Nearly half of our population consists of women and yet they are still at some distance from attaining the respect and rights that should be theirs naturally. The birth of a girl child must be celebrated just as we celebrate the birth of a boy child. She must have the best of education possible and opportunities to give full flow to her creativity. Women have the right and must be given an equal share in power at all levels. If we ignore our women, we alienate half of our human resource.
On the sixtieth year of Independence of a country, a woman goes to space, another becomes the President of the Republic and a third reigns the ruling coalition as its supreme commander. It is a country that supposedly respects its women and worships them. The country is none other than India – our ‘Matri desh’ or ‘motherland’ -that worships ‘Bharat Mata’. Its ruling deities are ‘Durga’ and ‘Kali’- the fierce embodiments of superhuman power. India’s Constitution guarantees equality of status and opportunity to all its citizens including women but somehow the birth of a female child here is always a sad moment.
An infant girl is left to die. A young bride is burned by her husband because her family cannot come up with more dowry money. These harrowing situations still at times occur in India. Throughout India's diverse history women have been subject to many different traditions, and their status has gone through a variety of changes. Progress has been slow, but has been improving recently.
Scholars theorize that during the ancient periods of India's history, before 500 BC, women from higher classes may have had equal rights, or at times even been superior to men. Many women lived during this time that is remembered with reverence. During the Vedic age in India it is believed that women held a very important role, and were able to choose their husbands and be educated. The power of women was also reflected in literature and in the Hindu religion. Some examples of powerful Goddesses were Aditi the mother of all the lights of Heaven, and Indrani the queen of the gods.
As the Medieval period in history approached, unfortunately the Indian women started declining in status for a variety of reasons. Important scriptures started promoting the idea that women were inferior to men, and could not be trusted to have their own freedom. Foreign invasions and wars also could have influenced the set back of women through danger, and the influx of new ideas about women's status. Many customs that degraded women, such as Sati and child marriage, started during this time.
During the British rule of India there were many women who fought bravely for independence. The word "fought", however, is not used to describe violence; rather women were a centre part of Gandhi's peaceful demonstrations. Millions of women of all different levels of society sacrificed time and energy to be part of the freedom marches. Gandhi was a firm believer that women were equal to men, and he was an advocate for their rights. He was especially burdened by the unfair treatment of women in regards to the caste system, and also young widows who were shunned by society. According to Kamat's, Potpourri Gandhi once said, "Intellectually, mentally, and spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male, and she can participate in every activity."
Following the independence of India there was a new air of hope among women. In that same year Sarojini Naidu became governor of Uttar Pradesh, and thus became India's first woman governor. She had been educated in England, and had an inter-caste marriage when it was not yet allowed. Naidu famously said in one of her many poems, "When there is oppression, the only self-respecting thing is to rise and say this shall cease today, because my right is justice." In 1948, one year after India was granted their independence, a constitution was written. This constitution largely focused on human rights, and also notably gave women equal rights and opportunity in Articles 14, 15 and 16. The promises of the constitution, however, have had to face cultural traditions that have dramatically different views on how women should be treated.
Articles 325 and 326 of the Indian Constitution guarantee political equality to all, yet women have not benefited from this right. The political climate as it exists today continues to be male centred and is therefore perceived to be conducive to male participation. Women are not treated as a political entity in their own right. They have been treated by political parties and other power groups as a means to further their own interests and gains. This is evinced by the declining number of women candidates fielded during the elections, despite promises made by political parties in their manifestoes to provide reservation of seats for women. Across parties, the trend is to treat women as decorative pieces, relegated to women’s wings, with not much importance given to them in mainstream activities. Even the few women who are elected are sidelined and often allotted ‘soft portfolios’ such as, welfare, education etc. In both cases women lack access and control over apex bodies where decisions and policies are formulated.
Women in India have been subject to many uniquely damaging traditions. One of the most notable is the dowry system. It is a deep-rooted tradition in India where the bride's father and brothers set up an inheritance for the bride to use during her marriage. The dowry system, however, has become abused to the point of major disagreements, and even death. Despite the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961, the act of "bride burning" hit the headlines in the 1980's. This is a situation in which the husband, and even the in-laws, of the bride would torture and harass her to get more dowry money. If this didn't work they would pour kerosene on her and set her on fire. This sounds very extreme, but the numbers are significant enough to make it a serious problem. CNN World News reported that the police in India have said that they receive over two thousand reports of bride burning every year. This inhumane practice is at the peak of the negative consequences resulting from the dowry system. Thankfully the government is stepping up, and along with making laws preventing the dowry system, they are trying to help women who are victims of domestic abuse.
