24th September 2010
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.
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.
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.