HER WORLD Sunday, August 12, 2001, Chandigarh, India

What holds back Indian women?
We are publishing below the prize-winning entries of the Tribune contest on the topic What holds back Indian women? The enthusiastic participation of the readers was phenomenal. The first prize of Rs 500 goes to Neelam Prabha from Amritsar, while the other nine selected entries will be given Rs 250 each.

Picture of courage and grit
Priyanka Singh

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.” 
Her eyes mist over as she pauses several times, struggling to pull herself together to relive June 8, 1999, the day her husband, Capt Deepak Guleria, died in an IED blast in Srinagar, leaving behind a son just over a year old. It is rather hard. Some things never get better even with time, especially if it means never having to see a dear one again. And yet life has a way of going on.





What holds back Indian women?

We are publishing below the prize-winning entries of the Tribune contest on the topic What holds back Indian women? The enthusiastic participation of the readers was phenomenal. The first prize of Rs 500 goes to Neelam Prabha from Amritsar, while the other nine selected entries will be given Rs 250 each.

Her dreams are drowned

A doll of clay, cast in the mould of docility and passivity, fed on the myth of her inferiority, embellished to be an object of sexual appeasement for man and tamed to be a self-abnegating wife and mother, Indian woman enjoys respect as long as she sinks her individuality and drowns her dreams and aspirations. Her face is her fortune and her delicacy and helplessness a virtue to be assiduously cultivated. The patriarchal set-up glorifies the sacrifices of the hand that “rocks the cradle” but begins to view the same hand as a potential threat to the well-being of the society if it begins to work in the direction of self-actualisation. The social mores and the moral code of conduct further restrict and bind women to an ineffectual existence within the four walls. The ignominy that is heaped upon a rape-victim and the stigma attached with a divorcee or a single woman are some of the lethal weapons that Indian society uses to fetter woman.

(First prize)

Neelam Prabha, Amritsar

Trishanku-like plight

Indian woman is a category too vast to be examined in one go, therefore I will make, if not more at least two categories to deal appropriately with the question.

Category A includes the advantaged Indian woman: urban, educated, middle class. What holds them back, according to me, is their inability to deal with the paradoxes that surround their present identity. Education and tradition is on an ardrous tandem together. How many of my friends realised that taking small decisions independently was fine with their parents but when it came to the really big ones it’s the parents that called the final shots. I think what holds back urban, educated, middle class Indian women is this unresolved status — this Trishanku-like, neither-here-nor-there syndrome. A visit to the supermaket by a confident, urban woman quite sums up her situation allegorically. She gets out feeling a great sense of satisfaction of having bought what she desired, wholly ignorant of the all pervasive market forces which made all the decisions for her.

Category B includes the disadvantaged Indian women: illiterate, with socio-economic-cultural deprivation. Women of this segment have suffered and continue to do so at the feminist front for the simple bane which is quite glorified in the Indian context: the ultimate immune system, the resilient force, the great Indian common sense. For the purposes of keeping life going as it is going, for keeping away from any harm to her own wellbeing and her brood’s, for making (seemingly) the least effort for the greatest good does she use it again and again. She, resilient of political theory, finds her own paths more often than not with survival as an end.

Sakoon, Chandigarh

Solutions lie in her hands

What holds her back? She herself, of course! The Indian woman has not yet learnt to meditate on her problems and look for her own solutions in an independent manner. She has yet to tap the immense power within her, the strength of Durga, the courage of the Rani of Jhansi and the hidden Shakti which she has herself lost within her and, like the musk deer, runs after it elsewhere. She has just to look within fearlessly and no-one can stop her.

Indian women have not been able to find their true identity. They either depend on men (e.g reservation) or try to copy the Indian men who themselves copy the western man. Those directly under the western influence, try copying the western woman who is yet to find her own identity! Once they get the confidence to be themselves, there will be no holding them back...

