As the celebrations of yet another Women's Day wind down, it is time to reflect on what it will take to truly empower women in India. The deep-rooted and widely prevalent misogyny and patriarchy present a formidable challenge to efforts at fostering gender parity.
Events like Women's Day provide a great platform to raise awareness about various issues. For example, when airlines advertise flights with all women crews, it creates a very compelling narrative about women and their ability to take on any task. Undoubtedly, many young girls would feel greatly inspired by these achievements and believe just a little more in themselves. Their parents too would feel a little more confident. While there has been significant progress over the last few decades, it has been concentrated in pockets. There are still vast swathes in the country where women remain voiceless and thoroughly oppressed.
Far-reaching change demands action at multiple levels... There is no silver bullet legislation or magic pill that will transform social structures and mindsets.
Far-reaching change demands action at multiple levels with multiple levers working in concert. There is no silver bullet legislation or magic pill that will transform social structures and mindsets overnight. It requires a sustained, multi-tiered campaign that attacks the roots of the inherent gender biases in Indian society.
There are two major pillars that support a culture of empowering women in any society or country.
The first enabler is the State. A strong State with robust law enforcement provides protection to the weaker and disadvantaged sections of its population. Given that the historic basis for women's oppression and exploitation has been physical strength, it is important for the state machinery to step in and negate this disadvantage.
India's police forces need better training, equipment, management and manpower to be able to provide that protection. The legal system can tie one up for years, and justice is often elusive. In the absence of an efficient law and order machinery, personal disputes are settled in favour of the party that can bring more force to bear. Be it property disputes, road rage cases or any other conflict, the physical strength and intimidation they can provide gives yet another reason for Indian society to value sons over daughters.
Well-lit streets and safe, well-regulated public transport enable women to step out into public spaces and contribute outside their homes.
Another aspect that the State can influence positively is controlling crime against women. Well-lit streets and safe, well-regulated public transport enable women to step out into public spaces and contribute outside their homes. In the current set up, most city streets are poorly lit, while bus and auto mafias, with very little governmental overview, control public transport. Unsavoury elements can often be seen ganging up to coax and cajole passengers to ride with them. Let alone women, even men can find them very intimidating.
It is therefore important for the government to be serious about these matters. There is an urgent need for Indian cities to be prolifically fitted with CCTV cameras that actually function. Auto drivers and private buses should be verified and monitored regularly. Many shared autos ply without permits or licenses, and we saw in the recent Dipti Sarna abduction case in Ghaziabad how dangerous such elements can be. In addition, a visible and responsive police presence can serve as a major deterrent.
It is no coincidence that countries that have a stronger rule of law also fare better when it comes to gender parity.
The State can therefore create conditions that are more conducive to women's safety. The power of the State becomes empowering for women, who are no longer left to fend for themselves or have to depend on male relatives to escort them. Predatory males use their physical superiority to prey on women. A strong and proactive State ends up strengthening its women as well. It is no coincidence that countries that have a stronger rule of law also fare better when it comes to gender parity.
The role of society
The second pillar is society. India is an extremely male dominated society, and that is reflected in every sphere of life. The custom of dowry is a classic example of how heavily the odds are stacked against women. A girl's parents not only have to pay a huge sum to the groom's parents, but also end up giving up their daughter to the groom's family forever. So it is essentially a double blow for them. That's certainly not an incentive to give birth to and raise daughters.
Regardless of the historical factors that might have been responsible for the rise of a heavily patriarchal society, there is now a need to free womanhood from these shackles. It will take considerable effort across institutions and individuals to make that happen, and that too only when the State also plays its part, as outlined above, and creates the right conditions for social reform to take root.
While mass media acts as a mirror to society, it also wields a tremendous amount of power to influence and set trends.
The first step is altering the portrayal of women in popular culture. In Indian movies and TV shows, it is still quite common to see the husband or boyfriend ending an argument by slapping his partner. Such scenes serve to subconsciously reinforce deep-seated notions and beliefs about gender power dynamics. It is interesting to note that in Western movies or TV shows, such violence is almost always only portrayed when depicting an abusive relationship.
Many movies also show the hero harassing the heroine till she succumbs to his charms. This glamorizes and legitimizes behaviour that should otherwise be viewed as unacceptable. While mass media acts as a mirror to society, it also wields a tremendous amount of power to influence and set trends.
Parents of girls have a major responsibility in raising daughters to be empowered. Too often girls in India are raised to be submissive and see themselves as inferior to their male counterparts. Such upbringing leaves them unprepared to resist abusive relationships or stand up for their rights. Supportive parents enable women to take a stand. By asking their daughters to always compromise in a relationship because "it is the woman's duty to do so", parents are doing them a great disservice.
The Indian male must be taught to respect women and stop considering his genitalia to confer special privileges upon him.
No social reform can be complete or successful without the active participation of men. Indian men are conditioned from childhood to consider themselves superior and lord it over the female of the species. The Indian male must be taught to respect women and stop considering his genitalia to confer special privileges upon him. This will require intensive educational efforts in schools and colleges. Another effective avenue would be to conduct mass campaigns with celebrities who have macho images. In these campaigns, the celebrities should counsel young males about the need to treat women with dignity and respect and not indulge in abusive or sexist behaviour.
The roles of state and society often converge as was witnessed in Kerala recently, wherein a Muslim judge slammed Muslim law and asked why Muslim women can't have four husbands if Muslim men can have four wives. Gender reform in Indian society and true parity for Indian women will not be possible until Muslim women are also liberated from the patriarchy of phallocentric Muslim culture. The State has always been fearful of treading on the territory of equal rights and parity for women when it comes to Muslims. As the largest minority and as the fastest growing segment of the Indian population, the Muslim community is the segment where the need for structural and macro-level reform is most dire. Indian society on the whole will never be completely free from patriarchy if Muslim women are also not freed from the patriarchal privilege of the Muslim male.
[T]he Muslim community is the segment where the need for structural and macro-level reform is most dire.
The presence and participation of women in public life energizes and enriches it. India will do itself a great favour by nurturing its feminine energy and enabling women to reclaim public spaces. A kinder, gentler and more vibrant society awaits us if women get an even playing field and can contribute their talents without fear or apprehensions. Every single one of us has a role to play in enabling this environment and empowering one half of the country's population in the truest sense.
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