In every era in the history of social development, the question of women and the question of gender justice remained on board. It remained on board in every era for the reason as rightly pointed out by famous theoretician Friedrich Engels in his classical writing “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” that “Woman was the first human being that tasted bondage. Woman was a slave before slavery existed”.
In India, the constitutionally guaranteed equality for women is juxtaposed with the harsh societal reality.
The first leader of this free country, Pandit Nehru said “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”.
After Seven tumultuous decades we, as a nation, stand in an era of social liberation and economic prosperity. We broadcast our nation as one filled with potential and opportunity, and stand as future leaders of this free world.
But, are we ready to take on this responsibility? Have we grown, evolved and matured enough to not only govern ourselves, but to grant, protect and ensure natural justice for all? If Pandit Nehru was standing in judgment of us today, would he say that our Nation is in the best of conditions?
These are the tough questions that we must critically answer, before we bask in the laurels of our accomplishments.
It is without a doubt that we, as a nation, have achieved great feats in propelling the societal gears towards progressive thought and action. We are transforming the societal chains that once bound women to live a life of servitude, to a pedestal that not only appreciates that value of women, but also ensures that their contribution have an instrumental impact.
But, at the same time, we cannot say that all the chains have been lifted. We cannot say that the women of this great nation are free to live and enjoy their lives. The milestones of women empowerment often eclipse the sea of faceless and voiceless oppressed women in this country.
Indian Reality: A Paradox
India is remarkably unique, in the sense that it faces a dichotomy in nearly aspects of its vibrant democracy.
Indira Gandhi's rule as Prime Minister of India was a triumph for women in leadership, yet the nation under her rule was populated by hundreds of millions of impoverished women, whose lives changed remarkably little during her term.
Maternal mortality rates in some rural areas of India are among the worst in the world, yet India has the world's largest number of professionally qualified women, with more trained female doctors, surgeons, scientists and professors than even the United States.
The legal sphere commands equality, yet the social sphere, where most Indian women live, has remained unchanged despite clear legal and constitutional rights.
Status of Women in Ancient Indian Culture
This inequality is embedded more into cultural fabric of this nation, rather than religion. We as society, often label ourselves as morally rooted with religion. But with this being said, we have wandered far off from the dictate of ancient scriptures and vedas.
We cannot see any reference in Hinduism, wherein women are looked upon as inferior and subordinate to men.
According to Manu ‘the daughter is the highest object of tenderness’ and ‘the mother is revered a thousand times more than the father’,
The Vedic conception of the Mother Goddess is best represented in Aditi, who is mentioned no less than eighty times in the Rig Veda. She is the mother not only of the gods—deva-mātā—but also of kings, heroes, men and women; of the entire nature—the manifest as also that which lies in the womb of the future. She is the mistress of the moral order that governs the universe and also the giver of freedom. This tradition of Aditi being the mother of the gods is found continued even in the Puranas.
The ‘Durga Sukta’ of the Taittiriya Aranyaka is one of the most beautiful hymns in the Vedas. Therein Agni is conceived of as the Divine Mother Durga, the resplendent goddess, blazing in her power:
In our scriptures, there is a fundamental duality for women: on the one hand, the woman is fertile benevolent, like deity Lakshmi, and on the other hand she is also aggressive and malevolent as personified by Kali Devi.
Within the roots of Hinduism, we can see that women are considered as pure, holy and divine. Women are all powerful and all merciful. Women have been revered as even being above and beyond men.
From our religious studies, we cannot find such discriminative practices that are prevalent in today’s society. Domestic abuse is perhaps the most prevalent form of violence against Indian women, occurring in as much as half of the families across India.
We are once again faced with a difficult question. How is that we as a society blended in religious belief, act abhorrently against it? Why is there such a stark discord between religious values and cultural ones?
These are not such simple questions to answer. Perhaps we will gain some bearing towards a solution, as we look at the development of India’s struggle for gender equality.
Struggle for Gender Equality in India
The struggle for women's equality began in India in the 20th century, as an offshoot of the fight against British colonialism. Western-educated leaders like Mahatma Gandhi initiated this struggle by stating that a woman is completely equal to a man. Millions of women, educated and illiterate, housewives and widows, students and elderly, participated in India's freedom movement because of Gandhi's influence. At the same time, women came into their own when they took over for the imprisoned men and expanded the push for independence. In itself, the idea of equality between genders, which derives from Western ideas of individual freedom, was alien to the traditional, family oriented Indian society. But the seeds of change were planted through the struggle for independence.
Mahatma Gandhi was having absolute faith in inherent power of women, he emphasized it by saying-
“complete emancipation of women and her equality with man is the final goal of our social development, whose realization no power on earth can prevent”.
However, the road for change is long and hard. The traditional roles for women are the child, adolescent, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, and widow. At marriage, a woman often loses her identity and is referred to by her own parents as the "son-in-law's wife." In other sectors of Indian society, women change their first and last names to that of their husbands, obliterating their identity and sealing the husband's feudal-like ownership of his wife.
The rare act of divorce is seen as a reflection on the woman, who is viewed as Westernized, amoral and unmindful of her duties as a good Indian woman and wife. The growth in the number of divorces in India is seen as either a sign of demoralization of Indians or as a sign of self-assertion and independence.
Widows who make up more than 60 percent of the women over the age of 60 rarely remarry and live out their lives in a culture that often shuns them as bad luck. Widows are supposed to remain celibate, wear white, curb any romantic impulses, not wear the Bindi on their forehead and deny themselves pleasures to honor their dead husbands while widowers can remarry freely, often to child brides.
