Despite an active women’s movement and social and political recognition of the problem, discrimination continues to mark every stage in a woman’s life, and patriarchy is becoming further entrenched. The sex ratio at the start of the 20th century was far more equal than it is today, violence against women is manifesting itself in newer forms, and the oppression of socially excluded women is taking on brutal contours
What is discrimination against women? It is a socially constructed privileging of men over women. It has strong economic and political dimensions and deep shades of antipathy, ranging from prejudice to hatred. Unfair treatment is inherent to it, and injustice marks its practise. There is nothing new about the discrimination that women in India have experienced and continue to experience. There is nothing particularly unfamiliar, too, about the multi-layered, multi-sectoral nature of this discrimination and how it has come to mark every stage in a woman’s life and every aspect of it.
What, however, is startling -- and educative -- to note is the persistence of such biases, which indicate in turn the resilience of patriarchy. Six decades after the Constitution of India guaranteed that “the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”, the patriarchal underpinnings of the Indian state and society are as apparent as ever. The power of patriarchy lies not just in the way it marks the views, norms, laws and ways of functioning of state and society, but in the manner in which it gets women themselves to internalise its values so that the inequalities and discriminations they face are ‘normalised’.
At the outset we need to state unequivocally that women are by no account a homogeneous category. So, while they face discriminations as women qua women, their discriminatory experiences could also include those emerging from their social, economic and geographical locations, along lines of caste, class, ethnicity and gender. Transgenders, for example, face very specific and serious discriminations.
We also need to register the fact that despite an active women’s movement and a fair degree of social and political recognition of the discrimination women in India face, the country has witnessed disquieting reversals or persistent negatives. The sex ratio in India at the start of the 20th century was far more equal than it is today. Violence against women, a key attribute of patriarchy, is today manifesting itself in newer and newer forms. An incident like Khairlanji demonstrates how age-old oppression meted out to dalit women can take on brutal, contemporary contours; the triple talaq that once had to be pronounced in the presence of the woman from whom the divorce was being sought, now gets delivered through SMS and email. The disabled, especially disabled women, continue to be denied a support base or social recognition, and the political space for women at the level of Parliament and state assemblies remains a constricted one -- never have women constituted more than 10% of Parliament.
Where there has been progress -- and there is no denying that positive change has also come about -- it has been uneven and limited in its emancipatory potential. Take the number of progressive laws that have been enacted in contemporary India. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA 2005), for instance, has been hailed internationally and has proved something of a template for legislation of its kind. Within the country, it has expanded the vocabulary of justice and broadened the definition of domestic violence in a way that went beyond physical abuse, to encapsulate the sexual, verbal, economic and psychological. It has the potential to provide substantial relief to a woman subjected to such torture. In actual fact, though, a combination of lack of institutional reform and administrative failure has resulted in disappointing outcomes, including the usual pile-up of pending cases. Similarly, while there has been substantial progress in universalising school education at the primary level, the system is still not geared to reach out to those falling behind, who are more likely than not to be girls.
It is with this background in mind that Women’s Feature Service (WFS), an agency mandated to bring gender issues into the mainstream media, of which I am director, invited leading commentators, public intellectuals and experts from various fields to present their points of view and experiences in order to map the wide and disparate terrain of women’s discrimination. Most of the pieces in this dossier have been based on extensive interviews given to WFS, some of them are research and reports from the field highlighting current realities, while two were written contributions: V Geetha’s ‘The Violence of Caste and the Violence in Homes’ and Padmini Swaminathan’s ‘The Workplace is Still Gender Unequal’.
Piecing together the many jigsaw pieces of this theme reveals insights, some of them even forgotten ones. Discrimination against women in India has been with us for centuries as historians Tanika and Sumit Sarkar remind us in ‘Voices and Silences in History’. Mobility for women was not just frowned upon but absolutely proscribed, and even something as innocuous as the schooling of girls in the 19th century invited the deepest condemnation. But it is not as if schooling for girls in modern India has had a smooth run. Educationist Anita Rampal, in ‘Barriers to the Classroom, Barriers in the Classroom’, casts an eye on the innumerable hurdles in the progress of the schoolgirl, starting with the basic one of sibling care. This, she says, indicates an area of weakness in our school system. If early learning systems were in place, then older siblings would not have been left with the responsibility of caring for the toddlers in the family, which has the effect of taking the young caregivers completely away from schooling.
An education in science could be a useful prism through which to view gender discrimination at the level of higher education. In her intervention, senior immunologist Vineeta Bal reveals that dropouts don’t just happen at the school level (‘Lost to Science?’). Bal points out how half the country’s qualified women scientists drop out of the system after getting their doctoral degrees, and this could be a pointer to the woman-unfriendly nature of science education and research in the country.
With the growing presence of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the generation of feminist knowledge came to be seen as a non-negotiable. But responding to that imperative was a challenge, one that remains to the present day as academic Mary E John delineates in ‘Silences in Academia’.
