No country for women: In India, true gender equality proves elusive as attitudes are out of sync with legislation

  • The silent march of Indian women needs to be recognised by fathers, husbands, sons and in-laws.

  • Only then will the sullen and grudging ‘acceptance’ of women as equal partners show itself in attitudinal changes.

  • Till then, Indian women must be content with covering themselves with what the Urdu poet Zehra Nigah has described as the ‘blanket of compromise’.

Editor's note: As India heads into the 2020s, there’s reason to believe we are heading into a new age of anxiety. Economic growth has been crippled; many economists argue recovery will take years of painful reform. Ethnic and religious tensions have sharpened. Even India’s core Constitutional values and institutions, many commentators have argued, are besieged.

In this series, Firstpost examines what the 2020s will mean for India: for everything from politics and the economy, to our culture and communities.

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In the 2007 Hindi movie, Chak De India, there is a poignant scene between the coach of the Indian women’s hockey team Kabir Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan), and the captain and goalkeeper of the team Vidya Sharma (played by Vidya Malvade). Vidya must choose between staying on in the team for practise sessions against the wishes of her husband and in-laws (who want her home for what they consider a crucial family engagement where she as daughter-in-law must be present), or falling in with their wishes at the cost of her career and dreams. Initially happy at getting a working daughter-in-law, especially one whose job came with a flat, the husband and in-laws now feel entitled to lay claim to all her time and attention. While choosing to stay on, even though the coach in a gesture of support, allows her to go home during a crucial practise session, Vidya shows remarkable self-awareness when she sums up her situation succinctly, ‘Ghar ki aadat ho gayi; ab unhe bahu chahiye.’ (‘They got used to the house; now they want their bahu.’)

This, to my mind, epitomises the dilemma of the modern Indian working woman. The ever increasing presence of women in the public domain ought to have meant greater ‘normalcy’ for them,  but it is not so even after 70 years of independence and a constitution that grants equal rights to both men and women as citizens of India. That women are, and remain, the second sex in India is an ugly truth that the law alone cannot change. After putting in a long day at work, most Indian women start a second shift. Moving seamlessly from being pilots, teachers, stock market analysts, scientists or, for that matter, professional sportswomen playing for the national team, they slip into their second role — equally long and arduous — as wives, mothers, daughters, daughter-in-law.

 No country for women: In India, true gender equality proves elusive as attitudes are out of sync with legislation

After putting in a long day at work, most Indian women start a second shift.
Here, a woman works at a textile mill in Mumbai. REUTERS/File photo

To be fair, the Indian state has been far more mindful of women’s rights than we give it credit for. India has more gender-just laws than many so-called developed countries. The Maternity Benefit Act, for instance, not only protects the employment of women during their pregnancy but gives them full, paid leave of absence for 26 weeks. A maternity leave of 12 weeks is given to mothers adopting a child below the age of three months. Contrast this with the United States where smaller companies can get away without giving any paid or unpaid leave to mothers thus virtually pushing them out of the workforce, and companies employing more than 50 employees are required to give only 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The US state, in the guise of a pater familias, seems to be aiding and abetting a benign form of patriarchy that assumes women to be better off as wives and mothers.

Ironically enough, despite the legislations and constitutional guarantees the presence of women in the Indian labour sector, never robust to begin with, is showing a steady decline. That women make up 48 percent of the Indian population but have been unequal beneficiaries of the Indian growth story shows the dark underbelly of Shining India. Less than 25 percent of women work, compared to nearly 80 percent men. The reasons for this are as puzzling as they are complex. Are women shifting to subsidiary or marginal employment? Are they working in the unorganised sector and therefore do not show up in official statistics? If so, is their presence not only undocumented and unaccounted for, but also, is their contribution to the economy going under-reported and unacknowledged?

The state vs society conundrum best illustrates why even seemingly privileged and empowered women find themselves playing roles subservient to men or allow themselves to be defined in relation to men, as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law, often foregoing or wilfully diminishing their primary identities as individuals. While the state has continuously evolved mechanisms to safeguard women’s rights — from the vigorous interventions of early parliamentarians such as Rajkumari Amrit Kaur to latter-day amendments be it the anti-dowry legislation or the post-2012 Delhi gangrape rape laws — the forces of patriarchy have proved to be the greater adepts, adept that is at constantly negating the benefits rightfully accruing to women or thwarting and subverting the presence of women in hitherto male-dominated fields. Even in homes and social spaces that are not outright inimical or hostile to women’s right to work, there is what can best be described as a certain nonchalance in recognising women’s presence in the work force. Even where there is no active repression or explicit discrimination, a certain cumulative and conscious recognition of women’s work — be it in the organised sector or the informal economy — is still missing.

This affirmation must come from the family unit for it to lead to a cumulative change. The silent march of women needs to be recognised by fathers, husbands, sons and in-laws; only then will the sullen and grudging ‘acceptance’ of women as equal partners show itself in attitudinal changes. Till then, Indian women must be content with covering themselves with, what the Urdu poet Zehra Nigah has so eloquently described as, the ‘blanket of compromise’:

Mulayam garm samjhaute ki chaadar

Yeh chaadar main ne barson mein buni hai

Kahin bhiī sach ke gul-butey nahin hain

Kisi bhi jhoot ka tanka nahin hai

Warm and soft, this blanket

Of compromise has taken me years to weave

Not a single flower of truth embellishes it

Not a single false stitch betrays it

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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2020 09:43:47 IST