One wonders why, whilst India is modernising and globalising so rapidly, it has been unable to carry a majority of its women with it? Why, even amongst the most deprived and backward, in each class and caste, are girls and women are at the bottom of the pile? And then, why are we surprised that the greatest victims of violence are also women, both before and after birth?
After all, if you devalue human life according to gender — isn’t it a natural corollary that they will be ill-treated and extinguished? There are many ways in which women can be wiped out — and India specialises in all of them.
Perhaps the only way women can begin to climb the ladder to equality is to create a space for themselves, as women all over the world have done. The suffragette and women’s liberation movement in the West was a powerful and often violent tool through which women gained respect at home and the workplace. However, women in India thought that we would automatically get the gains of this movement — but this has not happened, and the overweening patriarchal system which we inherited from our founding ‘fathers’ did not change even after independence and even after we had a woman prime minister.
The caste factor has probably been the worst enemy of the Indian woman — because it has prevented a gender-based unity to arise.
Similarly, the focus on religious and minority groups has also hurt the cause of women — it has prevented a targeted gender based programme to arise. This is a programme which has to cut across all age groups and sections and society — where quotas are created and reservations are given, to physically pull Indian women into an era of social and economic security. Because only if women are economically gainful — or at least have the choice of being economically valuable — will they be respected and safe from mindless violence.
But why do Indian women not rise up and fight for their rights? Isn’t it true that apart from not having the education or the self-confidence — Indian women do not even have a pan-Indian role model or a leader ? And isn’t it true that the constant aggression shown towards them (i.e, us) has given rise to the classic Stockholm syndrome: we are completely in thrall of our captors.
Violence against women in India is almost part of the country’s DNA. And docility is expected from us in the most trying circumstances. Even in our mythology, Draupadi and Sita are the dominant figures. And both women were publicly humiliated by their husbands just when they would have expected their support. Draupadi may have sought revenge — but for that too she had to depend on her husbands, the very men who had let her down! Radha, the ideal liberated woman, in love with Krishna, is also abandoned by him.
Is that remarkable—or is it just business as usual? Can we truly erase the image of a Sita sinking ultimately back into the earth, a defeated figure, or of a Radha pining for her lover ? With such ‘heroines’ as our template, is it a surprise that women can be and are, usually treated poorly? Of course, these figures are taken from the Hindu pantheon — but they are part of our dominant social narrative, which pre-dates the other reformist and religious movements.
Violence can be of many kinds : it is not always expressed through rape or physical aggression. It is also expressed through literature, song, cinema — through the so-called gentler arts. But where is the space for strong, independent-minded women in our socio-political narrative? Isn’t it true that this space is rapidly shrinking? Just because we have an elite amongst Indian women who are literate and a few of them are hugely visible, heading organizations and political parties — should we be complacent or should we realise that these remarkable achievements does not reflect the lives of ordinary women who are still subjugated and still suffer unimaginable horrors.
Are Indian women far too docile and too disunited — severely divided by class and caste to be ever united? For real change to come into society, you cannot have laws. You need a social revolution, you need a mass movement. And there has never been a movement, barring the freedom struggle , which has united India. For the sake of the women in India, can we hope for one today?
Writer Kishwar Desai is the winner of the Costa First Novel Award for ‘Witness the Night’
February 13th, 2011