December 29, 2002,
The Year of Disempowerment?
break this culture of silence?
The Year of Disempowerment?
WHILE 2001 was declared with much fanfare as the 'Year of Empowerment,' 2002 was a year when women lost out on many fronts—a year of disempowerment, as it were.
Images of 2002 were dominated by the alarming rise in crimes against women—rape and wife-battering through the year, and widow immolation in the name of Sati, in Madhya Pradesh.
Says media critic Sevanti Ninan, "Violence against women was a recurring motif in the media. There was Gujarat in February, when the nadir of civil society was touched with the tale of the woman who had a foetus ripped from her womb and then burnt, and with many cases of rape perpetrated on Muslim women being reported. By the end of the year, the rape of a medical college student in Delhi resulted in a lot of coverage of the issue of violence against women."
Syeda Hameed, Convenor of the Muslim Women's Forum says, "The Gujarat carnage has been the rock bottom." Justice for rape survivors, hard to achieve at the best of times has been near impossible - with a communalised police and civil administration. The populist declarations of Home Minister Advani towards the end of the year, that rapists will be awarded the death penalty fails to acknowledge the fundamental reasons—faulty investigation, humiliating procedures and a biased judiciary—for the low rate of conviction (a mere 4 per cent) for rape. Needless to say, there is no talk of death penalty for those who committed rape in the Gujarat carnage. Gujarat was horror in public; it made all right-thinking people sit up.
But a more 'private' violence - within the home - continued to elude punishment. Statistics compiled by the International Centre for Research on Women are chilling: Every third household in Punjab acknowledged "wife beating". Over 31 per cent of dowry deaths and 12.3 per cent of cases of cruelty by husbands and family members were reported in Uttar Pradesh alone. A study of masculinity and sexuality in Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu showed that 57.8 per cent of the men interviewed believed that using force during sex was important; only 30 per cent of domestic violence cases were reported.
Ironically, on International Women's Day, March 8, 2002, the government introduced a Domestic Violence Bill, which justifies domestic violence in 'self defence'. "This basic flaw turns the law on its head," says Indira Jaising, senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India and Director of the Women's Rights Initiative of the Lawyer's Collective, now lobbying with parliamentarians to remove the self-defence clause and also include the right to shared residence to ensure that an abused woman has a roof over her head.
One of the few steps ahead for women in 2002 was the removal of the upper limit of Rs 500 for maintenance to the wife in case of separation. Another positive development, says Jaisingh, was the deletion of Section 154(A) from the Indian Evidence Act, which allowed the defence in a rape case to refer to the character of the complainant—a clause often used to discredit women. Also, in May, the Mumbai High Court deemed as illegal 'triple talaaq' or divorce by mere statement. This landmark judgement will doubtless go in the favour of Muslim women divorced and deserted at whim.
Yet, much remains to be done in the sphere of legal reforms. Women's groups have long been campaigning to widen the scope of the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act (PNDT), 1994 and strengthen the monitoring mechanisms and implementation. This May, the Cabinet Committee approved amendments proposed by women's groups: inclusion of new technologies for sex-determination and sex selection and strengthening the regulatory mechanisms of the Act.
Women's groups are well aware that the proliferation of sex-determination clinics is not simply a legal matter. Social attitudes and practices are inextricably linked with the devaluation of girls. The continuation of evils like dowry is closely linked with the desire for sons, found a survey by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) among 10,000 respondents from different classes, castes and communities across the country. The findings showed that although there were state, community and caste-based variations, there was a "homogenising impact of the all-powerful market and the ongoing destruction of pluralist traditions concerning marriage."
The recognition of women's work and lack of property rights are crucial to the struggle against dowry, but the year was negative for the female labour force. Rather than increase women employees' entitlements such as the universalising of maternity benefits, many of the hard-won gains of the labour and women's movement were jeopardised.
Despite protests by trade unions and in contravention of the ILO Convention 126 and national laws prohibiting night shifts, the government, through a notification, announced its intention to legitimise the night shift for women. "In the name of 'choice' for women to work on the night shift, the government is promoting the interests of global capital in exploitative
Export Promotion Zones (EPZs). We are not against night-shift for women per se, but it must be accompanied by security, transport, communication facilities as well," says Amarjit Kaur, National Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).
The Second Labour Commission Report released this year admits that there has been a substantial job increase in the unprotected informal sector. In fact, this year, the percentage of women in the informal sector increased from 92 per cent to 96 percent. The outsourcing of regular government jobs and the resultant 'casualisation' of labour have had a direct impact on women - maintenance staff (safai karamcharis) in various government departments or primary school teachers. "Even in the teaching profession, considered a 'female' profession, increasing 'contractualisation' has made these jobs insecure," says Amarjit Kaur.
