|HER WORLD||Sunday, August 31, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Battle of the sexes
Spirit of enterprise
IN spite of clear legislation, after 56 years of Independence, Indian women are married off long before they attain the legal age of 18. The gap between women in metros and rural India in this matter is shocking. While Mumbai’s college girls openly endorse and indulge in pre-marital sex, the Kerala High Court has declared the marriage of minor Muslim girls as valid and lawful!
Sonu is a fifteen-year-old girl from a coastal village in Raigarh district in Maharashtra. She works in Mumbai as a childminder and earns Rs 1500 a month and supports her sickly and drunkard father in the village. Yet, she is now being taken back to her village to be married to a young local farmer from her village. She hates the idea and is desperately frightened of the prospect of living with an unknown man, yet excited about being a bride and wearing a new green and gold sari with flowers and jewellery. she is dreaming of her own mangalsutra and is shyly curious about sex. Romance and glamour have infiltrated her life through the umpteen satellite TV channels and through endless films shown on television. Becoming a bride is an adventure into the glamour world according to her.
But her family’s reasons for marrying her off are quite different. "In this big city, scores of street-side Romeo boys as well as drivers and domestic servants are after my daughter. I see them loitering around her whenever possible," says her domestic-servant mother, "I do not know what she will do or what they might do to her. Sixteen is a dangerous age. I have a drunkard husband and I work to support the family. I cannot face the eventuality if she elopes or becomes pregnant by some hoodlum who seduces her. Worse still, if she is raped by someone who has access to her, it will be the undoing for all of us. An early marriage is the solution to all our problems. If she elopes or marries a man out of our caste, our whole family will be ostracised in our village and that is a terrible fate we don’t wish to face."
Sonu’s case is perhaps just one example of how illegal marriages of under-age girls take place in rural India. A daughter is still a curse in most Indian families. Her birth is considered as an ill-omen and the sooner she is handed over to the ‘rightful owner’, the better it is for her parents. Because of the fear that the birth of a daughter means provision for dowry, girls are married off to men who make the least dowry demands , thereby the fate of the girl is often sealed permanently. There is the constant fear that a girl child, on reaching puberty, will become an easy prey for village goods or men on the lookout for sexual adventures. The girl herself can be lured by small gifts like bangles, clothes or bindis to go out with men who falsely promise romance and love. Yet other girls are married because parents believe that if their daughters are educated, they may become disobedient and independent-minded. Their exposure to the other girls or boys in the school can make them rebel against parental authority or later, the husband’s control. So, it’s a relief when the control of a girl’s life and sexuality passes from the hands of the father straight into those of her husband.
However, the urban situation is often different. Nancy Lulla, an attractive chief executive officer of her own communications agency, married when she was more than 30 years of age, after living with her lover for some time. "I think women have a right to carve out their own life graph before they marry," she says, "In any case, I do not subscribe to the view that women or wives should be ‘controlled’ by their men. This is a stone-age idea and completely outdated now. My husband is my partner and my marriage is successful because we married when we really wanted to." Her view is somewhat supported by Vandana Luthra, a well-known beautician and owner of a chain of fitness parlours. "I think young women should marry around the age of 24. I shall follow this norm for my daughter. She must be self-reliant yet able to fit into her matrimonial family. But it is true that in every situation, men control women’s destiny because women are not willing to risk a lifelong single status or to be divorcees and live alone."
A young Mumbai businessman has yet other views. Married at 21, and a father at 22, he says that young marriages are a way of life in his biradari, which consists of 500 families. "We don’t give dowries or torture any woman. But men’s superiority is clearly stated in unspoken terms in our family. My wife has everything and participates in all decisions but does not challenge me or other men in the family. Her education is used in raising children and understanding my business, not conducting it or advising me."
The large majority of Indians, who live in rural or small town India, continue to marry off their daughters at an age, which verges on illegality. As in other matters, the age of marriage in India differs diametrically in urban and rural areas and depends, to a large extent, on the attitudes of local communities or traditional families. The age of marriage depends also upon the religious and cultural traditions of local communities. In fact, families which are progressive and forward-looking in all other matters, suddenly become traditional where the marriage of a daughter is concerned.
The root of these concepts and the definition of the roles of husbands, wives and their parents, whose religious duty it is marry off their daughters, almost always comes from religious sources.