When looking at the statistics of the ratio of women to men in India there is a clear indicator that something is amiss. For every 1000 men there are 930 women. These numbers may not seem significant, but when looking at a population of more than one billion people in India, there are significantly fewer women than men. There are many possible contributing factors to this discrepancy. One important factor could be the shorter lifespan of women caused by the hardships they face. For much of modern history the average lifespan for an Indian woman was twenty-seven years old. Only over the last fifty years has their life expectancy been slowly improving. Unfortunately women are still burdened by issues such as malnutrition, poverty, and inadequate healthcare. Simultaneously women are often expected to care for very large families. Large numbers of women in India, especially among the rural areas, simply hope for day-to-day survival. Although not nearly as prevalent today, the practice of female infanticide could also be partially responsible for the high male to female ratio. Female infanticide and gender selective abortions are tragic practices that are fuelled by the long standing traditions which perpetuate the idea that giving birth to a son is superior than giving birth to a daughter. Sons are idolized and celebrated. "May you be the mother of a hundred sons" is a common Hindu wedding blessing.
Despite all these challenges to Indian women, there has been much progress made in recent years. The women's movement started in the 1970's elevating the public consciousness about the need for fair, equal, and humane treatment of women. The movement motivated many laws to not only be passed, but also enforced, for women's protection. More women than ever are being able to have the opportunity to be educated. There now are women who are doctors, lawyers, and governors, and countless others who are respected, valuable members of their communities. There is a hopeful future ahead for Indian women.
Medieval Indian Women
Medieval India was considered the "Dark Ages" for Indian women. Medieval India saw many foreign conquests, which resulted in the decline in women's status. When foreign conquerors like the Mughals and the British invaded India they brought with them their own culture, which in some cases adversely affected the condition of women and in some cases emancipated them.
Over the ages in India women have been treated as the sole property of her father, brother or husband, not been given any choice or freedom of her own. One more reason for the decline in the status of women and their freedom was that original Indians wanted to shield their women folk from the barbarous Muslim invaders. As polygamy was a norm for these invaders they picked up any women they wanted and kept them in their "harems". In order to protect them Indian women started using 'Purdah', (a veil), which covers the body. Due to this reason their freedom also became affected. They were not allowed to move freely and this lead to the further deterioration of their status. These problems related with women resulted in changed mindset of people and they began to consider a girl as misery and a burden, which has to be shielded from the eyes of intruders and needs extra care. Whereas a boy child did not need such extra care and instead will be helpful as an earning hand. Thus a vicious circle started in which women were at the receiving end. All this gave rise to some new evils such as Child Marriage, Sati, Jauhar and restriction on girl education
Sati: The ritual of dying on the funeral pyre of the husband is known as "Sati" or "Samagaman". According to some of the Hindu scriptures women dying on the funeral pyre of her husband go straight to heaven so it's good to practice this ritual. Initially it was not obligatory for the women but if she practiced such a custom she was highly respected by the society. Sati was considered to be the better option then living as a widow as the plight of widows in Hindu society was even worse. Some of the scriptures like 'Medhatiti' had different views. It says that Sati is like committing suicide so one should avoid this.
Jauhar: It is also more or less similar to Sati but it is a mass suicide. Jauhar was prevalent in ancient Rajput societies. In this custom wives immolated themselves while their husbands went to perform Saka, i.e face the larger army of the enemy knowing that they will be killed since they are outnumbered. When people of the Rajput clan became sure that they were going to die at the hands of their enemy then all the women arrange a large pyre and set themselves afire, while their husband used to fight the last decisive battle with the enemy, thus protecting the honour of the women and the whole clan.
Child Marriage:It was a norm in medieval India to get girls married at the age of 8-10. They were not allowed access to education and were trained in house work instead. Child marriage had its own share of problems such as increased birth rate, poor health of women due to repeated child bearing and high mortality rate of women and children.
Restriction on Widow Remarriage: The condition of widows in medieval India was very poor. They were not treated as equals and were subjected to a lot of restrictions. They were supposed to live pious life after their husband died and were not allowed entry in any celebration. Their presence in any good work was considered to be a bad omen. Many widows also had to have their hair shaved off as a mark of mourning. They were not allowed to remarry. Any woman remarrying was looked down by the society. This cruelty on widows was one of the main reasons for the large number of women committing Sati. In medieval India living as a Hindu widow was no short of a curse.
