|HER WORLD||Sunday, March 9, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
“And now I am told I am a girl!”
Slice of life
Spirit of enterprise
ANOTHER year, another Woman's Day and time for assessing the status of the 21st century woman in our country. In the Indian context the word woman is nothing but a glorified paradox. She is eulogised in our scriptures and given the status of a goddess. Right from the Vedic era to the modern-day Constitution, there are hundreds and hundreds pages written on female equality and importance in social hierarchy. Reality, however, tells a different story. Still there are hundreds and thousands of women in our country who are bound in the shackles of age-old traditions and are subject to psychological, emotional and physical abuse. Education and exposure have, however, given a chance to several women to have a different destiny than that of their mothers and grandmothers, to aspire and to dream and, most of all, to take their own decisions. To be alive was bliss but to be young was the very heaven so said the poet in the background of a famous revolution. This is also an era of revolution for Indian women as they are slowly awakening to their new-found freedom. Education and economic freedom have made several of the exploited ones fight oppression and a biased social mind-set. What it means to be young in this scenario and what do our young brigade of women, on the threshold of life, foresee for themselves in the near future. A round of the various campuses and a talk with young hearts revealed their dreams and aspirations and how they perceive the role of Indian woman in the changed scenario that has opened new vistas for them.
For Ridhima, a student of B.Arch, ''Stereotypical roles for girls and boys are passed as there are lesser restrictions as far as choice of career is concerned. In the family also the daughter is getting her due importance’’. Relating her own experience she says she is lucky as in her family her brother was always expected to share responsibility of household work while she was encouraged to shoulder the so-called responsibilities. ''This kind of democratic set-up has benefitted us both apart from making us better-adjusted individuals''.
But there still remain certain areas where a girl is at a disadvantage, rues Sakshi, an arts undergraduate, as going out alone or with friends and late nights remain a big no for this undergrad. ''It hurts when you are told to return by a specific time while your brother can easily stay out for hours without as much as a single sentence of explanation. Think of going on a holiday with friends or travelling alone and one has to encounter strong opposition. Guess the only difference between the times of the earlier generation and today's generation is that that in the former scenario these views were aired loudly and in today's times these are shown very subtly. But nothing has changed. The status of a woman still remains that of a fighter. Most of the changes are nothing but a farce as deep down the psyche remains the same which is suffocating''.
Rashmi, a medical student, says ''Over the years Women's Day has become a mere occasion to voice platitudes. Is it not sad that in this country there is so much of hoopla about cow slaughter or temple-mosque disputes but no one talks about the abortion of a female foetus. Even doctors forget their noble profession's oath. All religions and all strata of our society are equally responsible for promoting this evil practice. Our Constitution clearly says that there should not be any discrimination on the basis of sex and the women have the right to vote also but still she is neglected even for basic health services and literacy.
Inheritance laws are also tilted in favour of male offspring. None of the successive governments have been successful in controlling the custom of dowry, All awareness, noise and ineffective laws can not help female. She is still considered a burden due to economic problems. Religion, custom, wrong practices and male discrimination are not only responsible for this sorry state of Indian woman, up to a certain extent she herself is also to be blamed as she refuses to take a stand in most cases. If she is a mother, she should oppose abortion of female foetus. If she is a daughter then she should oppose the dowry system. She should stand up and oppose physical abuse and rape. This is the goal that the women of our generation should strive for.''
Stating empowerment to be the basic aim of observing Women's Day Monica, a student of BE (computers) third year, said, '' Purpose of Women's Day would be fulfilled only when there would be a positive change in attitude of men, society, religion and government to give a fair chance to women to develop without any fear. As long as a woman is born and raised to feel handicapped because she is a woman, as long as she is vulnerable to society because it does not respect her womanhood, equality and empowerment would remain a distant dream. Empowerment comes from true freedom. If I can live on my own terms without fear, and not see my womanhood treated as sign of weakness will I feel fully empowered''.
Being equipped with means to know their rights these young women are not shying away from the responsibilities of home and hearth. They only seek support from their spouses and are ready to shoulder the dual responsibility of a homemaker and that of a career women.
However, Suparna, a psychology student, claims that economic independence does not always secure rights. Until and unless I am aware of my rights and overcome the psychological dependence, that has been drummed into the mind of every Indian woman, it is not possible to survive or live on my own. My aim is to see that there comes a day when a woman can live without any crutches. When there is no need for a name to be affixed to her. As today in spite of all the awareness a woman individually cannot be known or considered a respectable human being unless she carries the tag of being Mrs so and so. Single women who prefer to live alone and independently are mostly looked down upon in society.
