Rise of The Woman

Written by Semu Bhatt  •  Cover Stories  •  April 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Over the years, India has boasted of female empowerment, participation and presence throughout and beyond the country. But has this really led to gender equality at large? Women comprise nearly half of India’s population but a considerable chunk is still socially suppressed, economically exploited and politically passive. According to a Thomas Reuters TrustLaw Women survey of 2011, India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women due to the high number of infanticide, foeticide and human trafficking prevalent in the country. Gender violence, domestic abuse, dowry deaths, high female illiteracy, malnutrition, maternal mortality rates and an overall sense of being secondary to men, make for a macabre background. A matter of shame for a country that boasted of a female governor back in 1947, a female chief minister in 1963 and a female prime minister in 1966.

At the same time, this is one of the best moments in India where women are claiming political, social and professional space. The society is rapidly transforming in terms of accepting women as professionals, thinkers and bread winners. Currently, one-tenth of the Loksabha members are women, with 17 of them under 40 years of age. The President, Loksabha Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition Party are also women; so are the Chief Ministers of three states. The most powerful Indian is a woman - Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress party. In recent times, India has produced some exceptional businesswomen like Kiran Mazmudar Shaw, Simone Tata, Chanda Kochar and Indira Nooyi. It also has the world’s largest pool of professionally qualified women.

No other scripture of the world has given more primacy to women as the Hindu Vedas, which hailed women as goddesses (Nari tu Narayani) and emphasised that gods bless those homes where women are honored (Yatra Naaryasthu poojyanthe, ramanethe thatra devathaha). Learning, power and wealth are all feminine principles. Land, nation, nature and the Universe are worshipped as the mother. The Hindu Gods trinity of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) are incomplete without the respective complementing energies of Goddesses Saraswati (learning and creativity), Lakshmi (wealth) and Shakti (power). The Rig Veda explains that the wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect – a concept symbolised by the Ardhanareshwara, the half man-half woman Shiva-Shakti fusion in one body.

While the religious philosophy stayed, the social philosophy deteriorated with the passage of time, the strengthening of patriarchal and caste systems, and foreign invasions. Women were stereotyped into the mother-wife-daughter role and were confined to homes under male protection. Various repressive customs like veil, dowry, female infanticide, apathy to female education, severe lifestyle for widows, wife beating, witch killing, sati (immolation of a woman on her husband’s funeral pyre), etc. took root in the Indian society.

In spite of these, women in the medieval and early modern period distinguished themselves in the fields of politics, literature and religion. Razia Sultan became the only female monarch to have ruled Delhi; Rani Durgavati and Chand Bibi battled the mighty Mughal forces to defend their respective territories; Jijabai reinforced the importance of a mother in a child’s life by moulding Maharaja Shivaji. Writings of saint-poetesses like Akka Mahadevi, Meerabai, Lalleshvari, Rami Janabai, Andal and others are popular to this day. In their own ways, they tried to restore women’s honor in the society.

Rani Abbakka Chowta of Ullal became one of the earliest Indians to fight the colonial powers as she thwarted several Portuguese attempts to capture her territory in the latter half of the 16th century. The 18th century Queen Ahalyabai Holkar of Malwa, considered the best female sovereign ever, ruled for 30 years providing an excellent example of good governance. Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, who led her soldiers to war against the British, inspired thousands of Indians to rise against foreign rule.

The 19th century witnessed the opening of the first girls’ school and women’s university in India, the introduction of women into Congress and the first female graduates including a widow graduate. Interestingly, women themselves set off most of these women-centric initiatives. Aruna Asaf Ali, Captain Laxmi, Kasturba, Kamala Nehru and many others dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom. Women not only stood shoulder to shoulder with their men folk but also took on the responsibilities of their families so that the male members were free to pursue the freedom struggle.

Indian history shows that while the nation’s socio-political scene is open to accept and respect women in powerful positions, it is also capable of subjugating them. This was the dichotomy that the women of independent India were forced to live with. The social reforms of the previous century, new educational opportunities and equal rights under the Constitution, made women question the rules laid down by the society.

Freedom fighters Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshami Pandit and Sucheta Kriplani were the torchbearers for women in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi, the first female PM of India, was the country’s most powerful politician ever. But it was her son Rajiv, who advocated for 33 percent reservation for women in local councils. In recent times, the alliance politics has raised the stocks of regional leaders like Mayawati, Jaylalitha and Mamata Banerjee. Unfortunately, none of these female political leaders have forcefully propagated the cause of women emancipation and empowerment.

Thus, the rise of women in politics has not changed fortunes of its female population or resulted in a new era of gender equality. But they, along with successful women from other fields, have instilled hope and confidence in millions of women to strive for better lives and goals. Village councils and municipalities have seen an active women participation and political empowerment due to the reservation. Although there are cases of male relatives using women as their proxies, women are usually believed to take their responsibility in the local councils seriously. Impressive lists of female CEOs and CFOs have made the glass ceiling look less daunting to many female entrants. With every title Saina Nehwal wins, the motivation of sportswomen increases manifold.

Today, Indian women have made phenomenal progress in politics, arts and entertainment, sports, literature, science and business. Some of them feature in the lists of the world’s most powerful and richest people. With rise in education and exposure, increased political participation and equal opportunities in a globalised world, Indian women will be keen to reclaim their deserving place in society and share in the decision-making process at all levels. The next decade is sure to witness a surge of women in political, social and economic spheres. But what is critical is for them to have the understanding to differentiate participation from empowerment and the willingness to reach out to those oppressed women who remain entrapped in the clutches of that other India. 

Semu Bhatt is a Mumbai-based independent political analyst specializing in security and governance issues. She is co-author of Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan and Cost of Conflict in Sri Lanka.

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