Steps to bring about gender equality are very slow and remain mostly on wish lists rather than goals that have been attained.
To hasten this process of bringing about gender parity, here are the five things I would wish to see happening for women in 2017.
Women have the greatest needs and aspirations. They can also achieve the greatest heights if given the slightest opportunity. This is true all over the world and India is no different.
A film is being released in the United States about brilliant African-American women who were mathematician coders. They were employed to work the calculations in the most important National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space programmes. All the men who were part of the programme became famous household names, while these remarkable women are being revealed to the country and the world for the first time.
Recently we came to know of a young schoolgirl in Kashmir becoming a karate champion in an international competition even while radicalisation in that state is pushing young girls to cover their heads – something they never did 20 years ago.
It is obvious that there are strong movements for gender parity and equally strong simultaneous movements to turn the clock back by misusing religion for such purposes. The recent successes of young women in international sports arenas show that individual will power, effort and support from the immediate family – and not a larger eco-system – encouraged them to reach for the sky.
Only very small parts of the world, like the Scandinavian countries, have largely extricated themselves from the ills of patriarchy both in the social and political fields. As a sociological phenomenon, the reasons for this are listed cursorily and there are thousands of studies, international conferences and feminist movements that reiterate the very basic requirements in society for a woman to feel she is a human being with the same right to respect, opportunity and security available to men.
However, steps to bring about gender equality are very slow and remain mostly on wish lists rather than goals that have been attained. Most achievements of women that come to light are in spite of disparities and difficulties they faced and not because laws, governments or society enabled them more easily.
These are the five things I would wish to see happening for women in 2017.
Wish #1 It would be expected that a woman with many years of political experience will list 33 per cent reservation for women in legislatures as one of the main things women would want in 2017. However, seeing that self-empowerment is a surer way to achieve one’s dreams, it follows that quotas and special favours may indeed come sometime, but there are other less contentious measures that need not wait for legislation to provide avenues for women to demonstrate their talent and capacity.
It has been interesting to note that while men in political parties still observe patriarchy, even unconsciously, and use the presence of women only as a token of their support for gender equality, the Indian voter does not. People who practice patriarchy at home have unequivocally accepted women such as the late Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Rabri Devi and many others from earlier times, if they appeared to be capable of leadership, were good communicators and seemed capable of delivering both justice and good governance. If they failed, they were not treated any differently from men.
From the voter’s viewpoint, this makes the playing field level. The voter may reject a weak candidate or a weak party but he/she will never reject a woman by merely assuming she is weak. Men within political parties often assume women are intrinsically weak and tend to give them secondary status. Women are considered handy to swell a crowd but not good enough to sit on the stage. This is what needs to change. Parties need to correct themselves before legislation compels them to allot tickets through an imperfect quota system.
Women who have been clamouring for reservation may also stop and examine what made popular and powerful women leaders reach the top. None have been the result of quotas and reservations. Much before the need to be in Parliament must be the will to engage with the activities of a political party. For this, the party must create an environment that respects women, abjures money and muscle power as priorities for victory, encourages articulation and debate, welcomes more inclusive points of view and avails of the practical experiences concerning health, child welfare, peace, non-violence, environmental protection, sanitation and other such issues that women can bring to the table.
If political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a vast and widespread organisation, those that profess to be liberal and progressive, and others that are currently led by women make a special effort to provide equal opportunities and visibility to women within the party without making them resort to high-decibel behaviour and use of muscle and money, it would make parties more welcoming and set a higher standard in politics.
Once women are treated with respect as equals at the various hallowed tables of men, and given opportunities to organise, strategise and articulate their views, they will encourage the best to emerge from among them.
The behaviour of political parties is blamed for many ills that seep into general societal behaviour. This does not bode well for democracy. If society could at least see a visible change towards women in the functioning of structures and systems within a political party, the encouragement and opportunities given to women will have an effect for the better, ultimately extending much beyond the party.