And how have statutory bodies fared? Demonstrating skewed priorities, the National Commission for Women (NCW) did not stand by the Muslim women of Gujarat; instead, it chose to take up cudgels for actress Manisha Koirala in her battle against director Shashilal Nair for using a 'body double' in her film. The unseemly scrap between the Chairperson and Member Secretary of the NCW reduced the autonomy of the NCW and rendered it even more toothless. "The NCW has emasculated itself, and is going down not with a bang, but a whimper," comments Syeda Hameed, former member of the NCW.
The Women's Reservation Bill to ensure a 33 per cent quota for women in Parliament continued to hang fire, although women in Panchayati Raj institutions have shown that the presence of women contributes to positive indicators in health, education and other social sectors at the village level.
Says TV anchor and writer Mrinal Pande, "The only plus point this year has been that women's issues were vociferously espoused by the opposition, thus forcing the ruling coalition to take up women's issues."
Women's presence on the political scene is undoubtedly more perceptible. When 87-year-old Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal, the Left's presidential candidate, became the first woman to stand for the highest post in the country, winning the post was not as important as projecting the secular card and women's issues.
Women and their lives were visible through the year in other ways too. Many of the highest rated soap operas were women-centred in mostly negative ways. "Villainesses made their mark on popular television, scheming, and plotting the downfall of the family and other women in the serial. A lot of verbal violence within the family setting was shown in a variety of ways, and in commercial television, rape figured prominently and controversially in mainstream entertainment," says Ninan. In a tribute to regressive womanhood, Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Telefilms bagged the Economic Times Award for 'Emerging Company of the Year' - 2002'.
Meanwhile, real life women continued their daily battles. In the second week of December, more than a thousand women affected by the carnage gathered in a Mahila Ekta Sammelan in Ahmedabad to reaffirm their struggle for justice. While this was a veritable re-birth after nine months of horror, two days later, many of these women could not exercise their fundamental right to vote. "The disenfranchisement of Muslim women—pregnant, ill, with small children—who had queued up for hours, desperate to vote out the communal government, is a blot on democracy," declares Hameed, who was part of a team in Maninagar (Narendra Modi's) constituency to monitor the elections.
"Positive gender images that remain with me are of the role women
in Kashmir played during the elections there. Many pictures were
flashed of their jostling to vote, and the coverage given to Mehbooba
Mufti and a few other high profile women candidates often raised
gender issues in the course of interviews or profiles. In Gujarat,
pictures of women queuing up to vote have suggested they are becoming
an important constituent in elections, based on how issues affect
Kudos to Kashmiri women
THE situation in the strife-torn Valley is not so hopeless after all. Had it been as irreversible as often made out to appear, Kashmir would have crumbled long ago. The social fabric, whether weak or strong, is still intact and safe and will continue to be so till such time the women of Kashmir offer to guard it.
There are countless tales that underline the worth of Kashmiri women who have often dared the bigots and separatists alike. The latest case of the so-called weak sex asserting itself to the point of death is the December 20 killing of three young girls in Hasiot village in Rajouri, which witnessed its daughters fall to brutality of militants. This is but an isolated case. There are
other instances that reflect how an average Kashmiri woman has risen above fears to give shape to her dream of a "right to peaceful existence."
Kulwant Kaur of Chitisingpora village in Anantnag lives with the dark memory of that day in March 2000, which brought doom to the sleepy village. About 20-armed men entered the village and unleashed terror, killing every male they could lay their hands on. Even as Chitisingpora was still lamenting its dead, Kulwant Kaur took upon herself the task of putting the derailed lives of 300 families back at the tracks. After losing two sons herself, she could muster courage to inspire women to take charge of the fields and also send their kids to school. She also urged them, along with the handful-surviving males, to build a memorial, bearing names of the dead. Two memorials now stand in the heart of the small village, which has learnt to live, thanks to its women.
Regions do not restrict this element of courage. It runs through the Valley like blood running through arteries. In September this year, the Kashmiri women once again stood up to the challenge of democracy. As separatists wasted their time distributing anti-poll literature and issuing threatening calls, the women of the Valley dared to stand up and be counted. Talking about her right to vote, Begum Jaan, a 75-year-old woman from Soibugh (the native village of Hizbul Mujahideen supreme commander Salahuddin), said, "Without exception, the women of Kashmir are yearning for peace and normalcy. People have been dying and they might keep dying in the future also. But if I don’t stand up for myself, the secessionists will win the battle even without fighting it. This election is war time for Kashmir and all voters are warriors of peace."
The turnout in all parts of the Valley confirmed that the gun could no longer silence women. Not only did they exercise their franchise, they also voiced their desire to have women at the helm of affairs. Women are now heading increasing number of social organisations in Kashmir, not because there is dearth of men but because women, as a community, now realise their significance. Mehbooba Mufti herself emphasises the need to have more women in politics. When interviewed in September, she had said, "The Valley is now touching an all-time emotional low. In a society full of stress, trauma and death, women have a very critical role to play. They are emotionally stronger than men".
