|HER WORLD||Sunday, July 15, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
Combating a mindset that is a fortress
Is it a matter of choice?
Combating a mindset that is a fortress
INTEREST in the study of women in developing countries like India can at best be traced to about the last two decades of the twentieth century. So much so that agencies including those of the government that collected and interpreted statistics rarely segregated vital information, that would have pointed to the ground realities with regard to women’s status. In this sense, 1975 was an important year because a committee constituted by the Government of India, published a report ‘Towards Equality’. The report stunned our complacent society. There was little doubt, the report pointed, that women in India suffered immense social and economic inequality and injustice.
Indian society has always been rooted in hierarchy. In the family, it has been age, sex, ordinal position, affinal relationship, within the community it has been caste, lineage, learning , wealth, occupation, linkage with the ruling power and many other such elements that have defined rules of hierarchy. All these have been integrated by means of a complex combination of custom, functionality and religious norms unique to India and unknown anywhere else in the world. In fact, the concept of equality as a correlate of the concept of individual freedom was alien to India and women best personified this inequality.
The coming of western education and associated values of liberalism towards the beginning of the nineteenth century inspired a select section of Indians to introspect and examine their own society. The social reform agenda initiated by the first modern Indian mind — Raja Rammohan Roy, had at its core the idea to fight and remove practices that were representative of women’s oppression. Throughout the nineteenth century, a chain of liberal foresightful minds fought against customs that had been deeply embedded in India’s social fabric over centuries of time. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshav Chandra Sen, Malabari, Jyoti Rao Phule, Agankar, Ranade, Karve are only some of those who sought to fight social prejudices against women.
Rammohan Roy has been immortalised for his struggle against Satidaha. He based his arguments on egalitarianism and social justice, but even he extolled the virtues of self-restraint of Indian widows in leading lives of continence and chastity, dedicating themselves to the memory of their dead husbands. Ironically, as time passed, it was this argument which caused a problem when Vidya Sagar campaigned for widow remarriage. In Vidya Sagar’s time, young widows were prevented from taking nutritious food, specially protein (even lentils were banned) so as to prevent arousal of sexual urges.
Women in India were fortunate in one sense, that is, unlike women in many parts of what is the developed world today. They did not have to launch a struggle for franchise. Most of those who took over the reins of free India in 1947 were deeply committed to liberalism and democracy in its genuine sense. But that was about all.
In an acclaimed work, The Nation and Its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee presents the ‘community’ and ‘women’ as two fragments of the nation. As free India was born, the colonial state was replaced by two social states. The bodies of nameless women and their sexualities were brought under the control of their respective communities to complete the grand act of vivisection. Since the communities control over female sexuality lies at the centre of patriarchy, the female body has in our time been reduced to a pawn whenever there is crisis in the social order. It is in this context that violence against women or the manifold increase in cases of molestation, rape, dowry death, eve teasing need to be understood. Figures of such crime in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh have doubled in the period 1991-2001. And please remember these figures are only superficial as they represent only reported crime. Various studies have shown that only one in three or four cases of crime against women is actually reported.
Even as complete interpretation of the 2001 Census are not yet available, preliminary indicators present a grim and disturbing picture, particularly in the context of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh. In the one hundred years since 1901, the sex ratio in India has fallen from 972 females per 1000 males in 1901 to 933 in 2001. Shockingly, Chandigarh has come up with a female ratio of 773 per 1000 males. Haryana known for its deep-rooted patriarchal character has added some dubious distinctions. In the age group of 0-6 females its sex ratio is 820. But shocking the ratio among the literate population has come down to 617 females per 1000. Another ‘distinction’ can be mentioned here.
In the Kalayat Block of Kaithal District, the female literacy rate is 4 per cent. Perhaps the lowest in the country. A fact that becomes even more startling when we are told of the work being supposedly done by various government agencies and programmes like the DPEP (District Primary Education Programme) and dutifully funded by the World Bank.
The basic question is, can what we have achieved be termed as ‘development’. The ‘Human Development Report’ annually published by the United Nations Development Programme defines development as a process that increases people’s choices. The most critical of such choices so defined are a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and income, assets and employment for a decent standard of living.
Even a cursory look at the social and economic emergence of India as a nation would indicate that notwithstanding its phenomenal progress in diverse fields such as food security, infrastructure, technical education and the like, gender-based discrimination has been institutionalised. This view may at first appear conflicting with the common perception that women have in the context made great progress.