We, the women of the 21st century should bring ourselves to a level that if the need be we should be able to take care of ourselves solely. For this, we should never at any stage take life laid back. Our learning should never stop. We must put in all the efforts to update and upgrade ourselves.'’
But at the same time ''putting down men while lauding women should not be the basic ideology behind the feminist movement. Feminism should not be about fighting men, but more about fighting for the rights that have been denied to women since ages. I feel we should have that right in our minds''.
While describing the status of women a historian called them those who did not have the choice to say no. While Indian mythology preaches where women are worshipped, there gods reside. It is not a pedestal nor deification that women have fought for. Their struggle has always been for the right to say yes. Giving women their rightful equal status would lead to the greater well-being of society- not only as a matter of law but in material resources, in education, in right to land and property; and in the ending of discrimination and disregard, and in helping them harness their productive and creative selves as much as men. It is proper then to insure that the Women's Day is not just one day but a movement to benefit those not lucky enough to taste the freedom brought about by education and economic freedom.
“And now I am told I am a girl!”
SHE was young, pretty and looked worried. "I want to talk," said she. I put on my best avuncular expression and listened.
"It's so unfair. Things have really not changed and life is so unreasonable. I really don't like what's happening, but there is nothing much I can do about it. I am feeling sooo frustrated."
"What's it that's troubling you? You can tell it all to your uncle," I said to the dynamic professional, who looked to the world as someone who would have no worry in the world.
"You know my parents are looking for a boy for me. The whole process is so demeaning, you make a bio-data and, you know, I actually had to go to a studio to get a photograph taken. Most of the guys are not even as well educated as I am and they earn a lot less than I do…. In any case, what happens when you meet them? To them you are just a list of attributes— height, looks, complexion, educational qualifications, earning potential."
"But that's the way it has been for a long time for most of the people," I said, more in reflex than thought.
"How retrogressive! And what do these meetings accomplish? The guys send in their mothers or relatives to check you out. They don't even come themselves half the time. And the parents let you meet each other for half an hour. What do you ask? What movies do you like? What kind of music turns you on? It's too early to ask anything personal, and in any case the atmosphere is so charged. Anyways, most of the guys are not even as educated as I am and they earn a lot less than I do….
"If there is anybody remotely interesting, my parents follow it up, phone calls after phone calls. I tell them to take it easy. Let the others return the phone call. ‘Par hum ladaki waale hain’ they reply.' I really have no answer to this. We were brought up like boys. Our parents never showed any discrimination against us. They treated us as equals. We became professionals and have done well in life. But now that it is a question of my marriage, things are said to be different. Is it that the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same’’?
"You know the pace of change in life is very slow. Even though we seem to be in the fast lane, and things really don't change, no matter how much you wished them to, do so" I replied.
"I wish I could have fallen in love with somebody. But my whole upbringing was different. We were brought up in a protected environment. In any case, I can't think in terms of having a fling. I guess there are two types of people, those who can have a fling and those who can't. Why can't we have a neutral ground where young people can meet each other and get to know their peers?
"I know most of the people would think of them as dens of inquisition, but the traditional alternative is to have to go through this. Most of the boys I meet are crass and those who have achieved something are so insufferable, so boring. They are vain and have huge egos. I liked somebody, he was sweet and I really didn't care about his looks, even though my friends asked me what I saw in him. After a little while I saw that he was putting me down, perhaps due to his own insecurities. What started subtly became obvious and soon obnoxious. Eventually we parted ways because there was no other alternative. I did not want to be trampled upon
"The NRI types want to fly in, look at the shortlist their mothers have prepared and fly out with A Suitable Bride. They want to know all about you, without you knowing anything about them. After all what you need to know, they are NRIs and you will be whisked away in a chariot of the self-proclaimed Maharaja (economy class of Air India, of course) who may have not quite realised his American dream. In fact, could be very, very far from it."
"I know about it," I replied. "I know someone who mentioned that his career graph was vertical - he quite neglected to mention the downside, which is that he was a lift-operator. He married a pretty, young teacher who was all ecstatic till she went to the single-room apartment in that great anonymous housing complex most big American cities have. The situation here is roughly analogous to what the Black community faced in America a few decades ago: women achievers could not find the right kind of boys from the community since the boys were underachieving and there were similar behavioural issues.""