Wish #2 The well-established concept that women are frugal and good managers of money within a family needs to be built upon. This is needed so that they can access many of the schemes and small loans and simple business plans to set up viable enterprises in their own locations and within their own culture. New programmes like Start Up India, Skill India, Make in India, Mudra loans and Jan Dhan Yojana give the impression that the male youth are their focus group. These must not pass women by, with the men largely handling all these transactions and facilities.
In many parts of the world, particularly in South Asia, women are involved in all processes from production to marketing. This is particularly so in agro or fishery enterprises, tea plantations, small-level cafeterias and service-sector businesses that have a large number of women. Yet the “boss” or holder of the purse strings is always the man. By setting up facilities which are visibly suited to the conveniences of women, e.g., in terms of lighting, toilets, ATMs and security so that women producers may reach marketing spaces and carry money to their own bank accounts, they can be brought as beneficiaries more fairly and inclusively into mainstream economic systems.
Wish #3 At the Simhasth Mahakumbh, Sadhvi Ritambhara had the occasion to present her Vatsalya programme for widows, abandoned women and orphans. It was in complete contrast to the commonly perceived view of her that spread after the unfortunately contentious times of December 1992 at Ayodhya. She described her functioning project in which widows, abandoned women, those who have illegitimate children and orphans are brought together in a caring and humane environment to look after one another.
What was most remarkable was her plea to governments, including the state government of Madhya Pradesh which was hosting the Simhasth Vichar Manthan, to abjure the practice of setting up separate homes for these categories of needy women as they became depressing and soulless places. Instead, her plea was for the creation of natural and well-maintained environments where old women, younger women and small children could provide compassion, emotional stimulation and care to the other category within a common and pleasant facility. Any needy woman or child who never has the opportunity to even hope for such care from society would like governments or any philanthropic entity to adopt the core idea of the Vatsalya project and replicate it in their own different ways.
Wish #4 The interests of the basic human rights of women should take priority over any religious edicts or old customary practice. Society cannot move forward in some spheres of enlightenment and remain in the dark ages in other aspects. Remarkable progress has been made during the past two centuries in the field of medicine, communications, knowledge of the cosmos and many other areas. Traditional customs may offer roots to communities and reiterate their identities, but with other fields of progress, a woman cannot be allowed to suffer whether physically or socially through these.
There are certain communities that do not believe in modern-day medicines or treatments and choose for a woman to die at childbirth than intervene surgically to save her life. Modern-day religions are still against planned parenthood and adoption, often at the cost of a mother’s physical and mental well-being. Other religions do not offer free choice to women about aspects of dress, entertainment, education and travel. Behind all these is a dominating patriarchy in the guise of religious edicts decreed by men and not women.
Despite some voices being raised against the move to start examining and dispassionately discussing the formulation of a Uniform Civil Code, it is time women from all religions, castes and classes gave strength to the debate and pressed society to consider this major step towards gender parity. People of all liberal persuasions should not be held back by party policies divided by false definitions of “communal” and “secular” or by social biases against any religion.
We should always remind ourselves that any human distinction other than gender or natural disability is a man-made one and should be considered objectively for change for the sake of the basic equal rights of all human beings and for civilisational progress.
In India, it is time to wish for this discussion to begin in right earnest.
Wish #5 The last wish is for women to bring about themselves. Young women of today are being swept away by male-defined standards of dress, beauty and abilities. Many of these are defined behind the scenes by fashion, cosmetic and service industries, advertising and even the entertainment industry.
All these make women an object in male eyes that feel secure in undermining the true qualities latent in a woman. While it is a natural part of human nature and even helps in confidence building for a man or woman to appear presentable and attractive to the world at large, a woman must not allow herself to be sidetracked by various influences outside her control to define what constitutes the components of that self-confidence.
The mathematicians in the early part of this article, sportswomen, fighter pilots, writers, scholars, artists and musicians across the world are remembered for their unique achievements and contribution to the joy and collective betterment of society and not by their looks or bodies.
It would be immensely desirable if women guided themselves with this priority.