Purdah System: The veil or the 'Purdah' system was widely prevalent in medieval Indian society. It was used to protect the women folk from the eyes of foreign rulers who invaded India in medieval period. But this system curtailed the freedom of women.
Female Education: The girls of medieval India and especially Hindu society were not given formal education. They were given education related to household chores. But a famous Indian philosopher 'Vatsyayana' wrote that women were supposed to be perfect in sixty four arts which included cooking, spinning, grinding, knowledge of medicine, recitation and many more.
Though these evils were present in medieval Indian society but they were mainly confined to Hindu society. As compared to Hindu society other societies such as Buddhism, Jainism and Christians were a bit lenient. Women in those societies enjoyed far more freedom. They had easy access to education and were more liberal in their approach. According to these religions gender was not the issue in attaining salvation. Any person whether a man or a woman is entitled to get the grace of god.
During the time of King Ashoka, women took part in religious preaching. According to Hiuen Tsang, the famous traveller of that time, Rajyashri, the sister of Harshavardhana was a distinguished scholar of her time. Another such example is the daughter of king Ashoka, Sanghmitra. She along with her brother Mahendra went to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhism.
The status of women in Southern India was better than in Northern India. While in Northern India there were not many women administrators, in Southern India we can find some names that made women of that time proud. Priyaketaladevi, queen of Chalukya Vikramaditya ruled three villages. Another woman named Jakkiabbe used to rule seventy villages. In South India women had representation in each and every field. Domingo Paes, famous Portuguese traveler testifies to it. He has written in his account that in Vijaynagar kingdom women were present in each and every field. He says that women could wrestle, blow trumpet and handle sword with equal perfection. Nuniz, another famous traveller to the South also agrees to it and says that women were employed in writing accounts of expenses, recording the affairs of kingdom, which shows that they were educated. There is no evidence of any public school in northern India but according to famous historian Ibn Batuta there were 13 schools for girls and 24 for boys in Honavar. There was one major evil present in South India of medieval time. It was the custom of Devadasis.
Devadasis: It was a custom prevalent in Southern India. In this system girls were dedicated to temples in the name of gods and goddesses. The girls were then onwards known as 'Devadasis' meaning servant of god. These Devadasis were supposed to live the life of celibacy. All the requirements of Devadasis were fulfilled by the grants given to the temples. In temple they used to spend their time in worship of god and by singing and dancing for the god. Some kings used to invite temple dancers to perform at their court for the pleasure of courtiers and thus some Devadasis converted to Rajadasis (palace dancers) prevalent in some tribes of South India like the Yellamma cult. During the colonial times, social reformers started working towards removal of the Devdasi practice on the grounds that it supported prostitution.
The plight of women in medieval India and at the starting of modern India can be summed up in the words of great poet Rabindranath Tagore
"O Lord Why have you not given woman the right to conquer her destiny?
Why does she have to wait head bowed,
By the roadside, Waiting with tired patience,
Hoping for a miracle in the morrow?"
Modern Indian Women
The status of women in modern India is a sort of a paradox. If on one hand she is at the peak of ladder of success, on the other hand she is mutely suffering the violence afflicted on her by her own family members. As compared with past women in modern times have achieved a lot but in reality they have to still travel a long way. Women have left the secured domain of their home and are now in the battlefield of life, fully armoured with their talent. They had proven themselves. But in India they are yet to get their dues. The sex ratio of India shows that the Indian society is still prejudiced against female. There are 917 females per thousand males in India according to the census of 2011, which is much below the world average of 990 females.
There are many problems which women in India have to go through daily, some of which are:
Malnutrition On of the major causes of mal nutrition among Indian women is gender inequality. In many parts of India, especially rural India, women are the ones who eat last and least in the whole family. This means they eat whatever is left after the men folk are satiated. As a result most of the times their food intake does not contain the nutritional value required in maintaining the healthy body. In villages, sometimes women do not get to eat a whole meal due to poverty. The UNICEF report of 1996 clearly states that the women of South Asia are not given proper care, which results in higher level of malnutrition among the women of South Asia than anywhere else in the world. This nutritional deficiency has two major consequences for women first they become anaemic and second they never achieve their full growth, which leads to an unending cycle of undergrowth as malnourished women cannot give birth to healthy children.