As of today, the problem in Kashmir is more human than political. The Valley has lakhs of widows, countless orphans, and even more missing persons. A study by the Department of Sociology, Kashmir University, on suicides in the valley confirmed that women were the most vulnerable group, accounting for over 77 per cent of the reported suicides. Given the situation, sociologists point out that it is important for women to have a say in state politics. Said a sociology professor, "Insurgency entails a huge social cost for women. Militancy runs on its own dynamics and one of these is enforcing identity for women. That is why you hear militants imposing dress codes. If women have a greater say, they may contribute their bit to the social matrix."
Women feel the same.
Says Shamima Akhtar, a Srinagar-based mother of two school going
daughters, "Kashmiri women have been continuously involved in
rebuilding the traumatised society. But when it comes to politics,
their presence is negligible. That is because men have never accepted
women as partners in power. It’s time Kashmiri women entered
politics more by choice than chance." Some women have formed
groups like Muslim Khawateen Markaz and Kashmir Women’s Forum and
have led marches, particularly against human rights violations. If
this hope keeps running strong, time is not far when the world would
no longer hear screams from the Valley.
No top billing!
ONE more year, full of hope for Indian women, has come to an end. Laws or reforms initiated for the betterment of women’s status or to provide protection against violence, assaults and ill treatment were no exception in 2002. Many bills, which were to be debated in Parliament during the year which followed the Year Of Women’s Empowerment, were shelved indefinitely or ignored as entirely postponable in the melee of events, which put political parties at loggerheads throughout the year. Those bills which should have been debated sagely and sincerely were left to collect dust on the shelves of the Parliament.
The first victim of this year’s of political confusion was the Bill for the reservation of 33 per cent of elected seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women. No political party really paid any attention to the passing of this Bill. Nor did any party suggest reasonable amendments to hasten the Bill’s passage through the Lok Sabha. This Bill, as Indian women know, has been lingering in the Lok Sabha since 1996 and has caused repeated furores in the Lok Sabha with MPs demanding reservations for OBC and SC women. With the outgoing President K.R. Narayanan recommending it’s quick passage this year, women in India had new hope of change. But this too became a lost cause when Gujarat became the main issue for the country. Gujarat too, showed how women are the first victims of wars and riots. As the human rights authorities and the National Commission for Women found, even in the midst of communal carnage and unprecedented riots, women were the worst sufferers. Bigamy and child marriages continued unabated in 2002 with the average age of rural brides ranging between 14 and 17 years. The year 2002 brought one more shock for women when the Muslim Personal Law Board supported the challenge lodged in the Supreme Court to the Child Marriage Act. The executive secretary of the Board, Mohammed Rahim Quereshi, took this stand saying that the Shariat decrees that a Muslim girl can be married as soon as she steps into puberty. Muslim marriages, he said, are registered with the Waqf Board and hence they cannot come under the purview of the Child Marriage Act. According to social observers, approximately 86 lakh bigamous marriages still take place in India and marriages of girls are performed even before they achieve puberty. Women’s education is no longer a priority for any state or the central government. Without education and self-reliance, women have not progressed much in finding their own piece of sunshine.
"Women need to
network among themselves to feel connected and strong," says MP
Shabana Azmi, "Even ordinary jobs like repairing water pumps in
small villages make them dependent upon the men who oppose their right
to dignity and self reliance. They must learn to seek education and
assert their right to design their own lives and dreams." No
wonder then that during 2002, the steadily reducing number of women
per thousand men in India held the attention of the media. Stemming
from the worsening condition of the majority of Indian women, it was
found necessary this year to table a draft Bill against Domestic
Violence in the Lok Sabha. When published for debate, this draft
caused several controversies among women’s organisations because the
very definition of domestic violence was left to the courts trying
individual cases. These organisations jointly demanded that domestic
violence should be defined in the same way as it has been in the
sample law drafted by the United Nations. "The draft remains
silent on the right of a wife to her matrimonial home," says the
Chairperson of the Maharashtra State Women’s Council, "Most
women tolerate violence and ill treatment for fear of losing their
marriages, homes and children. The draft Bill is also silent about
protecting the victimised woman’s property rights and custody of
children. It is obvious that in drafting the Bill, the authors have
not consulted women whose lives are most affected by its passage.
Until the principle of gender equality and freedom are not actualised
in spirit and action, there cannot be any major change in women’s
Why not break this culture of silence?