Deep Inder, Hoshiarpur

A Catch-22 situation

Indian women are held back by no one except themselves and other women. Conditioning and repression down the ages has cripple them, in spite of being educated, and intelligent. They cannot give up their conditioning and at the same time want to revolt against it. It is a Catch 22, a peculiar blend of rebellion and submission. Betty Friedan, in her path-breaking book The Feminine Mystique has voiced the perennial “problem that had no name. “ And the problem was none other than woman.

The family is so deeply rooted in Indian social infrastructure that Indian women cannot think of having freedom from the safe and secure imprisonment of the family. If ever freedom is thought of, it is always within the family and not away from it. Few who dare to break away from family find themselves at logged head with society. To be accepted and respected by society is of utmost importance to Indian women. They would rather go on suffering at the hands of their family than getting out of it.

Children are another deterring factor for an Indian woman. Their involvement in the children is exactly like that of tree with earth. Many a promising career came to an abrupt end with arrival of children. Indian women have lived too long in a golden cage of family to be able to enjoy the thrills of the unknown skies.

Harinder Mohan Singh, Chandigarh

Victim of double standards

Educated and liberated on the one hand and a victim of double standards of society on the other. Does this sufficiently constitute a rough picture of the Indian woman who holds herself back in more ways than one in the name of customs and traditions. Right from the age that she plays with dolls, her mind is conditioned to the fact that she is a girl and must incorporate the dos and donts as defined by society. Thus she gets the most important lesson that she breathes in all through her life. Its reinforcement is ensured by mothers who act as role models and suffer the unreasonable attitudes of a man because he is ironically, supposed to give her physical protection along with emotional and economic security. Outside home, the courage to march is thwarted by similar factors besides the need of keeping the name and honour intact. At home, she must not invite any opposition, because, whatsoever, she has to live and die with her pati (dev?) to avoid social stigma. Marriage, after all, is much more sacrosanct for a woman than a man in India.

Nirupama Khanna, Mohali

They light up others’ lives

My candle is burning at both the ends, it gives a lovely light
But ah! My friends and oh! My foes it would not last the night.

India has the dubious distinction of having had a woman as Prime Minister for around two decades. The Indian women have excelled their male counterparts in various fields. But the plight of a woman has not improved over the years. The social fabric of our country does not allow a woman to live an independent life. The women with a broken marriage are treated as pariahs. Even spinsters are looked down upon. Lack of social security and social respect propels Indian women to hold back a marriage. Inadequate job opportunities and economic dependence compel the Indian women to suffer persistently in their marital relationships.

Women are bought and sold like commodities in far-off areas. Illiteracy among women inhibits them won fighting for their rights. The working women in urban areas are like a candle burning at both the ends. The Indian women presume that the experience of suffering is a noble truth, this will lead them to the ultimate bliss. So they burn themselves to light up the lives of others.

Komal Ahuja, Chandigarh

Women lag behind

Has one millennium actually ended? Truth to tell, it hasn’t made a significant difference to the average Indian woman. It is truly striking how India has taken giant leaps forward into a more democratic, scientific and liberal society and still has left women out. If we were to look closely, men are being granted and are granting themselves more and more rights, and women are being left in the lurch.

The average Indian woman is still a part of the tribe that goes on with the complicated business of living a women’s life. It is a way of life which is borne out of sheer necessity. The majority of Indian women still believe that if they have to survive in society, a society dominated by patriarchal interests, then they have to seek refuge in a blanket of resignation. Most Indian women belong to the category who have come to believe that resignation to their lot is their way of life. They resign to being taken for granted at home, to being discriminated against at work, to being sexually abused both at home and at work. They are resigned to the fate of being perfect mothers and wives at the cost of their own individuality. They are resigned to sacrificing their simple pleasures at the altar of the collective pleasure of the family. So, what holds Indian women back is, definitely, - a sense of resignation.