We need to understand how the so-called progress in technology for example has in fact only worsened the situation for women. The ultrasound machine which determines the sex of the foetus has made female foeticide, (another form of female infanticide) easy, convenient and cheap. The new technology cuts across class, and community, both urban and rural. Studies have shown how the girl child remains a liability. Dowry, pressure for marriage, devalued labour after marriage have all added to the love for sons. Not only are investments made in the son bound to stay in the family, the family needs to put in an extra effort to protect its female members from incidents of molestation, eveteasing and other crimes.
The female child enters the world in a devalued form. The child if lucky to escape the ultra-sound onslaught has to cross hurdles of childhood neglect in terms of nutrition, medical care, low priority in available nutrition, early withdrawal from school. From birth a girl is visualised at first as an added domestic hand, a housewife, a mother, a cook. Naturally most people train their daughters on these lines. The process continues in an unbroken chain. The whole concept suits the predominantly patriarchal culture of our society.
Education helps in enhancing a woman’s status and role in the family, in terms of social standing, articulation of her views, ability to influence decisions. In sum, it helps to create a more meaningful role for her.
The case of Kerala, now considered the country’s socially most advanced state, with 100 per cent literacy, whereas the total fertility rate (a measure of the average number of children born per woman) for India is 3.7, in Kerala it is 1.8, which is even lower than it is in China (2.0). Kerala’s birth rate of 44 per thousand in 1951-61, has now come down to 18 (1991). Kerala’s sex ratio is 1036 females per 1000 males. But the most remarkable figure is of deaths per live births. In Kerala, it is 16 per 1000 live births of girls and 17 for boys. This is much lower than China’s 33 for girls and 28 for boys. The corresponding figure for Haryana is almost four times higher at 81.4 for females and 60.7 for males. The statistics are profoundly meaningful because they reflect not only the linkage of education to important gender problems but reflect the actual attitude of society towards the girl child.
The patriarchal attitude further degrades women in the two progressive states of Punjab and Haryana by underassessing their working roles. The work participation rate of women in Punjab is rated at 4 per cent and in Haryana at 10.8 per cent amongst a national average of 22.3 per cent (1991). Obviously all the work women do — be it in the home, the cattle sheds, the fields all stand discounted.
The whole issue appears to go back deep into the past, into a social framework that has been passed on from generation to generation. With each generation accepting change, but in a stealthy manner ensuring that the roots of patriarchy remained intact. Thus even though in the first year of a new millennium the images society has of women today are not those that have developed from exigencies of mere biology and social situations but are deeply-rooted in myths, legends, religious perceptions and culture.
In the Christian world the Virgin Mary is revered, but not presented as a model that needs emulation. Quite in contrast is the case of Sita. This approach has made genuine reform in social value with regard to women’s problems difficult. Every attempt at social reform in the context of women empowerment ultimately proves superficial. This is because the ideals and images with which women are perceived have essentially masculinist connotations. Women in India are today not what they would have liked to be on the basis of their own experience but what social patriarchy had visualised them to be.
The sociological perspectives identified in the functional framework reserve instrumental functions for men and expressive functions for women. The psychological perspective views her as passive and dependent. Marriage and motherhood are mandatory, for fulfilment and identity formation. All subsequent processes, be it marginalisation of women in history, the by-passing of women in political and administrative theory, the devalued attention towards women’s contribution in the economy are all essentially issues of the mindset, a mindset that is as formidable as a fortress.
WHEN she first sat in front of an XT model computer (one of the early versions where you had a black screen, and only text; no windows or icons) in her school a five or six years ago, Manu Dhiman had no idea that she was stepping into a new world; a world full of promise, opportunities and excitement. No one then really believed that the computer revolution would spread ever nook and corner like a wild fire.
And now at 21, Manu runs her own computer institute in the town of Amb in Una district.. Making a humble beginning,, her institute is doing quite well in spite of being located in a small town. After school, she took up a computer course in Panchkula, and continued her regular education privately. She did a diploma in computers, and later took up a course in computer graphics. It is while doing this course she realised that she had finally found her metier. As she learnt to work on Corel Draw and Photoshop, she began to enjoy her profession more and more. But because of family circumstances, she could not stay on after her course was over.
"Yes, I would have loved to work in Chandigarh or Delhi, as I would have gained rich experience and might have furthered my career. Here in Amb, I would like to take up computer graphics seriously but that won’t be possible as there is no market for it. I do keep honing my skills in my spare time, but you see there is only so much you can learn by yourself. Whereas, if you work for a big company, you learn so many new things as they have better machines and better network. You know graphics need powerful machines. I can barely afford that luxury. But we have to make the best of what we have. So I read computer magazines to keep abreast of the latest in IT."
