Pledge for Parity
Our society is like a bullock cart, its one wheel represents a man and the other a woman. And like a bullock cart that moves smoothly only when both wheels go forward together, the society will not progress unless both man and woman move together. –President, National Assembly, Yugoslavia, 1983
The feminist movement was at its peak and thousands of women had given up their glamorous look, no lipstick, cream, powder and wore no jewellery or stilettos. Why did they burn panties, I could never understand. The movement had not impacted India that much, although I did come across some young women who stopped using lipstick and other cosmetics and dressed very plainly.
It was fortuitous that at about that time I got an opportunity to visit several countries including America. Naturally, writing about feminist movement was my first priority. When I met the lady President in Belgrade, she had just returned from America after meeting feminists and supporters of the movement. The bra and panty burning was almost over. She told me that when she quoted the bullock cart example, women who had joined the feminist movement but were not willing to follow of urgings of the hardcore agreed that the movement was bordering on extremism and not using lipstick and attractive clothes was ridiculous. Women are different than men, and there was no reason to make oneself look like a man. That is not equality.
The President then told me that until the equality wave did not sweep her country (until then not divided), men returning home would on weekly pay day stop in a bar. When they would reach home, their puke would be all over them, and the wife and their young children would somehow change their coat, remove the boots and clean them.
But after women decided to be equal, the young children would have to struggle to undress and clean both the parents. For the women also started asserting their right of equality and would stop at pubs on their weekly pay day. We had a long discussion, as from Belgrade there I was going to the US.
It was by chance that at a meeting with the Under-secretary social welfare at her office in Washington that I saw a framed declaration that God was a female. I told the lady that in our religion the most powerful are goddesses, Durga, Kali, Sarswati, Lakshmi and they cover all aspects of one’s life. We worship the Goddesses more than anyone else except possibly Shiva, Ganesh and Hanuman. But all of them are related. Ganesh and Lakshmi are brother and sister. Shiva’s consort is Parvati, who is Durga. Hanuman and Shiva are inter-related.
But the lady said something very interesting. Personally, it makes more sense to me to view God as a woman. In my humble opinion, women have so much more to do with the creation and development of life and love than men. In every major species, humans included, males are seen as the strong, burly protectors, and females are seen as the caring, nurturing providers the way the bible would have you view God, “He” is a loving provider, rather than a muscular protector. While “He” tends to play both roles, the Old Testament focuses on “His” more masculine qualities, while the New Testament focuses on “His” more feminine qualities.’ Gender-neutral language is sometimes described as non-sexist language by advocates and politically correct language by opponents — like mankind is humanity, and I think if we scout around for more words that need neutrality, Manchester comes up immediately. A Male Chauvinist Pig ( MCP) said it should be renamed as Woman Chester.
So one thing was clear. A man might feel all empowered by worshipping Durga or Shiva, it does not matter if God is a He or She. Feminists need not convert God into a sex symbol. It does not make them equal or superior to men. Instead of burning bras and panties and dressing like a man, these leaders of the movement should have helped women to equip themselves with qualifications so that they were considered for lucrative and senior positions.
This is why the movement died without many lamenting for it. Although International Women’s Day International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day continues to be celebrated on March 8 every year. The focus of the celebrations differs from region to region, ranging from general celebration of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political, and social achievements.
Started as a Socialist political event, the holiday blended the culture of many countries, primarily in Europe, especially those in the Soviet Bloc. In some regions, the day lost its political flavour, and became simply an occasion for people to express their love for women in a way somewhat similar to a mixture of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In other regions, however, the political and human rights theme designated by the United Nations runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are brought out and examined in a hopeful manner. Some people celebrate the day by wearing purple ribbons.
The Great Debate: How to make women leaders
Amongst friends we have often discussed earnestly, in fact so earnestly that sometimes a few of us would lose our cool, the futility of designating March 8, as International Women’s Day. In the West, the men may not, in their minds, think women are equal, but otherwise for the women today, all doors, opportunities and occupations, are open, except that one or two Clubs on Pall Mall in London, which are for men only. They are also cracking under pressure of women achievers.
Nearly 44 per cent of respondents to the Time of India poll felt the cause is now overshadowed by tokenism; but the day still remains relevant, say activists. It was in March 1911 that International Women’s Day was first marked in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Here we are, 105 years later, celebrating yet another day dedicated to gender equality. But do we still need a date to celebrate womanhood? An overwhelming 70 per cent of over 9,000 respondents to the Times of India poll say we do. But does it make a real difference to the lives of women? Well, that’s a different story.
In reality “Women’s Day seems like a shallow exercise in tokenism where people give away some awards and quote the same set of people,” Anuja Chauhan, bestselling author was quoted. “Gender parity needs a focused effort through the year instead of just one date.” Many agreed with Chauhan.
Over 42 per cent feel the day doesn’t make any impact on women’s lives though 44 per cent still wanted the day to be observed. “Though it is looked at as a day of fun and frivolity, Women’s Day also centres attention on issues like the Vishaka guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace. It should not be just about getting free cocktails, but also finding space to talk about issues like equal pay and domestic violence,” says author Advaita Kala.
Strangely enough women who have made it in politics never try to promote women. Jealousy or they are just not bothered. One lady MP said we have to think of issues that concern the country.
But Women’s Day is still an urban phenomenon in India. Over 61 per cent of respondents feel so. But Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) was quoted saying that the day brings together women activists across the nation to set their priorities, initiate a discourse on common issues and sensitise society. “While it used to be limited to education institutes and organisations in urban centres initially, it has now spread to rural regions,” says Sangwan. This year AIDWA held protests on March 8 to demand a fair probe into the alleged Murthal gangrape. Not surprisingly, 53 per cent of those polled believe sexual violence should be at the top of the Women’s Day agenda while 36.6 per cent voiced concern about domestic violence.
