs and gained mobility through employment.

Along with economic liberty came social liberty – and with them came the concepts of progressiveness, self-determination and free will. The literacy rate for women increased exponentially – and importance was given to the education of girls. Women began to envision a new destiny for themselves other than the sacrament of marriage. Urban Indian women were able to create their own identities and explore new horizons for themselves.

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, women have permeated into every field of profession – from medicine to business, entertainment and even politics. Those rigid boundaries that had separated women for generations behind the veil of their homes, were giving way under this new order of things. But these changes were only limited to a niche urban population.

Indian society is still barricaded within several lines of caste, class and religion. This diversity affects women in multiple manners. Women are oppressed, not only on the basis of their gender, but also on the basis of the particular social identity they are born with. A woman from a lower caste does not have the same privileges of education and employment that a woman from an upper caste may have.

More than half the country’s population lives below the poverty line. For women on this side of the spectrum, life is filled with hardships. They are often denied an education, are married off at an early age – and are condemned to a limited life devoid of fulfilment in terms of a career, and with it, economic independence. In many cases, they have to only take care of the household and have to depend on their husbands and children.

The female literacy rate is extremely low in the rural areas of India. Even rural women work with their husbands in farming, but this work is often unpaid and undervalued. An ‘intersectionality’ is formed between these separate identities of class, caste and gender to form an identity for the ‘Indian woman’. This intersectionality provides a clearer picture of her suppression and status in society.

The sex ratio in India is abysmal. Female foeticide is practised widely in many Indian states. The girl child is often aborted in the fetus itself. This is the horrifying face of Indian society today, where women are still seen as ignominious.

Even though the ancient, deplorable practice of ‘Sati’ has been abolished, the Indian society is still reeling under the debris of evil systems and practices. This has contributed to the creation of a mindset which is ‘anti-woman’ and propagates a culture of hatred towards them. Many a time, women have to fear for their lives whenever they take a decision towards serving their own selves. In such circles, any step towards self-fulfillment is seen as a transgression which ought to be punished. This fear is instilled in them through a rigorous social conditioning which, in turn, trains them to devalue themselves and only serve others.

Since the Indian woman often lacks social autonomy, she is deprived of sexual autonomy as well. She has not been able to assert her sexuality. Traditions and social customs bind her body and mind. In India, the women are worshiped as ‘goddesses’, but are treated like impoverished animals in reality. This dichotomy between the ‘goddess’ and the ‘real woman’ is what has created a faulty manifestation of gender relations in India. Women who express their sexuality freely are often deemed to be ‘whores’. Instead, her place is ‘reserved’ behind a veil. She is to be sexually enslaved to one man alone – her husband. Women who ‘trespass’ are threatened and persecuted.

Menstruation is still considered taboo, and menstruating women are considered ‘dirty’ and ‘unclean’. With globalization and the absorption of western value systems in Indian society, live-in relationships are being embraced by more and more people. Women in urban areas and metropolitan cities are experiencing a new sexual liberty – through which they can choose multiple partners outside the confines of marriage and freely explore their sexuality. Pre-marital sex is becoming common among urban Indian youth – and this has led to a sexual awakening among women and girls.

What Indian women need is an all-round revolution – a momentous turn of the wheel. India needs a change from all directions – economic, political and social. We need more security forces and manpower on the streets of our cities (especially female police officers), for patrolling every nook and corner – so that women can fearlessly walk the streets at night alone, without the much-sought male companion. It is not enough right now.

Mindsets cannot change overnight. In the meantime, we need adequate infrastructure to impose necessary law enforcement to create an atmosphere where we can feel free and safe. More women need to speak up against domestic violence and sexual harassment. We need national solidarity among women from different social communities. There should be stricter laws in place against violence perpetrated on women, and they should be implemented rigorously.

We need more women in positions of power and governance. They must take up the cause of women’s empowerment and raise their issues as mainstream issues. Efforts must be made towards attaining gender justice in society. The media should be gender-sensitive, and must highlight women’s issues.

There should be serious debates and discussions around women and their problems. We need a transformation when it comes to women in our country. India’s democracy will hopefully help us achieve it.


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