Once back in Amb, her parents bought her a computer so she would not forget what she had learnt. They thought she might teach one or two students at home, but they were surprised by her success. In a couple of months, they had to hire an office space from where she now operates.
"I was myself surprised to learn that so many boys and girls here were interested in learning computers. Some of my students come from quite far-off villages! I am amazed by their dedication to catch up with the luckier children who live in cities. I discovered that even in villages people realise that computers have come to stay and no one can afford to ignore them if they wish to be successful professionally."
But life was not easy for her in a town surrounded by villages. Within days of opening her institute, she was faced with unexpected problems. One morning as she began to teach, she realised that one of the computers was not booting up. She tried everything but nothing worked. Even her inkjet printer was not working. As there are no hardware technicians nearby, she had to rush to Chandigarh for repairs. When the technician opened the machine, a rat jumped out of it. Amazed, the technician remarked, " Madam, I thought the mouse is supposed to be outside the computer not in it!" She laughed at the joke, but was pained to learn that the rat had chewed up all the wires of her computer and printer. She had to spend a fortune to have them repaired not to mention the days lost and the expenses incurred in Chandigarh. She faces other continual problems like voltage fluctuation and frequent power cuts which are not only a major inconvenience to her students but are also very harmful to the computers. Besides there were other problems like humidity, dust and leaking roofs. Then she was not alone in the business, soon she learnt that other people were also opening up computer institutes in the town, but this did not worry her much as she had faith in herself and her students.
Is being a girl a disadvantage in this field?
"You see, if you are good at your work, people generally do not worry about your being a man or a woman. All you have to provide is quality, and I try my best to offer top quality computer education in the circumstances. Yes, being a girl does hamper your work. For instance, if there is a short-term course let’s say in Delhi or Bombay, it would be a lot easier to attend it on my own if I were a boy. Being a girl, my parents have to worry about my safety and things like that. But I really thank my parents, brothers and sisters for giving me all help and encouragement. I am quite lucky in that respect. Things are changing for the better slowly but surely in our society. Twenty-five years ago, no one would have allowed me to set up an institute. But I wish, things would change faster for us women"
But things are changing, for there are about as many girls as there are boys in her institute. Most of her students are older than Manu, some are about 20 years older, and at first she felt a bit embarrassed when they used to address her, ‘Madam".
How does she rate the girls versus the boys?
"Girls are as good as the boys, but boys are more pushy and more eager to try new things. I wish girls were more outgoing. But you can’t blame them. We must appreciate the fact that most parents still believe that girls, after their basic education, should confine their talents to domestic work. But now parents, even in remote villages, are beginning to realise the importance of educating girls, and as a result more and more girls are coming forward to learn."
And Manu herself is a role model for them. Besides running an institute, she is also doing her graduation privately. She starts her work at eight and sometimes even at seven in the morning and continues to work until six or seven in the evening on some days. Once back home, she rests for a while and then assists her mother and her sister with the regular domestic chores like making dinner, washing the clothes, sweeping and mopping the house. In this hectic schedule, she also finds time to watch her favourite TV programmes, and listen to Hindi film songs on her little transistor radio (one of the first gifts she bought for herself from her earnings). During the harvest season, she joins the rest of her family in the fields. "My parents have taught me not to shy away from any sort of work," she says letting out a smile. It comes as a surprise, however, that before coming to Amb, she lived in Barmana (near Bilaspur) where her father worked as foreman in the ACC cement factory. A student of DAV School, Barmana, Manu grew up as a city girl would, but now that the family has moved to their ancestral home in Amb, she and her other siblings adapted themselves to farm life. In fact, she learnt to use the computer mouse and the sickle almost at the same time!
Manu’s students are as hardworking as she is. Although most of them are from Amb, there are some who walk down from neighbouring villages, often crossing rising khuds. On rare occasions when Manu decides to take an off, most of her students request her to keep the institute open so they can practise. Manu has a small collection of books with her, but as all of them are in English, they are not of much use to her students. "I wish, someone would translate these books into Hindi or Punjabi. But, books don’t help much even if you know the language. Practical experience is the only answer," stresses Manu. "My students enjoy the learning process because I stress more on practical education than theory."
What happens to the institute when she gets married?
"By the time I get married, I will have trained at least a couple of brilliant students who would run this institute as efficiently as I do."
Won’t she open an institute after marrying?
"No, I won’t run an institute after marriage. I would rather take up a job in an office where I would have the chance to learn new things. Running this institute leaves me no time to learn new things. The reason why I would like to work for a nice company is that I would have the opportunity to learn different kinds of software which is not really possible if you are on your own."
