Indian politicians have this amazing propensity to put their feet in their mouths. I remember the then Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra lost his post because of his comment post the 26/11 Mumbai attack “Such minor incidents do take place from time to time.” The present Home Minister of Karnataka stirred up a hornet’s nest after the horrifying incident of “mass molestation” on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve. He apparently said, according to newspaper reports, that the police force could not keep a watch on everyone and referred to the “western ways” of youngsters as a corrupting influence. More recently, he and his party men have tried to paint reports of the incident as a political conspiracy to tarnish Bengaluru’s image. However, he has been outdone by the Maharashtra Samajwadi Party chief, who has given a clear sexist angle to the episode by claiming that women should not draw attention to themselves through their attire. Not to be outdone in the misogyny stakes, the archaic Film Certification Board and its Chairman have gone one better: they have refused to certify for public screening a film titled “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, ostensibly on the grounds that the movie is ‘lady oriented’.
I strongly recommend that all these gentlemen (and the ladies on the Film Certification Board), and others of their ilk, read an incisive analysis by three women researchers on what it means to be a woman in Mumbai “Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets”. What this book brings out clearly is the attenuated access of women to public spaces even in that supposed haven of liberation, Aamchi Mumbai. Women are allowed to enter the public space on terms that are decided by a patriarchal society. What is particularly significant is the classification of the woman when the public gaze falls on her. As long as she is in a bus, a local train or in a public park with a specific ‘respectable’ purpose, preferably with an accompanying male and with the necessary accoutrements of mangalsutra and vermilion mark (in case of Hindu women) as also ‘acceptable’ attire, in case of all women, she is deemed to be the property of another male and is not considered ‘easy game’. But let her venture forth in a public space on her own or in a group of female friends, dressed according to her own desire and seen at ‘inappropriate’ hours of the day in the vicinity of ‘undesirable’ locations and she becomes the object of unwanted male attention or moral policing, either by the custodians of law or by self-appointed moralists.
The nukkad or the street corner cutting chai shop will never be the haunt of women; you will always see apparently idle men engaging in desultory chatter, accompanied by puffs of cigarette/beedi smoke or vigorous mastication of tobacco. Obversely, look at the village ghat or the local water standpost/handpump and men will be conspicuous by their absence. The division of leisure and labour in a gender-unequal society is painfully clear. The gender discrimination is even more painfully obvious where issues like access to toilets and breastfeeding of infants are concerned. Public conveniences in cities, where they exist and are tolerably clean, are weighted in favour of male use. A vicious cycle operates here: since women are seen less in public places, urban planners skew such construction in favour of the male sex, thus discouraging women from venturing forth in public. Even such conveniences as are constructed for women do not take care of their specific biological needs. It was heartwarming to learn that specific rooms have been set aside in bus stations in Maharashtra to enable nursing mothers to breastfeed their children.
What is becoming painfully obvious is that, notwithstanding some progress in women’s access to social equality and opportunities, Indian women are still at a disadvantage compared to their sisters in many democracies of the world, including those of developing and emerging economies. Apart from the aspect of human rights (which is undoubtedly of paramount importance), India will also suffer economically if she does not harvest the benefits of what I would term the “gender dividend”. Significant movement in this direction will be possible when the following issues are focused on and tackled, at both the policy and societal levels:
Gender equality must begin at home
It was shocking to hear that 19 aborted female foetuses were recovered from a stream in Sangli district, one of the more economically advanced regions of Maharashtra state. This is of a pattern with the Indian scenario where prosperous states and the better off areas of India (especially urban concentrations) display dismayingly low female-male sex ratios. Prenatal sex determination tests are still in vogue, with the subsequent abortion of female foetuses or murder of female babies. With the lower status of women established even before birth, it follows that the girl child represents the unwanted component of the family. Not surprisingly, the girl child, who is often healthier than her male sibling at birth, comes out worse in health and nutrition status by the end of the first year of life. Nutrition, healthcare and education opportunities are lavished on the male heir, this notwithstanding enough evidence that girls outperform boys in scholastic abilities and in perseverance. Children also imbibe the ingrained discriminatory attitudes towards women in the home, which are reinforced by the latitude given to boys as compared to girls. Gender roles are also sought to be cemented in children’s impressionable minds to fix their future life trajectories. Unless a ‘Dangal’ is created in age-old attitudes and prejudices right at the family level, gender equality will remain a myth.