Going by the experiences of ordinary women, the institution of marriage has generally proved to be a quagmire for them in terms of their identity, realisation of personal potential and general wellbeing. Social scientist Ravinder Kaur, in ‘Marriage as Oppression’, considers the many discriminatory dimensions of an institution that has proved remarkably impervious to change. In fact, Kaur observes while considering the relatively recent phenomenon of ‘Internet marriages’, that the emergence of new communications technology has only expedited the perpetuation of traditional barriers of class, caste and ethnicity within marriage.
All communities have their respective markers of discrimination against women. Syeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission, examines some that characterise the Muslim community in India. She finds the lack of progressive personal laws disquieting and compares the situation in India with that prevailing in Muslim countries in the near neighbourhood, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have seen much greater levels of personal law reform. The most unfortunate aspect of this, according to her, is that practices like ‘triple talaq’ or multiple marriages are based on a wrong interpretation of religion.
When it comes to dalit families, discrimination takes on a different meaning altogether. V Geetha, in ‘The Violence of Caste and the Violence in Homes’, talks of the social ostracism, state bullying and political ennui that is part of life for the dalit woman. She adds that they, sadly, experience a fair amount of hurt and pain within their homes as well -- notably when they marry men from higher castes and have to put up with taunts, threats and abuse from their husbands’ kin.
Clearly then the family as a social unit in India is an inherently unequal one, and perhaps nothing reflects this more than the fact that, historically, Indian women lacked independent rights over immovable property, apart from a few pockets where matrilineal systems existed. Economist Bina Agrawal, in ‘A Home of Her Own’, reflects on why the right to land and property for women is a central condition for women’s autonomy, even as she traces the evolution of reform on this score in the country.
Right to health is another neglected right for Indian women, and this also has a lot to do with the manner in which health is envisaged and addressed by the state. In ‘Health and the Other Half’, medical academic and activist Imrana Qadeer points out how everywhere women continue to carry the double burden which gets reflected in the healthcare that comes their way. Qadeer also dwells on some new forms of discrimination against women in terms of health, including the rising sector of surrogacy where surrogate mothers, usually poor women looking to add to the family income, are left with little information and less rights.
One of the silences in the discrimination discourse concerns the disabled woman. Academic and disability activist Anita Ghai, a polio survivor herself, peels away the layers of hypocrisy that mark social attitudes towards disabled women in ‘Twice Undermined’. She points out that the metaphor of disability that is used by feminists to explain their own situation can only be taken seriously if it also encapsulates the situation of disabled women. Only then, she argues, will the metaphor have the potential for emancipation.
Supreme Court lawyer and women’s activist Vrinda Grover turns the light on the gender biases that mark the criminal justice system in India. The system, she observes, not only lacks a coherent way of addressing a crime deemed ‘serious’, like rape, it doesn’t know how to respond to assaults that are a part of the same continuum of crime, like molestation or sexual harassment. Women’s rights to their bodily integrity is just not part of our understanding, and this in turn gets reflected in the innumerable ways the country responds to crimes against women, including in the framing of laws to fight them.
The last section in this collection looks at women in the public space in terms of employment, citizenship and political participation. Coming to employment, Padmini Swaminathan considers the way women’s access to gainful employment is mired in various unstated and implicit discriminations within employment. She concludes therefore that the mere enactment of more gender-equal laws is insufficient to correct these structured anomalies and that the ‘rules of operation’ need to be amended to make labour legislation more effective.
The right to a productive life, which gainful employment ensures, is part of the compact between the Indian nation and its citizens. Political scientist Neera Chandhoke revisits this compact in her survey of how women as citizens have fared in post-independence India. Taking the police and politicians to task for arguing that women invite crimes on themselves by dressing inappropriately or being in public places at night, Chandhoke reiterates that as equal citizens, women have the right to go wherever they wish and dress the way they want, and that it is the state’s job to ensure that their lives are secure. To prevent women from participating equally in the public space is, in fact, to deny them opportunities and life chances.
Women’s political participation is of great importance in this scenario of social inequality. Zoya Hasan, in ‘Women in Retreat after Independence’ believes that since Indian democracy is a party-based democracy, one of the major hurdles to the equality of gender representation in politics is the nature of party functioning. Despite five major political parties in India being headed by women today, there continues to be only a minuscule number of women in decision-making positions within them. This seems to indicate that the system, marked by political patronage as well as the unregulated deployment of power and money, is actually working against gender equality in political participation.
In the early-’70s, the authors of ‘Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women’ noted that the poor situation of women in India is so “vast, complex and dynamic that it would need continuous examination and assessment by persons interested in social change”. Today, 40 years later, such a continuous examination and assessment remains as relevant as ever.
(Pamela Philipose is a senior journalist who has written extensively on gender and rights issues. She is presently Director of Women’s Feature Service)
Infochange News & Features, December 2012