However, as Mother India coursed through the tough road of gender equality, she laid down several landmark milestones. From the institution of a reformed succession code to election of India’s first female Prime Minister to the impact of Globalization on India.
Status of Women among the minorities, particularly, among the Muslims calls for serious attention for people who uphold the ideals of universal human rights. Currently, the issue of triple talaq demands urgent remedial measures from all the State authorities, including the Judiciary. Compared to their counterparts in the Hindu community, women in the minority communities suffer a great deal in terms of denial of their access to education, healthcare and employment. Discrimination of women among the minority communities is widely prevalent. The issue of access of Muslim women to the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai glaringly stares us in the face.
Impact of Globalization
India is a mother to hundreds of cultures that are subsumed in this nation. Whilst some have been more active in taking progressive strides to gender equality, others have been indignant and stood steady in tradition.
Globalization has brought in mixed blessings to women in contemporary India. Because of globalization, women, especially in the urban India, have made great strides forward.However, there are still a great many difficulties that many Indian women face, which include poverty, female feticide, sexual harassment, lack of education, job skill training. This is especially prevalent among the majority of women in rural areas. Though some challenges Indian women face are similar to the struggles of women in the West, most have a uniquely Indian cultural component that makes the challenges worse and the oppression more intense and entrenched.
Globalization has clearly benefited a sector of India's women. The elite, educated and upper middle class, especially in the cities, have gained by exposure to Western ideas on such issues as women's roles, career options, and jobs. More Indian women than ever are engaged in business enterprises, international platforms, multi-national careers like advertising and fashion, and have better opportunities because of the free movement of goods, ideas and capital and the improved Indian economy that has been the result of globalization.
With Globalization, we have broken away from the traditional chains. However, we must not view it as a great boon to society. We must keep wary of the ill effects that it brings, and harmful impacts that it can have on our society.
A new culture is at our door steps with a new fashion wave and discovery of new individual self. There is also a new interpretation of liberty which emphasizes liberty of individual on higher pedestal, by way of freedom and openness of the society.
However, this new culture is much more concerned with luxury than usual prosperity in all spheres. Being a party to the rat race of luxury and acquiring it through the best of investments in the new way of living, the means by which they achieve it is not the concern. In this new culture, it is the globe and not an individual nation, which is the limit. The entire world is being gravitated into this new economic orbit.
Globalization is not an administrative invasion, but, it is an economic penetration and cultural subjugation. It locates itself in the psycho social settings of a nation under the pretext of development and modern community. It destroys the indigenous life system. Our value based people centered cultural heritage is best becoming oblivious under the pressure of globalisation. Every human being especially women becomes continuously commodified under globally operated economics. Human mind, body, behaviour, desire, relationship and even psyche becomes available in market in exchange of money. The media driven campaign for commodities moulds the mind itself and it takes society towards consumer worship. The concept of human rights and human dignity remains a misnomer. It is a step towards dehumanization.
This international consumerism is giving a complex view to the woman issue, a totally new complex version of the problem. In earlier system woman was suffering feudal violence. Now she has to suffer an onslaught on her dignity and individuality. The real need, is to uplift dignity of the women, that is the core of democratic value, is absent from the scenario of the social development.
Traders of the era are ready to trade for flash at international level virtually as well as in realty.
In this new scenario, we are required to equip ourselves with the new means to understand and analyse effectively in the social system to diagnose and destroy the new infecting viruses. We have to keep pace with the new system, as in coming times, women shall be the direct victims of consumerism. Forces are ready to use it as a saleable commodity, so we are required to take a definite stance in favour of women and the values which permit women to be a human being instead of a commodity.
However, while globalization has indeed helped women in developing their individual identity, the concept of the gender struggle has evolved.
Protecting Women Rights by The Indian Judiciary
Our Apex Court dealt with issues of women by keeping the principles of gender justice as a paramount consideration, be that may be of violence against her or with regard to her status in society, the question of marriage, adultery, or her service in public employment. The Supreme Court dealt with issue of marriage and motherhood in the case of Nargis Mirza by keeping status of women at par with men in constitutional framework. In the majority of cases, the Court dealt with male chauvinism due to feudal violence or of criminal attitude. But, the present day challenges in this regard are more complex and shall be more pervasive in coming years.
The following poem by Justice Leila Seth, a crusader in the struggle for emancipation of women, reflects the contemporary state of women rights in our country.
The Girl Child
Where have all the young girls gone?
Some were aborted before they were born:
A few were buried or choked with coarse paddy:
Others were smothered, starved or drowned in a well;
Poisoned with berries of oleander till dead,
So that dowry need not be paid or in-laws fed,
Or daughters raped, beaten or burnt –
This is the sad story of the girl child’s hell.
Father, why do you discriminate against me
When I can be as good as my brother?
Mother, nurture, nourish and educate me and you will see
That I will not be a burden but will control my own destiny,
And you will have nothing to fear (if brother is not there),
I will look after both of you in your old age;
I ask only to be treated equally – will you not dare –
So that I have the freedom to choose and the right to care;
And am no longer the prisoner of my gender
Unable to retaliate against injustice.
Oh Father, give me chance,
Just give a chance,
Oh Mother, break the bonds of tradition
And let me into the sunlight to dance… to dance… to dance.
Ashok Kumar Panda is a Senior Advocate & Aniruddha Purushotham is an Advocate in Supreme Court of India
This article has been adapted from Ashok Panda's Rani Jethmalani Memorial Lecture, organized by Res Publican Law Society (RPLS) recently.
[The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of LiveLaw and LiveLaw does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same]
This article has been made possible because of financial support from Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation.