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Steps to radically improve women’s status in India

Here's a comment I received from a woman friend re: my recent blog post on the status of women in India. I think it is best that I respond here, publicly, since the issues she has raised should be widely discussed. To ensure privacy I'll not mention her name, and if she wishes, she can continue to respond by email and I'll extract her comments here and keep the dialogue going. 

==COMMENT RECEIVED=== [I have highlighted some comments]

Dear Dr Sabhlok,

I am compelled to write to you after reading your article 'The humblest woman must be our temple: Mother India'. I found each and every word true to today's situation in our country. We indeed do not respect the dignity of human being. I sometimes feel that perhaps this is because we don't respect ourselves. Our low self-esteem is often turned into BIG EGO that leads to narcissism and disrespect for others.

In this country women are in situations worse than cattle. This is not just restricted to the rural area but extends to the so-called urban civilized world. Even here the so-called educated, well-fed, well-dressed, highly paid white collar job holders behave with gruesome savagery and unbelievable ruthlessness when it comes to matters related to women in their families. At that time, they cannot accept the equality of man and women. They cling on to the 18th century dogmas and beliefs of subjugation of women. They are not prepared to give women the basic safety, security and respect that is needed to normal sustenance. They want the women to earn those things by serving them and pleasing them through her scarifies. If the woman fails to comply to those rotten norms she can be shown the door without assigning any reason. Though there are laws that protect women's rights, but we are all well-aware of the efficiency of Indian's judicial system. The girl along with her family will be left to suffer for all throughout their lives.

I am sorry to bother you with all these gory stories but these are realities here. Unfortunately a significant section of men belonging to today's generation believe in this kind of subjugation of women. They along with their parents create havoc in women's lives. And ironically women often themselves are the a party to it. I have seen mothers instigating their sons to beat up the wife. Till date a boy-child is treated with more care than a girl-child. Women often feel that giving birth to a boy-child will enhance their status in the society. They even look down upon women with girl child. These people think that since they have a son they are a privileged class and they naturally have the right to inflict pains on the family of the girl to whom their son is married to.

How do you change them? Our education system is silent on these issues. When the most significant persons like mother and father themselves are prejudiced how can we expect the child to be a broad-minded person with all humane values?  It is a vicious circle. And the 'Big Push' needed to break the circle is grossly absent in our society. Those who want to raise their voices are silenced easily through threats and other means. 

India is no longer a country of religious people. We are a confused lot. We don't know what to accept and what to reject. On the one hand we want to look and behave like people in western countries, wearing western branded cloths, walking like them, using their accents and usages in language, preferring English over mother tongue, be tech-savvy,net- savvy, gadget freaks, preferring McDonald, KFC over Indian traditional food, shopping in plush malls and on the other hand we cannot give our women a safe, civilized home, workplace and society where she can live without any fear and anxiety and dream of realizing her true potential without being unduly discriminated or threatened.

How can I as a woman bring change to the society when I myself is a victim of it? I solicit your opinion.


Dear XX

Thanks for your comment which supplements Sonia Jaspal's comment quite well. 

1. Economic independence 

The bottomline to women's status in India (or elsewhere in the world) is the level of economic independence. In DOF (still a draft), I've outlined the evolution of equal freedom for women (page 247, I think).

One of the key drivers to reform in the West was the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act which gave women ownership of property. Not long before that, women and all their property were considered chattel (movable goods) and legally owned by men.

Only through increased economic independence have women in the West found a relatively level playing field. To an extent the introduction of a no-fault divorce in the 1970s in some parts of the West speeded up the process. Women could now threaten to leave and still obtain alimony. Men had no choice but to become nicer to women. Note that I'm not advocating divorce! I'm a great fan of marriage and believe it is the institution most important to the health of a society. But it would appear that this did create an off-equilibrium threat that increased good behaviour from men.

I'd particularly like to refer you to Madhu Kishwar has done outstanding work in this area. Madhu is a friend, a classical liberal, and would be happy to provide her detailed views to your questions if you contact her. She also has made some startling economic analysis about the dowry system which opened my eyes to the inequities of the system (not in the sense that people typically talk about dowry problems).  