Rashmi Kalia, Chandigarh

Tragedy and triumph

The journey of Indian women through the ages is that of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, Indian women have shown individual brilliance and remarkable resilience through the ages. On the other hand, the story of Indian women is that of oppression, suppression, containment and that of deprivation. India is one of the few countries where right from inception, where women have been given constitutionally equal status in all respects, unlike many countries including some from the developed world. However, this is far from true for the society at large, due to its archaic and deeply negative attitude towards women. As the psyche of the society has evolved over more than 2000 years, there is no scope for immediate change despite the onset of large scale modernization. To ameliorate the present situation, we do not need activists but reformers who can change the way society thinks and acts. Till the time we get such a reformer, we will continue to have female foeticide, maltreatment and subjugation. Indian women will be held back not by the laws of the land but by deep rooted fixations prejudicial to women in the society.

Neeraj Gupta, Chandigarh

What a pity

According to me, what holds Indian women back is their lack of confidence in doing everything themselves in this rapidly progressing world. In everything, these women give priority to men. Indian women are mostly bound by their sense of responsibility due to which they take a lot of time to recover and come out. Another major cause is that all members of her family are dependent on her. She gets entangled in her own net of loving and caring, which does not let her abide by her own desires. This refers to the vast population of educated as well as uneducated women who have still not recovered from the curse of slavery.

Kriti Dua, Patiala

Men dominate

Men and women are the two whels of life, but what a pity that the Indian women are lagging behind. True, that in the past they were held in high esteem but now most of them can not keep pace with the world outside. The most important cause is the male dominating society. Men do not want that women should come out and work shoulder to shoulder with them. It is believed that their place is in the kitchen and that is why they are engaged in sweeping, dusting and the like. Dowry is another hinderance, as is religion. In some families, girls are not fed properly and are weak.

Our socio-economic conditions are the real culprit in holding back Indian women.

Vibha Soi, Karnal


Picture of courage and grit
Priyanka Singh

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of readiness to die.”

Her eyes mist over as she pauses several times, struggling to pull herself together to relive June 8, 1999, the day her husband, Capt Deepak Guleria, died in an IED blast in Srinagar, leaving behind a son just over a year old. It is rather hard. 

Capt Deepak Guleria

Poonam Guleria & her son, Dhruv, learning to smile again.

Some things never get better even with time, especially if it means never having to see a dear one again. And yet life has a way of going on. 

You can see the strength in Ms Poonam Guleria, the sheer grit, as she talks about taking charge of her life and destiny. “I strongly feel it was fated. Why else would Deepak and five other jawans die when there were several other officers nearby. It had to happen.”

Captain Guleria was part of a team that rushed to the site of a blast to evacuate injured Army personnel. He dispatched the injured in vehicles to the helipad at Wlusan. as he was about to leave, another blast took place, critically wounding him. He was flown to the Base hospital in Srinagar but died on the way. He was awarded with the Sena Medal (Gallantry) posthumously. Earlier the officer had been decorated with the Special Service Medal for having served during Operation Rakshak in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ms Guleria was told by the officers that her husband had been injured in the leg. After much wait and persuasion, the news was broken to her at the hospital. “I blacked out. When I regained consciousness, I insisted on seeing his body which was in a coffin. He looked as charming as ever. I hugged him and touched his feet for the last time. it was all very hard for me but something kept pushing me. My husband always wanted me to be strong. My son was with me all the time but he was just a baby...”

Next she knew she was on an half-hour air Force flight to Chandigarh with his body and her son in her arms. It must have taken courage of a formidable kind to be on the same flight with her husband's body without her people to share her grief with. “I don't know where did I get the strength from...It was such a long torturous day,” she says, her voice quivering.

Mr M.L. Guleria, Deepak's father and a retired DIG (CRPF), came from Mandi the same evening. “I was hoping he would comfort me but he broke down like a child. I told him I would be Deepak for them. We left for Mandi soon after and travelled the whole night. Deepak was cremated the next morning with honours.

She says people have been kind, but the Army has been especially supportive. the J and K Government had promised Rs 2 lakh as relief but it hasn't come through. The Himachal Government has named a school after Captain Guleria and offered her a job in the Tourism Department. “I let my brother-in-law have it. Dhruv (her son) was small and I needed to look after him”. She donates Rs 20,000 annually to the school to sponsor scholarships and a function is held in his memory every year.

Much later when her son turned three, she took up a job offered by Army School, Chandimandir.