THE year end is the time to reflect, take stock and to plan ahead. It was a petulant voice that complained: "Why must you focus on such negative and distressing things? Oh! These things don’t happen to us. Our daughters, daughters-in-law and girls in the family are happy, no problems...Why don’t you talk of all the nice things that are happening?"
Perhaps the notion "that this never happens to us" is what makes us apathetic enough to shrug off horror stories and tales of women being tortured as merely something going wrong somewhere far off, in an orbit that is not going to intersect our lives at all.
When it comes to the tears and turmoil, the agony and the heartache caused by either torture or traditional expectations and straitjacketing, it is a silence of complicity. It is a shame to even admit that something is amiss or lacking. As long as something happens to others, it is distant but when the same thing happens to you and me, then we can not wish it away and help but feel the pinch. Then it hurts and we want action, empathy and sensitivity.
Violence, molestation, rape, torture for dowry and child sex abuse are harsh and unpalatable facts but, nevertheless, do take place. To want to shut our eyes to them and at the same time want them to vanish or be countered or to generate an awareness about them are contradictory.
What is often heard is: What is all this talk of discrimination? One thing’s for sure that women are emancipated as never before, look at the strides they are taking in all spheres of life... Why focus only on the negatives? Aren’t all the magazines, newspapers and TV channels teeming with success stories and images of women who are successful, beautiful and upwardly mobile with a lifestyle to be envied and emulated.
Many women are uncomfortable with activism and even feminism that they equate with home-wrecking, frustrated women who are akin to a lunatic fringe that has a nuisance value, nothing else. As long as all is well with your cocooned existence and the boat is not rocked, why crib and complain?
Then when we are confronted by an act that is terribly back-to-the-Dark Age, we click our tongues and say, "How could this happen in the 21st century, despite all this progress." The fact is that there has been very little progress as far as the societal attitudes and mindsets go. We equate the surface signs of progress as emancipation and change whereas mental and emotional empowerment has nothing to do with these signifiers.
A friend had confided how when she talked to the parents of girls deserted by boys settled abroad, they had all harped on the innocence of their daughters as if it was a virtue! That they were meek, mild and sitting ducks for being taken advantage of was seen by the parents as a quality and not a handicap. A sure-shot recipe for making martyrs out of them.
What we forget, in our myopic way, is that if we do not offer resistance or even think about opposing or have definitive views on practices that affect us directly, it is only a matter of time before our daughters or those close to us might be impacted by those very set of attitudes and social biases that we did not raise our voice against.
For instance, the middle aged woman who decided to stand up for her 18-year-old daughter when the latter complained how her uncle was "touching her the wrong way" and the abuse had occurred many times ever since she was a child. While nothing was more important for her than reassuring her daughter and giving her emotional security, her own parents and sister thought otherwise. She was boycotted for ruining the family’s izzat and "imagining things along with her daughter" and till date her parents do not speak to her. The mother stood by the daughter even though it hurt to see her own parents go into denial and have her sister (whose husband was the culprit) socially ostracise her. Luckily her husband and in-laws were supportive. If more and more women break this culture of silence and speak up there is hope. Why labour under guilt, shame and fear of ‘what-will-people-say’ syndrome? To suffer and then to feel thwarted and not speak is indeed a double burden.
Why must the whole concept of izzat, that vital prerequisite for any girl or woman (to be guarded even at great personal cost) be the sole prerogative of women to safeguard? If it is not her own izzat, it is that of the whole family that rests on her thoughts, actions and words and woe betide any woman who decides that her own happiness is definitely more important than the family’s izzat.
Small wonder that a Madhu Sharma will bravely try and vindicate the honour of a husband who is at large, without thinking of the consequences of his actions on his two daughters and wife of many years. Just as an empowered Aishwarya Rai will put up with a violent and abusive man before speaking up for herself finally. A woman still gives meaning to her life and defines her existence in relation to another. A fact that should be acknowledged.
Scratch the surface
beneath double income no kids or corporate perks and you will see
how little has changed in terms of biases and behavioural
patterns. Modern dresses, state of the art gizmos and gadgets mask
medieval attitudes coupled with a pathetically retrogressive
mindset beneath that glitzy exterior. A.N
Struggle is good for you. If people avoid struggle, they decay. Life has been very easy for Jemima. Maybe I’m a godsend to make her struggle. — Imran Khan
The marriage mandi has finally become a fair price shop, with buyers and sellers freely switching positions and haggling for better deals. — Shobha De
Bringing refreshment into the room, and the presence (of any one but members) in the non-public area of the room... are prohibited. Application of either rule should be taken to include babies and the feeding of babies. — A notice in the British Parliament for women MPs.
The atrocities will continue for some time because of the feudal nature and illiteracy of the state. — Digvijay Singh, the Chief Minister of MP, reacting to the stripping and beating of Mathura Bai, sarpanch of Gamtoli village, Morena district, MP.