2. Internalisation of conceptions of freedom and dignity

The whole thing could be resolved if people internalise the concept of freedom. Freedom means each person in every role respects the other's liberty and dignity. This respect is accorded both at work and at home. Unfortunately, conceptions of freedom and dignity are not yet known, leave alone internalised, in India. The idea that women should choose their life, their career, their gods, their husbands, their future: this idea is anathema to many Indians.

True, India does have a faint tradition of freedom. As the religious leader Vivekananda said, "Liberty is the first condition of growth. Just as man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress, and marriage, and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others." I don't believe Vivekananda restricted his concept of freedom only to men. But his ideas (110 years ago) were too advanced even for today's India. India doesn't have even the rudimentary understanding of liberty. That is a philosophical issue. I'm trying to address it by writing a couple of books. You, too, could spread the message of freedom.

3. Education

Sadly, economic clout is not a trivial matter to accumulate. Not all women can manage economic independence, particularly with discrimination against women in so many roles. And the spread of the ideas of freedom is so slow in India it may take another 10 generations.

So active education must come into play. This being a social issue, it will take quite a bit of education to change. And good education, as we well know, is a disaster in India: virtually non-existent for the vast majority of the people. So the solution will be for people like you to write textbooks that treat both men and women equally; create movies that show equality at work and at home. And so on. A very hard task. But unavoidable. Social reform is not necessarily the task of government. And it is very tedious. But there are no short cuts here. Like the caste system needs constant reform, if it is to die out, so also the liberation of women (and men) will take a lot of work.

4. Equal opportunity law

I've advocated a law for equal opportunity (for the public sector only). Indeed, I think some such laws exist but their enforcement is bleak or non-existent. That will require a change in governance systems. That is precisely what I wrote about in BFN

5. Enforcement of law and order

Again, the law and order machinery (policy, justice) is so flawed it can't possibly provide the desired level of security to women. That needs to be changed.

6. Join politics and lead India

I believe that India's problems have simple solutions but there are no takers. No one wants to get up to lead the change. On FTI not even a handful of women have so far joined.

Unless educated women rise and start leading and influencing the public debate, how will durable change occur? It is not enough for men to advocate on behalf of women. Women must demand the necessary change.

Note, of course, that I'm against reservations for women (or for anyone). That is not the way out of this problem. Women must simply take over as equals. That's easier said than done, but one of the easiest ways is to join a liberal group like FTI and work with like-minded people to offer a new form of governance and new ideas about freedom to India.





Indian is sorry, Michaela Cross, and WILL change

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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12 thoughts on “Steps to radically improve women’s status in India
  1. Kiwi Spartan

    I'm very amused by this blog post…..and even more amused with the fact that while so many "Classical Liberals" go on and on about "true equality", they conveniently look the other way and start acting like the left-wing Marxists when it comes to women's issues.
    First of all, it's a big delusion to think that there is equality in western countries, when in fact it's the MEN that are constantly being discriminated against.  Each time any dispute arises between a man and a woman, it's the MAN that's treated as "guilty until proven innocent", and the woman is treated as "victim until proven otherwise".
    Because of this,
    – There are several MEN that are sent to jail on FALSE charges of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. 
    – Several MEN are forced to pay child support to kids that are not even theirs, with threat of jail time if they fail to comply….and yes, before you speak, 1 in 5 women commit paternity fraud.
    – Several MEN are forced to pay alimony to wives that cheated on them. Please note that a woman is NOT "entitled" to any man's alimony or his lifestyle. If she wants money, she can always work for it. On the other hand, if she wants a man to support her, then she does need to behave herself and do things to make him happy.
    – Men get long sentences for murder, while women get much shorter ones. If women want equality, shouldn't they also have equality when it comes to RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY?
    – If a woman hits a man, it's still considered to be self-defence until proven otherwise. But if a man does the same, he's treated as the aggressor. What kind of double-standard is this? Equality means that you don't commit violence against any INDIVIDUAL, doesn't it?
    I can go on and on about this, but take a look at the following websites for some REAL truth: (This one is exclusively about the misuse of the dowry law in India, which actually treats men as "guilty until proven innocent". Why do you guys conveniently look the other way when it comes to men's issues?"
    Do you realise that "affirmative action" is just a euphemism for "reverse discrimination"? And do you actually support reverse discrimination against men? If so, then you're very much guilty of hypocrisy.
    If you truly care about the "highest standards", then you also have enough guts to NOT give any preferential treatment to women. Instead, you treat all people as INDIVIDUALS, and also reform the legal system to get rid of all forms of inequities. 