"They all want a 'good' wedding," said she, as if she had not heard me. "What do they mean by it? Is there any parent who will not do his/her best for their daughter? By saying a 'good wedding,' are they trying to extract an extravaganza out of us? Then, of course, there is dowry. I absolutely refuse to take any, but my mother points out that she has got a whole lot of things stowed away since I was born. 'What I am I supposed to do with those," she asks me.
"Here I was, I always thought that we are treated like boys, but my mother kept a dowry for me …."
I really did not have any answer to this. Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.
Slice of life
A winter's night spent in a ladies' waiting room can be something to write home about, says Nirupama Dutt
THE other day glancing at a woman's magazine, I came across a feature that said that said singles experienced grave depression during festivities. It had interviews of women and men in their late twenties and early thirties on the experience of being alone in a coupling world. Of course, it could not be bothered with going on forty-eight likes of me but I found myself identifying with it nevertheless. So perhaps it was not quirk of fate but a sub-conscious choice that I found myself spending the New Year eve but one in the ladies waiting room at the New Delhi railway station. For where else can there be a better cross-sectional togetherness of women alone, at least for some hours?
It was a cold and rainy night and many hours still to the Chandigarh Shatabadi. I still have to get my ticket but the attendant is asleep, huddled on the floor with a blanket covering her. No questions are asked and so I join the crowd of women dozing in chairs and some on the floor in sleeping bags.
The waiting room is not an unfamiliar place for me. The first time I spent a night here was in 1975, when after my graduation examinations my mother was taking me for a holiday with relatives in Secundrabad. Those days a descendant of the Oudh family, a rather beautiful Begum and her teenage children claiming to be descendants of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah were camping there in protest demanding a home from the government. Since then over the years I had spent a few nights and hours of the day here. The Begum, of course, had shifted camp to one of the Delhi monuments long ago.
The waiting room was decked up with grimy wallpaper and some gaudy landscape posters. The quiet was broken by an alarm clock. Four tall strapping young girls stirred out of their sleeping bags and dreams of winning gold, silver or at least bronze medals at the athletic meet down south. Pulling on jackets, boots and gathering their luggage they made their way out. The attendant shrieked, "Shut the door tight. It is freezing cold." In a few minutes, the door opened with a blast of cold wind and a hoard of women and some children and much more baggage followed. In all they were twenty-one young, middle-aged and old women and four children all set to catch Punjab Mail to Mumbai from Platform Number 4 in a couple of hours. Theirs was a long pilgrimage of Kashi, Mathura, Brindaban, Hardwar, Rishikesh and Agra with its Taj Mahal thrown in for an excursion. I engage them in conversation. They take a trip together every other year. A college lecturer, another single woman, arranges it all. They are either related or from the same neighbourhood. The women are only too eager to talk of their pilgrimage. One woman praises the wonderful sights at the Radha-Krishna temple in Mathura and another about the glory of the Ganga at Rishikesh. And a number of them agree that Kashi is too dirty. "We wonder how God lives in Kashi," says a more garrulous one. Then she whispers so that two women wearing burqas sitting behind her do not hear her, "We saw the ruins of the broken Babri Masjid. Yes we saw it all!" I wonder if she saw God wandering through those ruins. "And now we will cut the New Year's cake tomorrow in the train," says another pilgrim. Religion, I think, at least helps women holiday away from home.
The pilgrims freshen up and after a round of tea leave the waiting room without tipping the attendant, who has woken up and is complaining. The night is still long and I look around and a small poster against sexual harassment of women in trains catches my eye. A few years ago, women's groups had organised a protest at this very station against assault on women in a train. By the poster, sits a foreigner making some notes in her diary and from time to time she asks questions about female foeticide in the North. I try to chip in and learn that they are travelling to make a trip of areas with prominent places of worship like Kurukshetra, Chintpurni and Fatehgarh Sahib to study the falling sex ratio rate.
A shiver goes down my spine. Is it the cold, the conversation or the depressing festive season? Or is it a cool cocktail of all these elements? The rest of the time I spend browsing through a magazine and drinking coffee to help me stay awake. A young and comely girl from the North-east comes and her boy-friend takes leave from the door. She too is going Chandigarh wards and tells me that the ticket window should open in half an hour. I am the first in a short queue. The ticket in my bag, I come to say goodbye to the attendant. In the Seventies and the Eighties there used be an old cheerful Nepali woman at this waiting room but she must have retired long ago. The present attendant is young and is grumbling still about the pilgrims who have left the washroom so dirty.
Thus, I spend the
year-end a woman alone amidst many lone women, at least for the
moment, looking before and after. My ticket in my bag I get into
the train that will take me to my old town and the New Year!
