Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Thursday, August 15, 2013

After 66 Years, Why The Glass Is Half Empty For Women?

By Abhilasha Khaitan (Guest Writer)

Sixty-six years on, you hope to see the glass as half full. Desperately so. But scan the newspaper, switch on the television or scroll down your Twitter feed and you find that there is little evidence that it isn’t. In fact, it is half empty.

India’s independence from the Raj has little to do with the freedom of its women. On the contrary, there are enough examples of major social reforms benefiting women under the British rule, for instance, the abolition of sati (the practice of self-immolation by women on their husband’s funeral pyre) and the betterment of widows.
Their freedom has far more to do with what happened after and how things stand today. For instance, on Independence Day in 2013, let’s ask ourselves this: How would we — in one word — characterise the condition of women in India now? The answer, I sense, will be unanimous: Unsafe.

That, sadly, is the theme around which women in a free country, in the 21st century, live. It also defines the current, past and future governments’ abiding social challenge: Providing a secure environment for women without – and this is important – shackling them.

To give the devil its due, the Indian government has been trying to show its support towards women. The Union Budget provides for financial assistance, dedicated banks and more. These are necessary and laudable steps. But no matter how economically independent the educated, urban woman becomes or how hard rural outreach programs work at improving feminine hygiene and maternal care, the narrative always meanders back to safety or the lack of it.

In the bill of rights drafted by the Verma Committee, headed by the late Justice Verma and constituted after the heinous Delhi bus rape case of 2012, the very first point underlines this most basic of rights: “Every woman shall be entitled to respect for her life and the integrity and security of her person. All forms of violence, exploitation, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment targeting women are prohibited.”

His panel’s recommendations shaped a stronger anti-rape law but the hate crimes continue. Consider acid attacks, a little-recorded but evil crime, that claimed yet another brave woman in May this year. Delhi’s Preeti Rathi, 23, became a victim within ten minutes of stepping off the train in Mumbai, ready to start her new life as a nurse lieutenant at the Army Medical College. A month later, she was dead.

The cases are numerous and depressing, much like the statistics. Take this global poll conducted by Thomson Reuters in 2011, which declared India the “fourth most dangerous country” in the world for women and the worst among the G20 countries.

The laws are stricter but there continues to be little faith in political intent. This could be one reason: A few months ago, the Association for Democratic Reforms released figures that showed that political parties had, over the past five years, fielded 27 candidates who were accused of rape. Around 260 candidates were facing charges related to crimes against women. These statistics are hardly inspiring.

The India story has been peddled as shining or growing or both by the last few governments. But if you point to the lot of women, Dr Gayathri Devi, a retired professor with the Institute for Economic and Social Change, says, “Improvement is a relative term”. She recognises the progress over the last few decades, adding that the nature of change has evolved as well. From a focus on fundamental issues like poverty alleviation in the 1950s, the government transitioned to acknowledging the global women’s liberation movement, particularly after the United Nations General Assembly designated 1975 as the International Women’s Year. “It was a watershed year for women. So our planning commission also started focussing on women,” Devi says.

But development is never problem-free. “It goes hand in hand with displacement. Women are now exposed to so many threats. Working women have to go to public places where they are exposed to threats. Sexual harassment at work, rapes and acid attacks are rampant too,” Devi says. And India has proved ill-equipped to handle this.

The picture is undeniably gloomy. But shift perspective and you can see more than a hint of pink on the dark backdrop. The brightness is courtesy the spunk and resolve shown by the Indian woman, both in rural and urban areas. She has decided to fight these battles, and not alone at that.

Take the ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign of 2009, which was a response to the attack against women in Mangalore, India, by Sri Ram Sene, an orthodox Hindu group which had also threatened violence against people seen celebrating Valentine’s Day. A group of women organised an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek protest on Facebook and asked its thousands of members to send pink chaddis (underwear) to party leader Pramod Muthalik’s office. The campaign went viral and forced Muthalik to pipe down.

From the modern and non-violent to the action-oriented Gulabi Gang, started in 2006 in Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh: This was a group of village women who decided to punish abusive husbands by battering them in their own houses. Their methods have since inspired a movie and a documentary. Meanwhile, back in the cities, international movements like Slut Walks, where women dress provocatively and freely, arrived in India and took place without fear. Their effectiveness lies, simply, in the fact that they happen.

Nothing exemplifies this power of the collective as much as the aftermath of the events of December, 2012, when a 23-year-old medical student was brutally raped and assaulted by a group of six men in a moving bus. “Her life embodied the aspirations of a rising nation but her death and her murder pointed to the many challenges still holding it back,” former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton summarised in her speech at the Women in the World summit in April this year. “The culture of rape is tied up with a broader set of problems: official corruption, illiteracy, inadequate education, laws and traditions, customs, culture, that prevent women from being seen as equal human beings.”

It is too premature to predict a cultural change but there has been a behavioural one. The crime took place in Delhi but shock resonated across the country. For once, there wasn’t a resigned acceptance of this despicable act nor was there any expectation of self-loathing (from women) for daring to exist in the public space. The uproar befitted the violence and shamed the Indian government into action.

The fury has barely subsided and the questions linger, keeping India from forgetting. Fewer crimes go unquestioned or get buried as a footnote in newspapers. More often than before, these become the bitter headlines and you are compelled to take note. Then there are innumerable online communities and websites which help keep the dialogue alive. Out of great tragedy, awareness and resolve have emerged. And that, really, is the good news.

So, again, is the glass is half full or half empty?

There is still no right answer. “Fighting to give women and girls a fighting chance isn’t a nice thing to do,” Clinton has also said. “This is a core imperative for every human being and every society.” But in the real world, the fight is what brings hope. The “Indian Spring”, as the protests in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case are called by some, was a hopeful time for women in India. And as long as this battle continues, there is reason to be optimistic that, some day, a mother will truly stop fearing for her daughter’s safety as she climbs aboard a bus to go to work; or a woman won’t wonder if the dress she wore to a party was too provocative to men; or a father will not stay up till his daughter returns from a visit to the ice cream parlour just down the road. That is when the perspective will change and the shiny, happy glow will appear real.

Till then, all other economic and political progress for women is just a thin veil that barely covers the disquiet beneath: Because India is supposed to be better than this. And, because, as Clinton put it: “India will rise or fall with its women.”