Malnutrition results in poor health of women. The women of India are prejudiced from birth itself. They are not breastfed for long. In the want of a son get pregnant as soon as possible which decreases the caring period to the girl child, whereas male members get adequate care and nutrition. Women are not given the right to free movement that means that they cannot go anywhere on their own if they want and they have to take the permission of male member of family or have to take them along. This means that women miss visiting doctors even when they should, which adds to their poor health.
The maternal mortality rate in India is among highest in the world. As females are not given proper attention, which results in the malnutrition and then they are married at an early age which leads to pregnancies at younger age when the body is not ready to bear the burden of a child. All this results in complications, which may lead to gynaecological problems, which may become serious with time and may ultimately, lead to death.
Lack of education
In India women's education never got its due share of attention. From medieval India women were debarred from the educational field. According to medieval perception women need just household education and this perception of medieval India still persists in villages of India even today. Girls are supposed to fulfill domestic duties and education becomes secondary for them whereas it is considered to be important for boys. Although scenario in urban areas has changed a lot and women are opting for higher education but majority of Indian population residing in villages still live in medieval times. The people of villages consider girls to be curse and they do not want to waste money and time on them as they think that women should be wedded off as soon as possible.
The main reason for not sending girls to school is the poor economic condition. Another reason is far off location of schools. In Indian society virginity and purity is given utmost importance during marriage and people are afraid to send their girl child to far off schools where male teacher teach them along with boys.
The lack of education is the root cause for many other problems. An uneducated mother cannot look after her children properly and she is not aware of the deadly diseases and their cure, which leads to the poor health of the children. An uneducated person does not know about hygiene this lack of knowledge of hygiene may lead to poor health of the whole family.
Mistreatment In India violence against women is a common evil. Not just in remote parts but even in cities women bear the brunt. They are subjected to physical and mental violence. They are the one who work most but are not given their due. Every hour a woman is raped in India and every 93 minutes a woman is burnt to death due to dowry problem. There are many laws such as The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, The Hindu Succession Act of 1956, The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, The Hindu Women Right to Property Act of 1937, The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, to protect women and punishment is severe but the conviction rate of crime against women is very low in India.
Overworked Indian women work more than men of India but their work is hardly recognized as they mainly do unskilled work. Their household chores is never counted as a work, if a woman is working in a field to help her husband it will also be not counted as a work. A study conducted by Mies in 1986 states that in Andhra Pradesh a woman works around 15 hours a day during the agricultural season whereas a male on an average works for around 7-8 hours.
Lack of power
In India a large percentage of women do not have power. They cannot take decisions independently not even related to their own life. They have to take permission of male members for each and every issue. They don't have any say in important household matters and not in matter of their own marriage.
Marriage The family mainly fixes the marriages in India. The scenario in villages is very bad. The girl is not consulted but is told to marry a groom whom her family has chosen for him. They are taught to abide by the whims and fancies of their husbands. Going against the wishes of husband is considered to be a sin. In marriage husband always has the upper hand. The groom and his parents show as if they are obliging the girl by marrying her and in return they demand hefty dowry.
Dowry Another serious issue in modern India Courts are flooded with cases related to death due to dowry harassment by husband and in laws. In ancient times women were given 'Stridhan' when they departed from the house of their parents. This amount of money was given to her as a gift which she can use on her and her children but her in-laws did not have any right on that amount. This amount was supposed to help the girl in time of need. Slowly this tradition became obligatory and took the form of dowry. Nowadays parents have to give hefty amount in dowry, the in laws of their girl are not concerned whether they can afford it or not. If a girl brings large amount of dowry she is given respect and is treated well in her new home and if she does not bring dowry according to expectations of her in laws then she has to suffer harassment. Due to this evil practice many newlywed women of India have to lose their lives.
As women were supposed to be and in some areas of India are still considered to be curse by some strata of society their birth was taken as a burden. So in past times they were killed as soon as they were born. In some of the Rajput clans of Rajasthan newly born girl children was dropped in a large bowl of milk and were killed. Today with the help of technology the sex of the unborn baby is determined and if it is a girl child then it is aborted. In all this procedure women do not have any say they have to do according to the wish of their husbands even if she does not want an abortion, she has no choice.