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I’m afraid I don’t understand your (otherwise sound) critique. Where have I advocated affirmative action? Can you please point that out?

    I’m NOT an advocate of affirmative action but of equality of opportunity and equal justice. EQUAL FREEDOM.

  3. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    I found your response very inspiring. It is true that the change is very hard to bring about, especially in  a society where double-standards are accepted norm. I would certainly like to get in touch with Madhu Kishwar for clarification of my queries. Moreover, I would be glad to join your FTI to work with some like-minded people in the pursuit of 'a new form of governance and new ideas about freedom to India.

    So far as the response of Mr Kiwi Spartan is concerned I think he has not been able to gauge the severity of the problem in countries like India. 

    However, I agree that there have been instances of misuse of laws or provisons that protect women's rights in India as well. But it should be remembered that the promulgation of such acts itself is the submission of the very existence of discrimination against women. Otherwise these statutes would not have been in vogue. Moreover, such cases are minuscule compared to the cases of social and domestic violence on women. I have heard people in India saying that they feel threatened by these new laws which protect women's rights. They think it is going to put them in vulnerable situations. I feel amused by this argument. To me it is an indirect confession of the fact that they disrespect women and their lives. 

     Such is the level of ignorance and arrogance.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear XX

    Kiwi Spartan has raised points that could form part of the debate. The pendulum could go overboard if the highest principles of justice are not ensured. So the key is strict compliance with laws, and allowing people freedoms subject to accountability.

    But you are right, the stage in India is largely pre-modern. Only a miniscule number of women are able to experience total equality of freedom and justice. Very few have the economic independence and self-confidence to overcome biases against them. 

    I am glad to hear that you'll consider joining FTI. Please visit, go through the joining conditions, and if you meet these conditions, please apply. 



  5. Aravind. S

    It is unfair only if we force anything on anyone. If Society keeps different standards for men and women ("double standards" or whatever), there is nothing wrong as long as there is no force involved. Society's opinion is just the opinion of most people and they are entitled to it as long as they do not force it on others. There is nothing unfair about it.

    In our case the "liberal" author seem to support woman forcefully extracting money from man. It is upto the man whether he wants to give his money to his wife or not. If a woman is not willing to live upto the standards set by her husband, the husband may not give money to her unless forced by law (which is nothing but robbery which the "liberal" here seem to support). He is just keeping a deal for the woman to get his support/money. If the woman is not willing, she can always refuse the deal. There is nothing unfair as long as the deal is not forced on the woman.
    As mentioned someplace, freedom is when you do something without forcing anything on anyone. But the principle seem to be totally ignored whe it is convenient to women as it seems that the author believes that she is entitled to rob her husband supported by police and judiciary.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Aravind

    I have NEVER advocated license, but freedom (with accountability). I forget (this is an old post) to what specifically are you referring to.

    Assuming that it is alimony you are discussing please note that:

    a) Marriage is a contract, not a birthright to treat others the way we wish. It has binding obligations on both parties. In many cases these are not specified in writing, but through precedent and in some cases, through law, these obligations can be determined.

    b) Alimony is an OBLIGATION under this contract should divorce occur. Two people sign up to marriage understanding full well this obligation. The magnitude of alimony depends on specific factors and unless the marriage document specified it clearly (and this is an option, like having a will), precedent and the law will need to determine the amount. It is NOT up to the husband to determine the amount. That is the nature of the contract.

    So long as all parties to an action behave according to their responsibilities, they are free. They are not free to avoid or break their contracts and obligations, unless the termination clause with full details is fully understood and signed off at the time of marriage by both parties in front of witnesses.