These facts are corroborated by a survey undertaken by the Government of India during 1992-93 through its Health and Family Welfare Ministry. The National Family Health Survey offered a comparative study of women from 19 selected states based on uniform strategies and scientifically determined yardsticks. The survey proved that in rural India, after 45 years of Independence, over 70 per cent women were still illiterate. In urban areas, this percentage comes dramatically down and only 33 per cent women could not read or write. The survey proved conclusively that rural and urban women are living on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The survey emphasised that the high rate of marriages among girls under the legal age of 18 proves the second rate position of women in Indian society. it pointed out that in rural India, the mean age of marriage of girls is approximately 16. In some northern states like Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, this mean age comes further down to 15 years. As opposed to this, urban girls marry at 18 to 19 years of age. The survey found that rural parents who were interviewed, were certainly aware of the law regarding the legal age for of marriage, yet continued to arrange minor girls’ marriages without any fear. The reasons for their defiance of law are: Firstly, there are no records of the girl child’s birth since registration is haphazard. The age of a girl cannot be proved officially. Secondly, if a village has no school, parents are unwilling to send her to a distant place for education. Marriage then becomes a quick solution to her problem of idleness. Thirdly, a menstruating daughter is considered to be a dangerous liability in rural homes. Fourthly, young girls are assumed to have e no right at all in choosing their marital partners. Lastly, the secondary or inferior status of a woman causes the men in her family to take decisions on her behalf, which she is expected to obey. Additionally, every year on certain auspicious days, thousands of child marriages are held in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This year, though the National Commission for Women made a huge appeal to the State governments, it was seen that the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Mr. Digvijay Singh himself attended a child marriage ceremony.
The fact that recently, the Muslim Personal Law Board has opposed the Child Marriage Act, saying that a young Muslim girl is fit for marriage at puberty according to the Shariat is further proof of the diversity of attitudes towards the right age for a woman’s marriage. Mohammed Rahim Qureshi, the Board’s chief secretary, recently said that since Muslim marriages are registered with the Waqf Board, they should not be brought under the Child Marriage Act or the law for minimum age of marriage in India. As if to support this point of view, the Kerala High Court has recently held that the marriage of a minor Muslim girl is valid and lawful!
Career women, while not opposing the need for marriage, try to delay their marriages till they find Mr. Right. They often find the prospect of marriage ‘scary’ and the compromises they might have to make frighten them. Used to the freedom of movement and accountability to self alone, they are in a dilemma. Should they enjoy the fruits of their high education, which their parents have worked hard to give them? Or should they jump on the scale and try to balance career and home-making? Will the marriage partner be supportive and co-operative? Or will the stress of the relationship be unbearable? How long does it take for Mr. Right to turn into Mr. Tyrant?
The most important social problem which
emerges from the survey’s findings is that a girl, upon attaining
puberty, is considered a worrisome burden even by educated, well-to-do
families. This is a common view of parents in all states and all strata
of society. This means that in spite of technology, changing norms and
the evolving new status of women in India, puberty and menstruation
defines the life of a young woman. The moment she becomes fit for
childbearing, she becomes capable of risking the izzat of her
maternal family by one wrong step, which she may be misguided to take.
Despite a plethora of laws, political strategies, numerous projects by
governmental and voluntary social work organisations and efforts of
social activists-men still consider that as fathers, brothers and
husbands, they are the controllers of the moral and sexual behaviour of
a woman whereas they are free to use their sexuality in whichever way
they want. Women are still considered as ‘property’, which must be
passed on from one family to the next in perfect condition.
WOMAN'S subjugation is a conspiracy by men to be able to enjoy more freedom. Any aberration on the part of a son is shrugged off with the comment: "Boys will be always boys" but girls have to follow a strict regimentation. Every girl is taught to be lady-like: do not do this, don’t do that, this is not lady-like are sacred commandments for a young girl. Women down the ages, have been missing out on the joys of life in pursuit of becoming a lady. Natural instincts and desires are suppressed. This artificial conditioning has done more harm than good. They are not really living but just playing out the role that was taught to them. A vicious circle sets in, "non-living" is passed from mother to daughter, from one generation to another.