Over 63 per cent of those polled believed we need a Men’s Day too. A day for women, another for men; one for fathers, one for mothers and another for children, and yet another to mark romantic love — are we being inclusive or missing the point entirely? For some, like Anuja Chauhan, a birthday is the only ‘day’ you need to celebrate. “They too face sexual abuse. Dowry laws are sometimes used to abuse husbands and in-laws, Men who suffer also need to find a voice,” says Kaan era of increasing inequalities of wealth and resources and continue to witness a frightening backlash against women’s rights gained to date.
An activist said IWD remains meaningful to us because we see young feminist activists claiming this day as their own, gathering at the forefront of today’s most heated disputes, demanding access to abortion, amplifying voices of sex workers, or seeking justice for the disappearances of women human rights defenders. They are casting off the taboo of feminism, applying new social media technologies and drawing on the arts to make these celebrations relevant and expressive of multiple realities, identities, and movements.
Each year, IWD falls around the annual session of the UN commission on the status of women (CSW), a key policymaking space for governments to make commitments to women’s human rights. However, the CSW remains a somewhat exclusive space that many people have not heard of or find difficult to enter and influence. Global decision-making spaces for women’s human rights continue to fall outside of the popular gaze. This is a dangerous disconnect. IWD is just one day, while the CSW could potentially guarantee that every day will be women’s rights day in practice.
Despite the barriers, young women are finding alternative ways to contribute to an age-old struggle. Whether hash-tagged in tweets, composed into songs, or included in official statements at the UN, we believe the groundswell of young feminist activism can revitalise the power and potential of decision-making spaces like the CSW or IWD with radical solutions, strategies, and spirit.
The value of IWD is in our ability to integrate these new voices and find the threads that weave us together. This will enable us to strengthen interconnected movements and collectively speak truth to power, said Fatima Haase, policy and advocacy assistant.
Women are back to their glamorous best. But the pioneers of the movement did achieve politically, economically and socially a lot, without resorting to bra and panty burning. Like suffrage, removing glass ceilings in a few areas.
Feminist movement in India never became as vocal and aggressive as in the West because after mid-nineteenth century when the Sati was banned, political parties here had reformists who had on their agenda reforms to improve the status of women. For instance from 1915 to Indian independence, when Gandhi incorporated women’s movements into the Quit India movement and independent women’s organisations began to emerge and after independence, the focus has been on fair treatment of women at home after marriage, in the work force and right to political parity.
Another factor that kept out the feminist movement like in the West because most of India lives in rural areas, where women, specifically after zamindari abolition, have had more independence than their urban sisters. All of them work and earn. They, especially in the lower castes, change husbands at will. I know two cases in my village two women left their husbands and moved to different men who were already married. Wonder the first wives did not raise any objection.
But in urban areas were the movement has achieved much, more needs to be done. Meanwhile, the women’s movement is grappling with ever-new problems as vast economic and social changes sweep the country while old mindsets steeped in patriarchy still prevail. Annie Raja, who was general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women said that the growing realisation that a woman’s constitutional right to lead a life of dignity is in question will lead to more mobilisation in the future.
The Budget after December 16 Delhi gang rape laid emphasis on women’s security and empowerment. While all of these measures have been found wanting by women’s rights advocates, they are generally seen as a step in the right direction. Seasoned activists are quick to point out that the changes that have taken place since the New Delhi gang rape are a culmination of many years of work.
India has had a vibrant women’s movement that harks back to the pre-independence movement with protests for social reform in the nineteenth century. The movement has been marked by tragedies that have led to campaigns resulting in new laws: the Mathura rape case of 1972, the protests against the dowry-related death of Tarvinder Kaur, who was burned to death in her marital home in 1979, the protests sparked by the act of sati (where a widow is cremated on her husband’s funeral pyre) by Roop Kanwar in 1987 and the protests against the Bhanwari Devi gang rape in 1992, noted New York Times.
The feminists are fighting for safety, equal wages, life with dignity because mostly elder men and young men who have moved to cities from rural areas still scoff at the women who assert equality.
The stakes are much higher – if the question is whether they can go to work or not – then the sense of immediacy is much higher.”As it deals with the new problems, Indian feminism is still battling with many of the old problems. The most recent government ordinance introduced some positive measures, like making stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks punishable under criminal law, but it failed to account for marital rape and acts of rape by armed forces personnel.
And though the New Delhi gang rape has brought renewed attention to sex crimes, prosecutions of those cases still move at snail’s pace. There are currently 24,000 cases related to rape and sexual harassment pending in the Supreme Court and various high courts.
This is why demands of the state haven’t changed. Women are still asking for accountability of the police, state agencies and the law and protocols to be set in place to deal with sexual violence.
But changing men’s underlying attitudes toward women, which many advocates say is necessary for a permanent end to the violence, abuse and persecution that women in India experience is more difficult in India. This is the biggest challenge.
“n power, woman power”? This now-familiar song was released in the ’70s, and through it the singer, a millenarian feminist, was calling for a new world order. “You’ve heard of woman nation,” she sang. “Well, that’s coming baby.” Now after 50 years after that song how much the struggle for equality has been achieved in our country? In urban India feminist values have become part of the public discourse. And yet, the worst forms of misogyny remain entrenched in our social structure. Cases of gender violence and domestic abuse are common in big cities, while rural India struggles to curb the hideous reality of female foeticide.
The battle against such egregious and criminal affronts must be fought by the state, by the law. But how do we change mindsets? Well, by fighting for equality on the cultural front. Like Yoko Ono did when she sang, “Every woman has a song to sing, every woman has a story to tell.” Hopefully, a day may dawn when every woman may have a song to sing, a song celebrating equality between sexes.
By Vijay Dutt