Divorce The divorce rate in India is not so high compared to western countries but that does not mean that marriages are more successful here. The reason behind low level of divorce rate is that it is looked down by the society. It is regarded as the sign of failure of marriage, especially of women. She is treated as if she has committed some crime by divorcing her husband. In some communities like Muslims women did not have the right to divorce their husband they were divorced at just the pronouncement of "I divorce you" by their husband thrice and they could not do anything except to be the mute spectator. Recently Muslim Law Board has given right of divorce to women. After divorce women is entitled to get her "Mehr" for herself and her children's sustenance. In Hindu society women get maintenance for themselves and their children after divorce.
Traditionally Indian women would spend their free time with their husband's family and indulging in activities like needle work or knitting. The modern Indian career woman on the other hand spends most of her day at work and may spend her free time such as weekends shopping or going out with her friends for movies or lunch/dinner. Most women also prefer doing their own grocery shopping these days and free time may also be spent buying house hold essentials
Women Empowerment in India
Though women of India are not at par with her counterpart in the Western world but she is getting there. India has examples of commendable women from history who set an example of extraordinary bravery, which even men might not be able to show. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was the one such woman. She was the one who put even British rulers to shame with her extraordinary feats in battle. She fought for her kingdom, which Lord Dalhousie, British Governor General, had unlawfully annexed. She was in a true sense the leader of uprising of 1857. There are certain men who took the cause of women in India. There have been social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekanand, Swami Dayananda Saraswati who have helped women gain a strong standing in society.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy
Born on 22nd may 1772 he was the torchbearer of social reforms for the women. He was strictly against the evils prevalent in society in his time. He was against the practice of Sati and helped abolish it and it was due to his efforts that Lord William Bentinck banned the custom of Sati in 1829. Though this law was not a great deterrent but it changed mindset of people to some extent. Ram Mohan Roy also did great work in the field of women's education. He was against child marriage and favored widow remarriage. He married a widow thus setting the example for the whole society. Along with 'Dwarka Nath Tagore' he founded the "Brahmo Samaj" for the reform of Indian society and emancipation of women.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was popularly known as Vidyasager, which means ocean of knowledge. Testifying to his name he was truly the sea of knowledge. He was a pillar of social reform movement of West Bengal in 19th century. He widely read ancient Hindu scriptures and came to know that the gender divide which was prevalent in Bengal was not encoded in our ancient texts instead it is the politics to keep women subordinate to men. He strongly supported women education in Bengal and went door to door to persuade people to send their girl children to school. He also did a lot in the field of widow remarriage. He opened many schools for girls.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule
Born on April 11, 1827, Pune, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was a real philanthropist. He was the one to open first girl school in India. He is also credited with opening first home for widows of the upper caste and a home for newborn girl children so that they can be saved from female infanticide.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
He was the founder of Arya Samaj who translated the Vedas from Sanskrit to Hindi so that the common man could read it and understand that the Vedic Hindu scriptures gave utmost importance to women. He emphasized for the equal rights for women in every field. He tried to change the mindset of people with his Vedic teachings.
The social reformers of 19th century laid down the stage for the emancipation of women but it was Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi under whose influence these reforms reached masses. He was the one who liberated Indian women from the clutches of 'Purdah' and other social evils. He brought them from their confinement and asked them to participate in the struggle for independence. According to him women should be liberated from the slavery of kitchen only then their true potential could be realized. He said that responsibility of household is important for women, but it should not be the only one. In fact she should come forward to share the responsibilities of nation.
When Gandhi came to the stage of Indian struggle for independence then the average life span of the Indian women was only 27 years and only 2%women were educated. This shows what a Herculean task it was to bring the women of India out of their homes and get them to fight for the cause of the nation. But it was due to his efforts that so many women like Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur came forward. He spread the message of equality of the gender to the masses and criticized the desire of Indian people to have male child instead of a female. Gandhi was also strictly against child marriage and favoured widow remarriage. He urged the youth to come forward and accept young widows as their life partner. He said that the girls are also capable of everything boys can do but the need of the time is to give them opportunities so that they can prove themselves. It was mainly due to his efforts that when India got independence the 'right to vote' came naturally to Indian women whereas in other developed nations like England and America women got this right very late and that too after lot of protest.