Strange are the ways of the society. An erring and philandering husband is welcomed back into the family fold but a woman who has dared to walk the primrose path is beyond redemption. Infidelity, for men, is an adventure with all-powerful alibi of boys being always boys but for women, there is no redeeming solace of "girls being girls". The double standard of morality for men and women were decreed by Hindu prescriptive religious texts in India and perpetuated by customs. For instance, a widow was not culturally allowed to marry (in middle class families) while a widower was encouraged, even persuaded, to marry. A wife had to be physically chaste to her one husband but polygamy was permitted for men. Women ceased to be individuals but became a physical entity whose purity had to be guarded by father, husband, and son at different points in her life. Women’s bodies became the repositories of men’s honour and men had an obligation to one another to hand over their women chaste while giving them away through marriage. Society controlled her behavioural pattern by prescribing strict rules in the ancient texts of virginity before marriage and being a pativrata (physical and mental chastity) after marriage. This rule was equally applicable to men but conveniently forgotten because of their dominant position in the society where they were law makers and also empowered to implement those laws they made.
If the social noose is tighter around the woman’s neck, she herself is to be held responsible for perpetuation of male subjugation. Never has she raised the issue that boys should also act like gentlemen when all through ages, girls have been forced to behave like a lady.
Never has she questioned the purity and
chastity of men. An example is the docile acceptance of the glaring
discrimination in bringing up of a girl child. Has it not inflicted a
non-healing wound on the woman’s psyche? Insecurity and the desire for
a male child makes her, most of the times, a willing and sometimes
reluctant partner in the heinous crime of girl child’s foeticide. She
is a party to the demand of dowry, and neglect of the girl child. She
forgets that some time back she was also a girl child and few years
later, a newly-wed bride. Surprisingly, the biggest enemy of woman is
not man but woman herself, it could be mother-in-law, sister-in-law, or
the other woman.
Battle of the sexes
THE off-the-cuff remark set me thinking. In the course of an animated discussion a friend had retorted: "If men can be aggressive, can’t women too be subversive?" No, this was not any male chauvinist who had flung this declaration at a fuming feminist but a well-considered remark made by a psychologist who had counselled many couples over the years. As she elaborated on the ways and means that women too managed to "get their own back and how", a twinge of guilt surfaced at the many subversive ways one had, perhaps, resorted to.
To subvert implies to overturn the established order and undermine it from within. Perhaps, to counter the time-tested skills that men use to subjugate women, the latter resort to using guile, native wisdom, intuition and techniques of guerrilla warfare, instead of a head-long confrontation.
Why go far, if each of us peeps into our own life we can come across numerous instances where we neither fought fair nor stuck to rules. How many times have you resorted to guerrilla warfare and sniping in a fight or to push forward a point?
A shrill and persistent woman who loves to keep a scoreboard of real and intended insults is not only a caricaturist’s delight but a living reality and not a rarity. Perhaps it is due to the fact that women’s brains are programmed to focus and dwell on details, seemingly inconsequential and irrelevant for men. While a man’s response might be of the more direct and in-your-face variety, focussing more on the solutions and less on who said what when and in which tone. Take the tendency of women to nag, something that takes men back to childhood days when mom told them not to do this or that.
The more they resist nagging, which it is said is the repetition of unpalatable truths, the more women tend to badger them. They seem hell-bent upon mothering a man by being prescriptive and doling out dos and donts. The transition from the starry-eyed bride to a battleaxe or a virago and a nag is so subtle that one does not even realise it. While harassment of women gets the headlines and bold print, it is equally tough to be a harassed man.
A man may not be an oil painting but he too is entitled to an ego as much as a woman is entitled to an identity of her own. There are no prizes for putting up with control freaks or nags but you can be a woman of substance and iron for overcoming a feudal lord.
You can use children as ammunition in the war of words and battle of wits and nurse grudges of the dinosaur variety but it is always he who does not understand and is insensitive.
It is so easy to berate and label men as insensitive and boorish but extremely difficult to empathise with them. The bottomline is always... "the poor woman", while he remains "the insensitive cad."
Even when he gets a raw deal in a marriage, he can be at the receiving end of jibes and digs. Unlike a woman who gets sympathy and support socially, a man becomes either an object of ridicule or a butt of jokes. Ditto for being dumped or cuckolded by his wife for another man. His humiliation is compounded many times over. He is mocked at for his inability to keep his wife, as if it is a no-confidence vote against his masculinity. Contrast this to the sympathy that a woman whose man is unfaithful to her evokes.
