|HER WORLD||Sunday, December 28, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Spotlight on achievers
Mere lip service, no real measures
Can the government give her security to protect her freedom?
Spotlight on achievers
At the end of 2003, for every song celebrating women of courage, political ambition or corporate achievement, there is a dirge, says Geeta Seshu.
IN 2003, for every song celebrating women of courage, there is a dirge. For Kalpana Chawla, the Indian spacewoman who died in February; for the seven women workers who died of silicosis in Pondicherry; and for all named and unnamed women who were harassed, raped, mutilated or murdered. The statement of Zahira Sheikh—a prime witness in the Best Bakery killing during the Gujarat riots—led to a retrial of the case; the unflappable Sunita Narain spearheaded a campaign against poor quality water used by soft drink giants; and Nisha Sharma of Delhi won accolades. Still, crimes against women spiralled up the graph.
* Already hit by huge reductions in provisions for women in the annual budget 2003, unemployment increased and countrywide employment exchanges recorded a 48.9 per cent increase in women registered.
At the end of 2003, for every song celebrating women of courage, political ambition or corporate achievement there is a dirge. For Kalpana Chawla, the spacewoman who died in February; for the seven women factory-workers who died of silicosis in Pondicherry; and for all those named and unnamed women who were harassed, raped, mutilated or murdered. Only because they were women!
In 2003 then, Indian women of courage and conviction were a varied lot. There was the unflappable Sunita Narain, who spearheaded the methodical campaign launched by the Centre for Science and Environment against poor quality water used by soft drink giants. Bollywood's Priety Zinta calmly confirmed receiving phone calls from the underworld, something her colleag ues were too scared to admit to. And there was social worker Gladys Staines who reiterated her forgiveness for the killers of her husband and two sons, even as they were awarded the death sentence.
At another level, there was Zahira Sheikh—a prime witness in the Best Bakery killing during the Gujarat riots—whose statement that she was scared and threatened led to a re-trial of the case. And in June, young Nisha Sharma of Delhi won accolades when she said "enough" to increasing dowry demands, and called off her marriage at the last minute. Farzana Zaki emulated her, and raised hopes that the rejection of dowry-linked marriages would become a rising trend.
The year began tragically when, on the eve of the New Year 2003, Bapi Sen, an army man, was killed when he tried to stop five policemen from molesting a woman in Kolkata. The young man's death only served as a grim warning of the days to come, giving little protection to the lives of all those lone voices of conviction.
Crimes against women spiralled up the graph. On February 5, women members of a marriage party were raped and murdered by dacoits in Dhantala, Nadia, of West Bengal. On April 21, a woman passenger on a train was gang-raped near Bagha, Bihar, after being dragged out of the Gorakhpur-Sonepur passenger.
Women continued to be victims of vengeful husbands: On February 25, 20-year-old Challi Kale of Rakshawadi village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra had her eyes gouged out with a knife by her husband and in-laws who were angry that she complained about his affair with a neighbour!
Alpana Bhargava, an executive with Price Waterhouse, paid with her life for seeking a divorce. Her husband shot her and her companion, Yogesh Wadhwa, on March 20 in NOIDA, near New Delhi. Madhumita Shukla, poetess, BJP supporter, was shot and killed on May 9 in Lucknow for her association (she was six-months pregnant) with Amarmani Tripathi, a former minister of state in the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Now, the needle of suspicion points to Tripathi's wife, Madhumani, even as Tripathi quickly switched political allegiance to the Mulayam Singh government after the Mayawati government fell in UP.
Sexual harassment—from the global to local level—occupied the attention of policy-makers, women's organisations and the corporate world. In the highly publicised Infosys case against involving Phaneesh Murthy, complainant Reka Maximovich was given a settlement of $3.9 million, of which $1.5 million was to be paid by the company. While everyone hailed the corporate decision to settle, the accused paid nothing!
Sexual harassment committees have sprung up in universities and colleges. A high-level state inquiry committee—on charges of sexual harassment made a year ago—indicted the Maharashtra Labour Welfare Board Commissioner Mohan Dhotre this year. The Head of Department, Marathi, at Mumbai University, Arun Kamble was also charged with sexual harassment by a clerk at the University's women's development cell. And in February, a coordinator was charged with sexually abusing girls at the state-level NSS camp in Nagarhole, Karnataka.
A National Family Health Survey II drew attention to the rise in domestic violence cases and the increasing vulnerability of women in nuclear families. Regressive and stereotypical media portrayal of women, thanks to the saas-bahu soaps, continued throughout 2003, forcing even women corporates to take a stand. The FICCI's Ladies' Organisation hosted a seminar in April and its president, Surekha Kothari deplored the negative portrayal of women in television serials.
Earlier in March, protests from several women's organisations, led by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), forced Hindustan Lever to pull out its sexist advertisement for Fair and Lovely cream though the alternative of an aspiring cricket commentator was hardly appreciated.
Also, women's organisations launched anti-liquor campaigns in Maharashtra's Ichalkaranji district and anti-trafficking campaigns in the north-eastern part of the country. In the same month, came depressing news of the abandonment of more than 10,000 women by their NRI husbands in Punjab, underlining the devalued status given to women in society. Already hit by huge reductions in budgetary provisions for women in the annual budget of 2003, unemployment increased and countrywide employment exchanges recorded a 48.9 per cent increase in women registered. Women workers across the board were a beleaguered lot. A concerted campaign by local activists on the silicosis deaths in Pondicherry forced its government to award a compensation of Rs 630,000 to 18 affected employees. In Maharashtra, the state labour board issued regulations guiding services of women domestic workers but these have remained ineffective.