Equal opportunities and freedoms for children of both sexes at adolescence and beyond
Attitudes to girls harden as they enter the critical years of puberty and adolescence. The girl is now seen as a liability whose ownership must be transferred at the earliest to another patriarchal set up. Leave alone actualisation of the girl’s innate potential, even education at the secondary school or higher levels is considered an unnecessary luxury, given the fixed ideas about her destiny as wife and mother, mingled with fears about her discovery of her sexuality. To add fuel to the controversy over certain institutions of higher learning circumscribing freedom of access of girls to libraries (after certain hours of the day) and wifi facilities as also interaction with the other sex, we have no less a person than the Minister for Women and Child Development of the Government of India counselling girls that restrictions are essential to control their “hormonal outbursts”. Apparently, only girls, not boys, need to be protected from their hormones.
Equal workplace opportunities and home/childcare responsibilities for both sexes
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her thought-provoking book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, talks of how, when a woman executive is planning a family, the discussion moves immediately to what she is contemplating about her career, a question that is never asked of a male in a similar position. Granted, the woman has to carry the child for nine months, deliver the child and undertake nursing in the succeeding period. Companies and governments have taken many steps to ease the pressure on women through longer periods of maternity leave and arrangements for working from home, apart from paternity leave, so that the father can share the child-rearing responsibilities. In Sandberg’s case, her husband left his job at Yahoo and set up his own company so that he could devote time to the children at home, enabling Sheryl to devote time to her career. While the modern Indian urban family is slowly moving towards joint gender management of domestic responsibilities, social and familial pressures still constrain women’s choices. Even when the woman and her partner work out arrangements which enable her to fulfil her aspirations, she still has nagging feelings of guilt, a reminder of a society which still operates in stereotypes.
Make cities/towns truly smart to enable women to utilize opportunities
The real killer for the aspirational Indian woman is the environment in which she has to function. Forget rural India, where gender equality is still a distant goal. The urban woman has to negotiate a nightmare of situations in her day to day life, occasioned by apprehensions about personal security (especially after dark), creaky transport systems, inadequate toilet facilities, poor lighting and the male-dominated perception that she has no right to be on her own at the wrong times in the wrong neighbourhoods. India is proudly touting its smart cities. But a city that does not cater to the needs of half its population is not smart at all. Urban planning in India is in a shambles, with outmoded management systems and failing infrastructure. Women will bear the brunt of these deficiencies till governments get their acts together. Till then, we have to continue to live with privatised solutions to public problems in the areas of security, transport and sanitation, to name just three.
Need for social movements to create in women awareness of their rights and entitlements
As Paulo Freire, the Latin American educationist, observed in a different context, the oppressed internalise the values of the oppressor, enabling subjugation by the powerful for long periods of time. Indian women are no exception to this generalisation. Adopting the patriarchal set of values, women are often hostile to members of their sex perceived as deviants and not conforming to prevailing social mores and traditions, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the saas-bahu syndrome. There is also the fear in women of confronting a male-dominated society, with few support systems for women who stand up for their rights. Social change will come about only when women support each other and assert their rights to participation as equals in all aspects of social, political and economic life.
As the International Women’s Day rolls around once again, one is overcome by feelings of déjà vu. Two years ago, I wrote on the issue of the status of women in India in the context of the furore over the telecast of the Nirbhaya documentary (Cry, the Beloved Country). Mindsets change slowly in the wonder that is India, whether they be of Film Certification (Censor?) Boards or Vice-Chancellors of Universities. The good news lies in the rapidly growing access of women to education and economic empowerment and the increasing readiness of educated women (and their not so fortunate sisters) to confront misogyny in all its perverted forms. Applying lipstick will then be a matter of free personal choice, without any need to resort to covert stratagems.