    Actions by the law through due process are NOT robbery. Actions without it are. I trust you understand that when you become a member of a society, and the laws are MADE by you or your representatives, then these laws are BINDING on you. If you think the laws are a form of robbery then please form government and enact new laws.


  7. Aravind

    Marriage cannot be called a contract because it has no legitimate features of a contract. A legitimate contract is one where the parties come together and make the conditions. But in marriage, the government forces the man to pay money to woman in case on divorce and lots of other enforced responsibilities with little rights. It is a state imposed condition, making men helpless. Government has no business to decide what is the condition for marriage and what the obligations are. It is up to the individuals to decide.  When a man and woman marries, it is no excuse for government to impose its anti male attitude on the man.
    The government need to remove all this so that all conditions are determined by the parties involved, not the anti-male government.
    If a man marries understanding this obligation imposed by oppressive state, still it is not an excuse to suppress him. Then you can justify slavery saying that slaves have an obligation to be slaves if they live and still they choose to live (knowing well the so called "OBLIGATIONS"), they deserve to be treated like slaves.
    It is a nice idea to be charitable, but not using other people's money/resources/rights. You seem the typical cultural marxist who wants to satisfy his bleeding rights by destroying the rights of others. Nobody I think is opposing you giving YOUR OWN MONEY to divorced women.

  8. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Aravind

    Re: “The government need to remove all this so that all conditions are determined by the parties involved, not the anti-male government.”

    I agree with you (not in your characterisation of “anti-male government which has no basis”). In BFN I have shown that the government should set out the minimum conditions that a marriage contract should involve, and then get out of this business of regulating marriage and let people regulate their own marriages. It should regulate for compliance with the minimum standards (which will include alimony, in my view, but that is for the parliament to decide).

    Note that you can complain much as you wish about this but unless you form majority in parliament and change the laws (the only legal recourse available to a citizen) this will remain wishful thinking. Similarly, my suggestions re: freedom will remain wishful thinking.

    Btw, I’m not a Marxist, and if you say so you demonstrate deep ignorance of my writings. Please read BFN for a starter.


  9. Tanya

    You have said so much for women…. but i would want to know that….. "What efforts were made to improve the status in pre- indepedence era.. ?"

  10. fgyfe

    this is not fair to show inequalities between boy and girl . the one who carries u for 9months is a girl. the one who carries u up to your death and even after your death is a women . then why to differences? think of your self. iam also a girl

  11. indiscreetthoughts

    Unfortunately, in spite of his vast erudition, keen intellect, analytic approach and broad experience Dr.Sabhlok has not exercised independent thought on this subject. His thinking shows much evidence of unquestioning gynocentrism. The evidence lies in his uncritical acceptance of the ideological stance of the original comment along with its several blanket generalizations. Notice the original comment’s absolute lack of recognition that there are vast numbers of men in India who too suffer enormously if differently. It focuses women to the exclusion of men and gives away its motivating bigotry.

    Perhaps Dr.Sabhlok might benefit from listening to this excellent Ted talk by an Indian woman:

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    The issue of 498a has been fully addressed in the Sone Ki Chidiya Agenda ( Current extract below:


    Reform of child protection, domestic violence and dowry laws

    Most marriage-related complaints in India are considered to be criminal in nature. This is inappropriate. Except for matters involving physical violence and abduction, all other marriage issues will be moved into civil law.

    While many women face an oppressive environment at home and domestic violence needs to be punished, enough evidence has now accumulated that s.498a of the IPC, which addresses domestic violence and dowry deaths, is often misused due to the absence of checks and balances and its inbuilt stereotypical assumptions about gender roles. But no assumption of guilt should be inbuilt into the law. We will make offences under s. 498a bailable and compoundable, and require that any party that files a false case be mandatorily imprisoned for a minimum of three months, with all legal costs borne by the party that filed the false case.

    Since India is not a signatory of Hague convention on Private International Law, any marriage-related dispute between a foreign and Indian citizen is dealt as per Indian law. Further, current laws are unclear about the rights of the other marriage partner when one spouse takes away the children without consent. We will legally endorse the international convention to ensure international standards for child protection. 


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