With the help of these social reforms, the women of India slowly started recognizing their true potential. She started questioning the rules laid down for her by the society. As a result, started breaking barriers and earned a respectable position in the world. Today Indian women have excelled in each and every field from social work to visiting space. There is no arena, which remained unconquered by Indian women, be it politics,
sports, entertainment, literature or technology.
Women of India are highly active today in politics, right from Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshami Pandit, Sucheta Kriplani who were the torchbearers for the women of India. Mrs.Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was the first Indian woman to hold a post in the cabinet, thus paving the way for other women. The most important name in the category of women politicians of recent times is Mrs Indira Gandhi. She was the one who made world stop and notice the talent and potential of Indian women. She was the first women Prime Minister of independent India. Today her daughter-in law Mrs Sonia Gandhi is following her footsteps and is leading the Indian National Congress.
Other women who have made their name in politics of India are Shiela Dixit, Uma Bharti, Jayalalitha, Vasundhra Raje a, Mayawati, and Mamata Banerjee.
Indian women have achieved great laurels for the nation in every sport. Whether it is cricket or hockey India have national women team for every game. Indian women cricket team has won Asia Cup of 2004 and 2005 and made country proud. Some women sports icons of India are:
P.T. Usha (Athletics)
Kunjarani Devi (Weight lifting)
Diana Edulji (Cricket)
Sania Mirza (Tennis)
Karnam Malleshwari (Weight lifting)
Saina Nehwal (Badminton)
Mary Kom (Boxing)
Art and Entertainment
This arena is full of Indian women. We have many names to boast of like M.S. Subbulakshmi and Indian Nightingale Lata Mangeshka.
In past women of India used to write, but their work did not get the recognition. Today they are getting their dues. Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Shobhaa De, Jhumpa Lahiri are famous names in Indian literature. Not just in India now these women are recognized all over the world. Arundhati Roy has been awarded with the Booker Prize of 1997 for her work "God of Small Things". Kiran Desai has been given the Booker Prize of 2006 and Jhumpa Lahiri got recognition in the form of Pulitzer prize.
Kiran Majumdar Shaw is the undisputed corporate queen of India. She is the richest Indian woman. She is the MD of Biocon India. She is the wealthiest entrepreneur of India. Majumdar Shaw initially wanted to become a doctor but could not get admission in medical colleges but even then she did not lose courage and went on to become India's first woman 'Brew Master' and subsequently corporate queen. Other names in this list include Vidya Mohan Chhabaria, Chairperson of Jumbo Group, Naina Lal Kidwai, Vice Chairperson and Managing Director of HSBC Securities and Capital Market, Sullaijja Firodia Motwani and Mallika Srinivasan.
Mother Teresa is one name which every Indian is familiar with. She was the person who used to consider the smile of her countrymen as her wealth. She worked for those whom even their own families have deserted. She did not care whether she is in the company of a person suffering from communicable disease or whether it is day or night. Whenever or wherever one needed her she was present. She opened various homes for these people most famous of which is 'Nirmal Hriday". It is open to everyone irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
Another important names working for the cause of people includes Aruna Roy who worked for the save RTI Campaign and Medha Patekar who is associated with Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Indian women have not just made their mark on earth but they have engraved their name in the whole universe by flying to space. Kalpana Chawla, who was the member of Colombia Space Shuttle, which exploded on its way back, was the first Indian women astronaut who visited space station. Following in her footsteps is another woman of Indian origin, Sunita William, who has become the second one to be the member of International Space Station crew.
Indian women have some a long way since the medieval times, but she still has to go a long way to go. The desire of Indian women can be best summed up in the following lines of 'Song of an African Women':
I have only one request.
I do not ask for money
Although I have need of it,
I do not ask for meat
I have only one request,
And all I ask is
That you remove
The road block
From my path.
ONE of the most enduring clichés about India is that is a country of contradictions. Like all clichés, this one too has a grain of truth in it. At the heart of the contradiction stand Indian women: for it is true to say that they are among the most oppressed in the world, and it is equally true to say that they are among the most liberated, the most articulate and perhaps even the most free. Can these two realities be simultaneously true?
During the 18 years that India had a woman as Prime Minister the country also saw increasing incidents of violence and discrimination against women. This is no different from any other time: a casual visitor to any Indian city – for example Mumbai – will see hundreds of women, young and old, working in all kinds of professions: doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, scientists... and yet newspapers in India are full of stories of violent incidents against women, of rape, sexual harassment, sometimes even murder. But to have a woman in the highest office of the State and to simultaneously have extreme violence against women are merely the two ends of the scale. As always, a more complex reality lies in between.