In July, the Supreme Court set aside a ruling of the Mumbai High Court giving women air hostesses of Air India the right to fly till the age of 58 and grounded them at 50 years. It subsequently rejected a review petition filed by the airhostesses too, but at the fag end of the year, a petition to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani may yield some results.
All this occurred in the midst of the substantial achievement by women in the corporate world - Naina Lal Kidwai (HSBC), Sulajja Motwami (Kinetic group), Pallavi Jha (Walchand group), Vinita Jain (Biotique), Chanda Kelkar (ICICI Bank), Rajashree Pathy (Rajshree group), and so on.
But conditions of women in the police force did not inspire confidence, despite 188 all-women police stations in Tamil Nadu. Kerala police constable N.A. Vinaya fought a lone battle against sexism in the force and was dismissed from service in June. In September, Mumbai's first woman senior inspector of a police station, Anita Chavan, was transferred to a crime cell with no branch to report to.
In classic double-speak, 13 women workers of TISCO (Tata group) in Jamshedpur began driving heavy vehicles: powered trucks, dumpers, fork-lifts and caterpillars under the company's Tejaswini scheme. Two women bus operators, Hameeda Banu and Savitri, began plying public transport buses in Chennai. Women commandos undertook anti-terrorist squad training in Jammu and Kashmir and in Mumbai, Swati Sathe became the first woman superintendent of a state central prison in Maharashtra when she took charge of Arthur Road Jail.
While the debate on the Women's Reservation Bill continued for the seventh year without any consensus, the fortunes of women politicians waxed and waned. Despite the shadow of the horrendous riots of 2002, Ahmedabad elected its first woman Mayor, Congress-I's Aneesa Mirza. In Uttar Pradesh, the government led by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati fell in August, osentsibly over the Taj corridor issue. And Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa came in for a lot of criticism over the breach of privilege issue against The Hindu newspaper and the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli.
In December, the elections of three women chief ministers: Congress-I's Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and the BJP's Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh, continued to keep women in the political eye.
However, as the year closes, women's organisations have yet another struggle on their hands. A Supreme Court judgement delivered on October 15 (in the State of Maharashtra vs the Christian Community Welfare Council of India and another respondent) allowed the arrest of women after sunset without the presence of a woman constable.
Mere lip service, no real measures
Where are the actual structural changes and legislative measures that can in real terms empower women? The Women’s Reservation Bill has been hanging fire for the past seven years and the Domestic Violence Bill has been with the Parliament’s Standing Committee since December 2002.
THE significant shift this year was the fact that achievers came centrestage after years of beauty queens and divas hogging media strobes. It was women of substance and grit and resolve who broke barriers and reached out to the stars. If a small-town girl, Kalpana Chawla, emblazoned her name across the firmament and became an icon after her tragic death. It was the likes of Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC, Ela Bhatt of Sewa, Infosys’ Sudha Murthy and Chanda Kochchar of ICICI who scripted success and became role models for numerous women.
Ekta Kapoor was downsized after her silk-and-diamond dripping heroines lost their grip on popular consciousness. More and more women were focussing on rewards, that is long-term goals, instead of merely pleasure or short-term gratification. If the Swiss diplomat’s rape elicited outrage and ripped off the veneer of Delhi as a metropolis to reveal the feudal face and reinforce the ignominous title of the capital as the "rape capital of the country." When the President’s bodyguards raped a collegiate, it was an act that should have made us all hang our heads in shame because it shocked us into an awareness of the fact that if women were so unsafe in the Capital, what hope was there for them in the rest of the country! Only if the rape law is amended and rape redefined in the Indian Penal Code and all rapists convicted when found guilty will it be a move towards real empowerment, until then it will merely remain conference-room rhetoric and not courtroom justice.
Breaking culture of silence
For a culture that perceives as well as extols women as victims and not as survivors, it must have taken a rare courage and grit for Zahira Sheikh, the 18-year-old daughter of the owner of Best Bakery in Vadodara, the complainant and the key eyewitness in the case to change her earlier statement. Proof enough that a small step but can translate into a giant leap if the culture of silence is broken. Despite being macho and doing all kinds of stunts and performing heroic feats, it took Priety Zinta to break the silence and admit to receiving calls from the underworld.
The manner and mode in which women are carving out spaces—personal, public and political is admirable as is the fact that the language of public discourse has shed it’s polemic and is totally unburdened by ideological rhetoric. Women are not riding piggyback on expectations and demands of either family or socially laid out notions of right and wrong. But these spaces, carved out with such perseverence can not be given security due to a flawed law and order system and tardy legalities. Refusal to gender sensitise either the police force or the judiciary in a concerted manner will ensure that women’s issues remain vote-catching acts of tokenism rather than become mainstream issues reflected in policy-making. Tales of personal triumph and successful balancing acts get drowned in the rising crime graph and loud din of political rhetoric.
Where are the actual structural changes and legislative measures that can in real terms empower women? The Women’s Reservation Bill has been hanging fire for the past seven years. The Domestic Violence Bill has been with the Parliament’s Standing Commitee since December 2002 and women are denied to the right of residence in cases of domestic violence. And then we pay lip service to women’s empowerment. Social and familial expectations may no longer be the albatross around women’s necks but honour killings do not raise an eyebrow while female foeticide reflected in a sex ratio gone askew is not taken up by any political party.
Whether it is a preference for fair skin or a son, the veneer of 21st century modernity does not necessarily spell emotional empowerment and social awareness. AN