In times when self-interest predominates and love wanes, her concern for her in-laws is appreciable. “Though I am staying in my maternal house, I shifted to my own set-up on the first floor. My mother was upset with my decision. I knew I had to do it sooner or later. Also, I had my in-laws to think of. I had to instil in them the confidence that I was still a part of their family. If I wasn't staying with them, I wasn't staying with my parents either.” It is touching to see Captain Deepak's photograph in the Puja room where the family prays to him and for him every evening.

As she talks and the memories of that day come flooding back, it is clear, as is only natural, that the pain is still there. It is near impossible to erase memories. Notwithstanding the courage there are weak moments. “When I have my morning cup of tea alone...little things remind me of him. It does get difficult sometimes. Only a woman who has passed through what I have can know what it is like.”

Ms Poonam was free to consider remarriage but feels he has left her with all she needs—a son for a companion, financial security and above all, honour. Though knowing the risks, she says she would not stop her son from joining the Army if he so desires.

Talking about peace, she says something positive ought to have come of the Agra summit. “War is unnecessary. What I have lost I never can get back. The wound is permanent, nothing can change that. No family should lose its son, no child his father, no woman her husband to something so mindless as a war. I know how dreams can turn to ashes in moments.”

Life can be cruel. It might not offer many choices but it does give reasons to live, to hope, to rebuild. Hardships and losses have to be accepted. Some do it with bitterness, some challengingly while others stoically. Ms Guleria belongs to the last category.

It isn't life that matters. It is the courage you bring to it.


Be supportive of a woman’s fight for dignity and self-respect

Apropos of Kompal Grover’s ‘Life after divorce,’ a true picture of society’s mentality has been mirrored by the writer. Such write-ups are increasingly needed to change the established course of thinking. Not only men, but educated and independent women too are not supportive of another woman’s fight for self- respect.

If men support and favour men, why can not women do the same? Like everyone, they too advice women to be tolerant towards the misdoings of their husbands and this too at the moment of despair when, not advice but strength is the most desired object. Everybody seems to say, pati hoga to sar utha kar society men chal sakti ho, varna sari umar, sar jhuka kar chalna..

Anupreet, Ludhiana


She has described the traumatic condition of the girl after divorce. For divorce she has tried to blame only the guy and his extra-marital relations as one of the main causes of divorce in most of the cases. It is one side of the coin. If we try to see the situations with a broader perspective, we will find that it is not only the male partner who is to blame in totality. Both, boy and girl are equally to blame or the equation may be 60:40. In most of the cases, scepticism draws a wedge between the couple. If clarifications are not made in time, the fissure keeps on widening. Secondly, infidelity may be by any of the partners. In case, it is that of the girl and the couple is divorced after it, have you imagined what would be the condition of the boy afterwards? Society starts raising fingers at the virulence of the boy. Not only that, it is equally painful for the father to bear estrangement from the kids if it happens so.

So here, in place of focussing on the plight of girl only it is wise to make both of them ,aware of the dire consequences of divorce. They should try to settle the differences amicably. Whenever any scepticism arises clarifications should be made at the earliest with an open mind. And the foremost thing both the partners should be loyal towards each other.

Jasveer Sarsawa 56 APO


Who doesn’t want a happy marriage? Who wants to have a broken home? But obviously, when a woman finds the going too tough and unbearable, then, despite all the odds looming large in front of her, she is compelled to ask for divorce. It is not a happy option, but of course it is better then a desperate and unbearable situation. The sad fact is that besides suffering trauma of a broken marriage and the accompanying bitterness and disillusionment, she becomes the harassed recipient of cruel brickbats from almost all the sides. Most of the previous acquaintances refuse to recognise her. Most of the people keep their distance and flaunt their contemptible “holier than thou” attitude. Most of them take her to be an easy game and favour her with the choicest epithets at her back. The well- nigh ubiquitous rejection is unnerving. The children are the worst sufferers and she has to be really brave to fight against all these odds.