It is the cumulative effect of all the insecurities and learnt behaviour patterns that results in the confusion. As a man confesses: "How can I become a sensitive new age guy all of a sudden? I did not learn to develop my emotional quotient or hone my empathy. I was not reared like this.
Another aspect that foxes men is the quick-change artistes that their spouses want them to be. At the drop of a tear, they are expected to be sensitive enough to dish out either a shoulder or as hanky (or both). The same chap, with an amazing alacrity, is supposed to metamorphose into a man of the world who exudes authority and elan. The often contradictory demands leave men breathlessly confused.
Pause and think before:
Spirit of enterprise
NANDITA Kulkarni rides into the cooperative housing society on her Luna moped (light motor cycle). She is the new breed of young bais (maids) who are much in demand by working women in Pune. Unlike several domestic servants in India, Kulkarni (22) has finished school. Her employer, Anita Patel says, "She has made a big difference to my life. My earlier maid did not want to use any gadgets (washing machine, oven) for housework. I, too, was nervous of letting her use the machines independently for she didn't know how to read. I don't have these problems with Kulkarni. She can read and follow instructions." Having a literate maid has several advantages.
Patel leaves Kulkarni written instructions about what to cook, bills to pay, cheques to deliver and what to shop. Surya Deshpande, another bai and friend of Kulkarni says, "I drop off the cheques at the bank and pay my employers' electricity and phone bills regularly." "After I graduated from school, my parents didn't want me to take up tasks like cleaning and mopping homes. Why have we educated you, they would say. Their dream was that I should get a government job, or a job in an office" says Kulkarni, who lives in a Pune slum. So when Kulkarni and Deshpande decided to work in homes as domestic help, their parents were very upset. "My mother and father preferred me to stay at home till I got a job in a factory or an office. There are so many girls like me in the chawl (slum) where I live. They are not doing any work, they think that because they have finished school, doing housework is below their dignity. They have been waiting for over a year now for a break," says Kulkarni. Kulkarni's first job was simple - washing and cleaning the house and dishes.
But slowly, she started putting her education to work. "My parents realised that I was not doing the same work as other bais. My employer realised that I could do some other jobs too." Kulkarni now works in four homes. All her employers are working women who have given her a spare key to the house so that she can come any time and do all the work required. Her friends too work in a similar fashion as they enjoy the confidence of their employers. Since working employers are so rushed in the morning, they prefer not to have anyone come in the morning to clean the house. Kulkarni is relieved she has no one sitting on her head and her employers are happy that they come to a clean house. Kulkarni receives Rs 300-Rs 450 every month from each of her four employers, higher than the market rate. Kulkarni does not have to spend more than an hour in her house every day. "I don't mind paying her the extra amount because I trust her with everything.
With my other maids I was worried—what if she left the door open or forgot to turn off the washing machine. When I give her a shopping list I don't have to deal with accounting problems," says Patel. Patel, who works in a bank, has also helped Kulkarni get a bank loan for her moped. "A moped has made my life easier and better. I feel I am better off than going to a factory," Kulkarni says. Many of the new educated young bais have also enrolled for vocational courses. "In the evenings, I go for tailoring classes; my friend is learning computers, and another friend is learning to be a beautician. This will improve our work prospects further," says Kulkarni. Sushma Saran, who is a development consultant, believes this vocational education will ensure a better future for the girls.
They will gain
self-confidence and can earn a living on their own. The new bais are
also better money managers. For four hours of work every day, Kulkarni
gets Rs 1,400 per month from four houses. "I pay Rs 250 as loan for
the moped, give Rs 500 to my parents, Rs 200 for my training fees and
the rest I spend on petrol, clothes, eating out and movies. I also save
a bit from the tips I get." Kulkarni's mother Radha is now happy
about her daughter's choice. "I spent all my life cleaning floors
and washing dishes. I wanted my daughter to have a better life. I
thought it was below her dignity to do the same work. But now I see many
girls who are just sitting in their homes after class 10. My daughter
now gets respect from the families she is working for. She has time to
learn something new. She even managed to get a loan for her moped from
the bank," she declares. —