EVEN after 22 months, Kanwal Vilku cherishes memories of the time spent at Antarctica. Kanwal is the first Indian woman to brave the glacial chill and perilous isolation of winters for 472 long days. Kanwal is now the CMO, CGHS dispensary, Sector 45, Chandigarh. She was the only woman in 19th Indian Expedition Team and was responsible for providing medical cover to all the members based at Maitri.
The wife of retired Col K.S. Vilku, Kanwal says, being already exposed to snow-bound and difficult areas of her own as well as life partner’s postings, Kanwal was overjoyed to know just four days before the team’s scheduled departure, that she had been selected by Indian Ocean Development Department. On December 6, 1999, the team flew to Johannesburg in South Africa and then boarded German ship, MEGDELENA OLDENROFF from Cape Town for Antarctica and after 9 days’ tough as well as exciting voyage, reached the hostile ice-desert of Antarctica, where winter temperatures dip to -89 and is often accompanied by blizzards at a speed of 250-360 miles an hour. "On disembarkment, a strange feeling, especially, the fear of the unknown overtook me" recalls Kanwal. Within a few seconds, the fear vanished and was replaced by pride, confidence and, of course, a feeling of being on the top of the world".
The daily regime started at 5 am, with a couple of hours in the gym. The team reported for work at 9 am. and secondary duties like galley duty, snow-clearing, garbage burning, maintenance and fetching food items from the containers were allocated to all members by rotation.
"Besides, sharing these tasks, I cooked every Sunday as the cook was off on that day. My team members loved whatever I cooked and thus I became the "big sister" of the team. I was 52, whereas the youngest member of our team was 25 my son’s age. Not only that, I learnt South Indian recipes also from one of my accomplice belonging to South." On being asked about the communication with kith and kin, she remembers, "The e-mail system had gone awry after the first month, so the only communication was through the international calls, that too restricted to six minutes of international call time in a month. At times, I would get terribly lonely in the winter months."
For going out, she says, there were certain restrictions. One had to be fully covered in protective gear and weather conditions were very uncertain. A single person was not allowed to go alone and carrying a radio-set was compulsory. The nearest station from Maitri, was Russian Station, only 4 km away, which I visited many times. About her activities over there, she says, " I utilised every moment there to the utmost, by reading varied books, which the big library there was equipped with, learnt Russian from a member from the Russian Station, made more than 40 paintings, even hand-stitched a dress out of a bedsheet and the biggest thing I did was rigorous exercises, 12-15 km of walking everyday, eating sprouts and curd, which I used to set in my room and shed 24 kg weight," she chuckles. "On return, my family members, who were looking for a fat woman were stunned to see me slim and trim", says Vilku with a hearty laugh.
As far as professional challenges are concerned, she confessed: "Though the station is equipped with an operation theatre, laboratory, X-ray and all kinds of medicines, the biggest challenge", she says, "is that there are no nursing assistants available and nor can casualties be evacuated. Besides, accidental and cold weather injuries, frost bite, dental problems were very common." Frozen foods are deficient in vitamins and snow-melted water is deprived of minerals, which account for dental problems. People suffer more from psychological problems because of isolation and a restrictive environment" she comments. Recalling a few untoward incidents, she says, "Once the power-house caught fire. While running towards the power-house, many people received injuries. But we somehow managed to extinguish the fire. Again, once I got caught in a blizzard and my gloves were almost blown away. My hands became red and started turning numb. After that my leader, Arun Chaturvedi, tied my gloves to strings wrapped around my neck".
Continuously smiling and laughing while narrating her tale of adventure, Kanwal says: "I was fascinated by the pollution-free atmosphere and scenic beauty there. The most unforgettable things are the auroras, dancing lights in the sky during polar nights caused by the movement of charged particles in the upper atmosphere. The consequential attraction of these particles towards the constantly shifting South Magnetic Pole, are undoubtedly, a treat to watch and you know, these can be seen only at the Arctic and Antarctica. Remembering the happy moments, she continues, "In the Antarctica, only one festival is celebrated by all, which is mid winter day. This marks the arrival of the first light, although for four minutes only, yet after prolonged darkness, is most welcome! Unbelievably, the sun rises in the north and sets in the north only."
moments of the expedition, Kanwal recalls: "Well, when I look back
at the incredible experience, I will remember the kind of camaraderie
that bound the team without the distinction of gender, colour or creed
where we watched out for one another and went the extra mile for someone
other than ourselves."