If she is economically independent and the parental support infrastructure is there, well and good. But except for a few extra supportive and well-off families, she is not even welcome in her parental home where she would be treated as an unwelcome burden and receives concealed jibes from time to time. She is neither here nor there, she is a foreigner every where and like a mountaineer she has to carve out every step that she has to take. She needs great conviction and unrelenting courage to stand up and make a dignified life for herself once again.

She has to be both mother and father to her children. Whether she is our mother, daughter, sister, friend or a stranger, a woman in this state needs our moral support and genuine concern and not our hostile attitude and petty jibes, for she has to streamline her life that has gone haywire.

Amrit Pal Tiwana, Kalka


Marriages are not often testimonies to happiness. The act of “Kanyadaan” in Hindu marriages symbolises far more than the act of giving. The daughter is in fact perceived as a burden. Thus ‘Kanyadaan’ is akin to transfer of liability to her future husband, who is then compensated through dowry. Often the demand of dowry is made either directly or indirectly to take over the liability.

Howsoever much educated or financially independent a girl may be, she is supposed to bow down before all these traditions, whether relevant in today’s times or not. Daan is thus a euphemism which conceals a precision possession.

Amandeep, Mohali

Phoolan Devi

What is required is a sustained effort to remove the very conditions that convert women well as men into dacoits. Otherwise, more and more Phoolans will be lost to the ravine.

Before surrender, Phoolan’s life is a story of humiliation, vendetta and survival.

She was an unwelcome second daughter of poor parents. As a girl-child, she recalled being burdened with never-ending household chores, always whipped and beaten for small lapses. She was often the target of her parents’ wrath. At the tender age of 11, she was married to a man 20 years older.

Ironically, she was named Phoolan Devi, the Goddess of Flowers. Later, she romantically styled herself as Dasyu Sundari meaning Beautiful Robber.

Perhaps it was her unhappy childhood that rebelled, turning her into a defiant and a willful girl. Probably it was this streak of perverse character that led her to take revenge on the men who raped her, the dreadful Behmai massacre being one such instance over which V.P. Singh had to resign.

When asked why she became a dacoit, Phoolan had answered scornfully, ‘God turns men into saints. But it is the men who turn women into dacoits’.

From an unhappy childhood she had stepped into an unhappier life, being constantly on the run, out of fear of police and public— from a life where there appeared to be no return. 

Roshni Johar, Shimla


More sinned against...

The article, “More sinned against...” by Nanki Hans was thought-provoking. That you have published another view point about Phoolan Devi is praiseworthy. The Tribune, both as a “Trust” in the literal sense and also as a repository of trust of its lakhs of readers, has once against showed that when it comes to commitment to its readers, it doesn’t necessarily have to tow the line, howsoever compelling and in favour of the current public opinion it may be.

The media, as it is, owned and managed by capitalists could never have aired a pro-Phoolan Devi picture. She was condemned and doomed by the media

The media could never tolerate the prominence and position gained by Phoolan ever since she was let out of jail and after her being projected as a voice of the downtrodden and the depressed.

It has been repeatedly mentioned that she was a voice in politics and had not proved her worth to become a member of Parliament. Several other cases can be cited where persons from criminal backgrounds have gained access to the portals of legislature. It is not being said that this warrants all criminals to enter legislature, but then this is a system failure and one poor, low caste and ignorant woman shouldn’t be made to bear the ignominy for this.

She had constantly evaluated herself and wanted to tread a civilised path.

Pictures have been splashed, showing her in beauty saloons in France etc., but what would have been captioned as celebration of freedom and life in case of any other woman from an upper class backdrop was being condemned for imitating the rich and enjoying life.

The very fact that the author has recognised her childlike innocence is a tribute to the former’s insight.

That reform is manifested not only by activism but also by symbolism is known to all.

I hope, you will publish this letter both as my personal homage to Phoolan and my appreciation of your newspaper and the writer.

In the due course of history, she will become a voice of depressed and oppressed sections.

Please, extend our heartfelt gratitude to the writer who has come out so boldly and taken up the cause of a poor woman.

Krishan Pratap Singh
Mand Sherian (Ludhiana)

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