Mirror, mirror on the wall, are we being fair to women at all?

First the good news. Rapid social transformation since Independence has yielded huge gains to women, notwithstanding the increase in sexual violence at home and in the streets.

In fact, India is witnessing a silent women’s revolution that has turned upside down centuries old social and institutional structures, beginning with the basic family.

Following the horrendous rape and subsequent death of the young physiotherapy student in Delhi last month, at long last a very real debate has begun on wide-ranging issues related to violence targeting women.

But the overwhelming bad news is the ongoing revolution, still in its infancy, is bound to extract a lot of pain. After all, gender discrimination begins in the womb. The falling sex ratio tells the story. It embraces all walks of life, pervades every institution, whether it is the family, the workplace, political parties, khap panchayats, the police, the judiciary and even Parliament.

The Constitution gave women the vote, equal to men. But from birth to death, gender discrimination is the one truth that cuts across all castes, communities, regions, and religious denominations. History of legislation in India also tells us that laws cannot remove untouchability, do away with dowry or child marriage or even sex determination tests that lead to female infanticide. There is no quick fix. That, of course, is not to argue that laws to fight evil social practices are not needed.

Women may now be visible in places they would not have dreamt of occupying just four decades ago: corporate boardrooms, newsrooms, judicial benches, the police and even the army. And, of course, in the panchayats, where thanks to reservations, they are present in large numbers. But the resistance is far from over.

Witness the fact that for more than 20 years the issue of women’s reservation in Parliament and state Assemblies has been hanging fire. Recently, after the issue of sexual violence came into focus with the horrific rape and subsequent death of a young girl in Delhi last month, there were renewed demands for passing the legislation on political reservation for women. But it will not be easy. 
The strides made by women in all walks of life should not blind us to the ugly reality of how slow and painful the process has been. It is easy to blame a police constable for not being gender sensitive, but remember that in 1979 the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict of the high court in the famous Mathura rape case on the plea that the teen-aged tribal girl was not a virgin at the time when a couple of constables assaulted her. It was a blot on the court and the case became the turning point that led to a new legal framework for the trial of rape cases.

Economically dependent

The majority of girls and women remain economically dependent on men throughout their lives: on fathers or brothers before marriage and on husbands and sons afterwards. Where is a girl to go when uncles or even drunk fathers attack her? Where is a woman to seek shelter when fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law target women of their own households? “Saali adhi gharwali” is a saying in the Hindi belt signaling sisters-in-law are fair game! Statistics reveal that more than 80 per cent rapes take place within the four walls of the family home.

 No doubt there is an increased presence of women in employment sectors that were entirely the privilege of males 30 to 40 years ago. Entry to the Indian Police Service was denied to women till 1972 and till then women IAS officers had to resign if they got married. But what is shocking, though not surprising, is that the overall position of female participation in the labour force has not improved much in the two decades from 1980, increasing marginally from less than 26 per cent to around 28 per cent in 2000.

Statistics for women’s employment in India today are where a number of industrialised countries were in 1910, around 30 per cent. That is, more than a century behind!
In 1951 female literacy was less than 9 per cent as against 27 per cent for men. It took women three decades to catch up, achieving 29 per cent literacy.

In 1991 male literacy stood at 64 per cent and women reached that figure two decades later. The 2011 Census revealed that for the first time the number of female literates added over the decade is larger than the number of males. It would seem that only in the last decade have parents been persuaded to send their daughters to school, alongside sons.

 There is also the inescapable fact that the so-called Indian cultural values denigrate women, no matter what people like RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat would have us believe. We certainly did not need imported ‘western values,’ the all-pervading consumerism with its emphasis on instant gratification, nor the advent of Islam and Christianity, to teach us how to ill-treat women.

The great epics Ramayana and Mahabharat cannot be faulted for they were written in a different age when women were seen as adjuncts of a male, be it the father or the husband.  But, it must be noted that Ram, venerated as Maryada Purshottam (the ideal man) banished his pregnant wife Sita to the forests. And `Dharamraj’ Yudhishtra staked his wife in a game of dice.

The old order does not easily give. Tradition, feudalism, patriarchy and religious obscurantism are formidable enemies of the very notion of gender equality. As Virginia Woolf said, women have served all these centuries as ‘looking glasses’ possessing the magical power of  “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. It will be a long, hard time before the mirror reflects them as equal.

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