Gender | Half the sky

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In the popular trope, India itself is feminised, in the traditional role of a mother. For real women, freedom has been about trying to breathe life into a mirage

Women pilgrims en route to Nasik in 1955; right, young women take a Scooty break in Jahota village, near Jaipur; Getty Images

Our freedom struggle is replete with stories of women leaders—or just ordinary women—who marched shoulder to shoulder with men, took the bullets, faced the batons and went up to the gallows. Count those who used words—like theosophist and women’s rights activist Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu—or revolutionaries like Kalpona Dutta and Bina Das, or Rani Laxmi Bai, Matangini Hazra and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal who fought wars. In the fight for freedom, gender was never a barrier.

Our freedom struggle is replete with stories of women leaders—or just ordinary women—who marched shoulder to shoulder with men, took the bullets, faced the batons and went up to the gallows. Count those who used words—like theosophist and women’s rights activist Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu—or revolutionaries like Kalpona Dutta and Bina Das, or Rani Laxmi Bai, Matangini Hazra and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal who fought wars. In the fight for freedom, gender was never a barrier.

Ironically, post-1947, even with an ‘Iron Lady’ like Indira Gandhi dominating the landscape for years, women on the ground had many more battles to fight for gender freedom—75 years later, those battles continue to be waged. Both in the personal domain, and with the big, bad world outside. Domestic violence and marital rape scarred the private realm. In expanding circles from there, coparcenary rights with brothers or the right to maintenance after being dumped had to be wrested. Everyday discriminations, subtle and gross, at the workplace had to be defined as a crime. The law played the role of a liberator, but tragically also of a carrier of the old biases and an enforcer of patriarchy.

Women now might be left incredulous by the history. In 1965, despite the mint-fresh Maternity Benefit Act from just four years before, a woman had to approach the court to retain her job after getting married. In 1991, women applying for LIC jobs were made to fill in a column on personal details—did they have painful periods, had they conceived in the past? The law struck that down, but employers even today prefer men—seen to embody productivity minus the ‘hassles’. As with so many gender issues—from the ban on dowry to pre-natal sex determination to sexual harassment—even when the law sided with the women, it could do little to change mindsets.

Photo by Purushottam Diwakar


…AND HALF THE SWAMP

  • NFHS-5 said there were 1,020 women per 1,000 men in India; demographers feel it’s an “over- estimate”. NFHS-5 did put SRB (sex ratio at birth) at a low 929
  • In UP (sex ratio: 879/1,000), the state law commission received 10,000 suggestions to exempt couples without a son from population control incentives
  • In Goa, a Hindu male is entitled to go for polygamy if his wife has not borne him a son by age 30
  • According to Unicef, India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world—223 million, a third of the global total
  • India recorded 6,966 dowry deaths in 2020, as per the NCRB. That’s 19 women getting killed every day on an average
  • On Aug. 15, 2022, the Gujarat government used a technicality to pardon 11 jailed convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, where she was gangraped and 7 family members murdered during the 2002 riots
  • On Aug. 17, 2022, the Kerala High Court said a sexual harassment case cannot be made out if a woman wears “sexually provocative dresses”

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