Fifty years ago when India became independent, it was widely acknowledged that the battle for freedom had been fought as much by women as by men. One of the methods M K Gandhi chose to undermine the authority of the British was for Indians to defy the law which made it illegal for them to make salt. At the time, salt-making was a monopoly and earned considerable revenues for the British. Gandhi began his campaign by going on a march – the salt march – through many villages, leading finally to the sea, where he and others broke the law by making salt. No woman had been included by Gandhi in his chosen number of marchers. But nationalist women protested, and they forced him to allow them to participate.
The first to join was Sarojini Naidu, who went on to become the first woman President of the Indian National Congress in 1925. Her presence was a signal for hundreds of other women to join, and eventually the salt protest was made successful by the many women who not only made salt, but also sat openly in marketplaces selling, and indeed, buying it.
Sarojini Naidu's spirit lives on in thousands of Indian women today. Some years ago, Rojamma, a poor woman from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, attended a literacy class. Here, she read a story which described a life very like her own. It talked about a poor woman, struggling to make ends meet, who was regularly beaten by her husband. Whatever he earned, he spent on liquor, and then, drunk and violent, he attacked her because she had no food to give him. Unable to stand the continuing violence, the woman went from house to house, to find every other woman who had the same story to tell. They got together, and decided they would pitch their attack where it hurt most: they would picket liquor shops and stop liquor being sold. Their husbands then would have no liquor to drink, and the money they earned would be saved. Inspired by the story, Rojamma collected her friends together, and they began to picket liquor shops. The campaign spread like wildfire. In village after village, women got together, they talked, they went on strike, they beat up liquor shop owners, they refused to allow their husbands to squander money on liquor. And, they succeeded. The sale of liquor was banned in Andhra Pradesh, reluctantly, by the government for liquor brings in huge amounts of money. As a result, savings went up, violence levels dropped, and the lives of poor women began to improve.
The hundreds of thousands of Rojammas and Sarojini Naidus who are to be found all over India form part of one of the most dynamic and vibrant of political movements in India today, the women's movement. The trajectory of this movement is usually traced from the social reform movements of the 19th century when campaigns for the betterment of the conditions of women's lives were taken up, initially by men. By the end of the century women had begun to organise themselves and gradually they took up a number of causes such as education, the conditions of women's work and so on. It was in the early part of the 20th century that women's organisations were set up, and many of the women who were active in these later became involved in the freedom movement.
Independence brought many promises and dreams for women in India – the dream of an egalitarian, just, democratic society in which both men and women would have a voice. The reality, when it began to sink in was, however, somewhat different. For all that had happened was that, despite some improvements in the status of women, patriarchy had simply taken on new and different forms.
By the 1960s it was clear that many of the promises of Independence were still unfulfilled. It was thus that the 1960s and 1970s saw a spate of movements in which women took part: campaigns against rising prices, movements for land rights, peasant movements. Women from different parts of the country came together to form groups both inside and outside political parties everywhere, in the different movements that were sweeping the country, women participated in large numbers. Everywhere, their participation resulted in transforming the movements from within.
Worried at this increase in political activity, Indira Gandhi's government declared a State of Emergency in 1975, putting a stop to all democratic political activity. Activists, both young and old, women and men, were forced to go underground or to stop all political work. It was only when the Emergency was lifted, some 18 months later, that over ground political activity resumed. It was around this time that many of the contemporary women's groups began to get formed, with their members often being women with a history of involvement in other political movements.
One of the first issues to receive countrywide attention from women's groups was violence against women, specifically in the form of rape, and what came to be known in India as 'dowry deaths' – the killing of young married women for the 'dowry' or money/goods they brought with them at marriage. This was also the beginning of a process of learning for women: most protests were directed at the State. Because women were able to mobilise support, the State responded, seemingly positively, by changing the law on rape and dowry, making both more stringent. This seemed, at the time, like a great victory. It was only later that the knowledge began to sink in that mere changes in the law meant little, unless there was a will and a machinery to implement these. And that the root of the problem of discrimination against women lay not only in the law, or with the State, but was much more widespread.