Does she have plans to enlarge her institute?
"Although my elder sister Rajani helps me out with the institute, we don’t plan to expand operations. We believe in individual training. We have been approached by some people to take up their franchise, but we don’t have that kind of money? I might offer more courses. An internet course for example."
Is it a matter of choice?
NEXT time your mobile telephone rings, be careful before you answer it. A Dubai court has upheld divorce by telephone in a case where a Muslim husband called his wife on her mobile telephone after she failed to show up for a meeting on time and said, "Why are you late? I divorce you." Under Muslim law, a husband can divorce his wife by saying he divorces her either in the spoken or written form text message; women have no similar right. It is another matter that in this case the husband changed his mind later and he and his wife are still living together.
The last few weeks have been quite interesting as far as women’s issues are concerned. Unique incidents have taken place around the world that capture one’s imagination
Women on waves
A ship set off from the Netherlands, chartered by the Women on Waves Foundation, to promote abortions and contraception and thereby tell women they have a right of choice. The ship aims to travel to the Irish Republic, Asia, and Africa. In the devoutly Roman Catholic Ireland, where abortions are illegal, the ship parked 20 km off the Irish coast, i.e., in international waters, to avoid getting embroiled in Irish laws. But, the Dutch government, which does not want to be seen to be exporting its brand of liberalism abroad, warned the Women on Waves could be open to prosecution due to certain flawed paperwork. So the group decided to offer advice on contraception only.
One wonders what kind of choice we are talking about really. Because across the Atlantic, a clinic in Virginia, USA, announced that it has perfected a technique to produce desired-sex babies, and has, in fact, produced 200 babies of the same sex for couples upon demand. The technique is based on the discovery that sperm that make girls are heavier than those that make boys. The clinic says that it wants to give healthy, wanted babies and that the technique has been used to cure genetic defects, too. It also knows that its work will not be acceptable in certain countries. One stops to ask the question: are we still within the domain of choice?
The moral, ethical, social and psychological issues that such developments and incidents raise can be debated endlessly. But, is there a logic behind such movement? I guess not. This movement is part of the evolution of society. Part of the freedom of speech and expression, so cherished in the free world and enshrined in the Constitution of India. Having said that, these freedoms are nonetheless circumscribed and regulated for the sake of the larger good, especially in heterogeneous and developing countries like ours. Hence, the intervention by the Dutch government taking cognisance of the Irish sensibilities and culture.
State steps in
Another example of State invervention to safeguard wosmen against exploitation is provided by the presidential decree of Saparmurad Niyazov in Turkmenistan where it has been mandated that any one wishing to marry a Turkmen woman shall have to sign a contract and furnish a bond of $50,000 and provide security for her and her children’s future maintenance as an assurance against the marriage breaking down. The move came after a lot of Turkmen women were being married to foreigners and abandoned by them, particularly in the Gulf. The lines between choice, exploitation, social security and stability get blurred.
But what about the divorce by telephone? There a woman has no choice but to be a slave to man’s whims and caprices.
In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, women cannot leave the house without the full veil (head to toe) or without a male escort, and cannot work outside the home nor be educated. Whither choice for women in the 21st century?
Then there was the case of Tom Green, the Mormon in the US state of Utah, with five wives and 29 children, living in a trailer park. All five women were allegedly living happily with him. He was prosecuted and found guilty on four counts of polygamy. Green said he will appeal the decision and four of his wives are to mount a campaign in his favour (the fifth being in labour with his thirtieth child). Here whose choice are we talking about: the man, women, the society or the State?
Choice is coloured by race, culture, ethics, society, politics, upbringing, education, awareness. In many situations, like some we have seen above, choice is overcome by fait accompli. Do we have a choice!
WHEN YOU NEED HELP
Council for women enterpreneurs (Nari/Sankalp):
* All India Women’s
* Crime against Women
* Chd. Social Welfare
* Punjab, Istri
* Mahila Nayay Samiti, 230, Sector-9, Chd. Tel — 743788
* State legal
authority Fourth flour, Dlx bldg, Sector 17, Chd.
* Social Welfare Board, Punjab. Sector 35 Chd. Tel: — 607967
* Mahila Parishad, 31/21-A, Chd. Tel: 706606.
* Society for CWWC, 1153/33-C Chd.Tel 607438
* Kasturba Gandhi educational society for Women & Child Welfare — 980,Sector43-A, Chd
* YWCA- Sector 11, 946932