In the early campaigns, groups learnt from day to day that targeting the State was not enough and that victims also needed support. So a further level of work was needed: awareness raising or consciousness so that violence against women could be prevented, rather than only dealt with after it had happened. Legal aid and counselling centres were set up, and attempts were made to establish women's shelters. It was only when groups began to feel sucked into the overwhelming volume of the day-to-day work of such centres that they began to feel that it was not enough to do what they now saw as 'reformist' and 'non-campaign' work. Knowledge was recognized as an important need. India is such a vast country; what did activists in Karnataka, a state in southern India, know of what was going on in Garhwal in north India? And yet, everywhere you looked, there was women's activity, activity that could not necessarily be defined as 'feminist', but that was, nonetheless, geared towards improving the conditions of women's lives.
In recent years, the euphoria of the 1970s and early 1980s, symbolised by street-level protests, campaigns in which groups mobilised at a national level, the sense of a commonality of experience cutting across class, caste, region and religion – all this seems to have gone, replaced by a more considered and complex response to issues. In many parts of India, women are no longer to be seen out on the streets protesting about this or that form of injustice. This apparent lack of a visible movement has led to the accusation that the women's movement is dead or dying.
Other whipping sticks have been brought out: little has happened to improve women's lives, so how can the movement be called successful? Activists within the movement are urban, Western, and middle class, so the movement was considered an alien thing, a Western product. It has little to do with the lives of thousands of poor, rural, underprivileged women all over India.
These allegations make the classic mistake: they judge a complex reality by that part of it that is most visible. Because urban, middle-class women are visible and articulate, therefore they must be the only participants in the women's movement.
The reality is somewhat different. While the participation of urban, middle class women is undeniable, it is not they who make up the backbone of the movement, or of the many, different campaigns that are generally seen as comprising the movement. The anti-alcohol agitation in Andhra Pradesh and similar campaigns in other parts of India were started and sustained by poor, low-caste, often working-class women. The movement to protect the environment was begun by poor women in a village called Reni in the northern hill regions of India, and only after that did it spread to other parts of the country. There is any number of such examples.
One of the biggest challenges women have had to face in recent years is the growing influence of the religious right in India. Right-wing groups have built much of their support on the involvement of women: offering to help them with domestic problems, enabling them to enter the public space in a limited way, and all the while ensuring that the overall ideology within which they operate remains firmly patriarchal. For activists too, this has posed major problems. It has forced them to confront the fact that they cannot assume solidarity as women that cuts across class, religion, caste, ethnic difference. And yet, they must hold fast to such an assumption if they are to work with women: for how, as an activist, do you deal with a woman who takes part in a violent right wing demonstration one day, and comes to you for help as a victim of domestic violence .
Perhaps the most significant development for women in the last few decades has been the introduction of 33% reservation for women in local, village-level elections. In the early days, when this move was introduced, there was considerable scepticism. How will women cope? Are they equipped to be leaders? Will this mean any real change, or will it merely mean that the men will take a backseat and use the women as a front to implement what they want? While all these problems still remain, in a greater or lesser degree, what is also true is that more and more women have shown that once they have power, they are able to use it, to the benefit of society in general and women in particular.1
The women's movement in India today is a rich and vibrant movement, which has spread to various parts of the country. It is often said that there is no one single cohesive movement in the country, but a number of fragmented campaigns. Activists see this as one of the strengths of the movement which takes different forms in different parts. While the movement may be scattered all over India, they feel it is nonetheless a strong and plural force.
It is important to recognize that for a country of India's magnitude, change in male-female relations and the kinds of issues the women's movement is focusing on will not come easy. For every step the movement takes forward, there will be a possible backlash, a possible regression. And it is this that makes for the contradictions, this that makes it possible for there to be women who can aspire to, and attain, the highest political office in the country, and for women to continue to have to confront patriarchy within the home, in the workplace, throughout their lives. As activists never tire of repeating-out of the deepest repression is born the greatest resistance. 2
Some women achievers FROM UTTAR PRADESH
Ismat Chughtai (Urdu) -(August 1915 – 24 October 1991) was an eminent Indian writer in Urdu, known for her indomitable spirit and a fierce feminist ideology. Considered the dame of Urdu fiction, Chugtai was one of the Muslim writers who stayed on India after the continent was partitioned. Along with Rashid Jahan, Wajeda Tabassum and Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat’s work stands for the birth of a revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in twentieth century Urdu literature. She explored feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility, and other evolving conflicts in modern India. Her outspoken and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice for the unheard, and she has become an inspiration for the younger generation of writers, readers and intellectuals.