Women’s Status, Movements in India – An Overview

April 26, 2012


By Sakuntala Narasimhan

This year marks a landmark in terms of legal progress for Indian women — the Dowry Prohibition Act completes 50 years, the Indecent Representation of Women (prohibition) Act of 1986 completes 25 years, the amendment to the PNDT (Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Regulation) Act was 10 years ago, and the Marriage Laws Amendment Act was also, likewise, put in place a decade ago, in 2001. Each of these important laws has pushed female entitlements a little further towards equity – the demand for dowry had become a practice based on the assumption that a woman is a burden and therefore the husband needs to be compensated for looking after her for her lifetime, while the practice of female feticide after determining the sex of the unborn child using ultrasound techniques, is another manifestation of the “uselessness” of daughters , and the perception that they are “burdens” (because they are ‘given away in marriage and become thereafter, paraayadhan or the ‘property of their marital families’, so the natal family gains nothing in return for nurturing and bringing up daughters, unlike sons who are expected to look after the parents in their old age). Son preference is a characteristic of Indian society (and China) and it was largely due to activism by women’s groups that the Dowry and PNDT Acts got passed.

A daughter now has equal rights to a share in her father’s property, along with her brothers, a Christian woman no longer has to prove adultery in order to claim divorce, and the Guardianship Act has also been challenged to ensure that mothers can also be legal guardians. On paper, then, the progress is undoubtedly significant.

The president of the Indian Republic is a woman (Pratibha Singh Patil – even the US has not had a woman president yet, in its history, despite being the world’s lone ‘superpower’) . The speaker of parliament’s Lok Sabha (Lower House) is also a woman (Meira Kumar – whose father belonged to the Chamar or untouchable caste – so her elevation to the prestigious post is a double achievement, in terms of gender as well as caste). The leader of the Congress party which heads a coalition government, is a woman (Sonia Gandhi, listed as one of the “most powerful women in the world”) Other political party leaders like Mamta Banerjee (Trinamool Congress, now heading the government in the state of Bengal), Mayawati (a popular and powerful leader in U.P., the most populous state in the country) and Jayalalitha (heading the state government in Tamil Nadu in the south) all testify to the rising clout of women in politics and public life.

In bureaucracy, India’s ambassador to the U.S. is a woman (Nirupama Rao), several leading banks are headed by female CEOs, India’s additional solicitor general is a woman (Indira Jaising), women routinely enter the prestigious IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and IFS (Foreign Service) after qualifying through a stiff competitive examination. Even at the village level, one million women, most of them illiterate and poor, have come into local panchayat administration as decision-makers, thanks to the 73rd amendment to the Constitution that makes reservation of posts for women mandatory. Literacy rates have gone up (even if they are still lagging behind those for males) from 16 % at independence to 55% today.
But do all these translate into social changes, in terms of practical realities? And do the advances that a few women have made, result in significant changes in the life of the average woman or female half of the population? Judging from the vignettes listed below, the answer is anything but unequivocal.

* December 2011. Murugesh’s wife Revati has just given birth, and he is inconsolable. Rolling on the bare floor, he is moaning and beating his forehead by turns, and has refused food since the previous night when he heard that his third born is also a daughter. Murugesh’s case typifies the situation of females in Indian society today, despite undoubted progress in several fields. A security guard at a residential complex in Bangalore (Asia’s IT city and technology hub, with a huge number of multinational companies setting up business here, in the last decade and a half) he migrated to the metropolis in search of a living when the small farm he owned jointly with his brothers could no longer support him and his family. With no education and little savings, and rooted still in the old tradition that clings to practices like dowry despite the law banning the practice, he is worried stiff about finding the money to get his three daughters married, because arranged marriages are still the norm in this society, and an unmarried daughter is seen as a curse, a punishment for parents’ sins, and a social shame (and there is no dating, which means daughters do not have ample occasions to meet eligible men socially and find their own spouses). Banning dowry by law is one thing, putting in place social change that goes with progressive ideas, is another. After discovering that Murugesh had got his wife’s pregnancy aborted twice after sonography tests revealed that she was carrying a female child after giving birth to two daughters earlier, I had chided Murugesh and threatened that he could be jailed if he got any more ultrasound tests done – it is punishable under the law, but continues to be done at clinics by doctors who conduct sex determination tests clandestinely, for a consideration. Murugesh wanted a son (for his own financial security in his old age) and made his wife pregnant again, but did not get the sex of the fetus ascertained because of my threat – and now he has three daughters to save for and marry off. Would I pay for the dowries? I had no arguments in response to his accusing ire. The sex ratio (number of women per 1,000 males) is around 931, and has been falling, though female infants have a higher natural rate of survival (so the normal ratio should be over 1,000)

This, then, is the reality.

* Under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, harassing or torturing a wife (including mental torture and cruelty) is punishable by law. Tell that to Usha, whose husband batters her. It was a love marriage, she and her husband Nitesh (name changed) were colleagues working for television, and she in fact earns more than him. They have a nine year old daughter and a three year old son. She used to come to work with bandages on her arm or swollen eyes and bruises. We urged her to seek help from a women activists’ group and she moved out, to rent a small room. Six months later, I discovered that she was back with her husband – not because he had had a change of heart or promised good behavior, but because her landlord was uncomfortable renting our premises to a young single woman. She had to move thrice (this was in Mumbai, a large, cosmopolitan, city) She could not find reliable or affordable childcare help either. There are no shelters for battered women, unlike in the West. Where does a woman go? A young woman living alone also invites unwelcome attention, even in cosmopolitan cities. She saw no alternative to moving back – and now has a tooth missing, after her husband thrashed her “to teach her a lesson”. There is no dearth of women’s groups and NGOs, but where do we find the funding to take care of cases like Usha’s? The usual argument is that education and economic independence ensures women’s autonomy, but here is a case where economic security did not ensure the woman’s safety against domestic violence (despite a recent law on domestic violence), There are cases of women MLAs (members of legislatures) who are battered (just as there are, in all countries and regions, including the developed world).

Dowry deaths (bride burning) continue to take place – because even in cases that go to court to seek punishment for the accused husband, the case fizzles out because the woman’s natal family cannot produce “evidence” in court, to say the husband set her on fire. Most such cases get dismissed as “kitchen accidents” due to lack of “evidence” – and where does one find evidence or witnesses for a crime that takes place in the privacy of the bedroom? In fact, the incidences of female foeticide and dowry harassment are rising in prosperous states (like Punjab and Haryana, the green belt areas of the country) because prosperity itself spawns demands – a well-to-do family thinks that it deserves a higher cash dowry from the girl’s parents because she is going to share in the good life of her marital home; those owning two wheelers want to get a car from the bride’s family as dowry. Also, as prosperity causes many chores that women did on the farms (like harvesting ) to be mechanized, the women’s “worth” gets lowered (as they are not seen as contributing to the work on the farm) and this results in a hike in the dowry demanded. Research studies exist, to substantiate these trends. In 1991 there were 85 dowry deaths registered. Today, the number has risen to 2,211 (official figures – NGOs put the figure much higher). Passing a law is one thing, tackling related socio-cultural mindsets is another.

* Rape Law, likewise was amended in the wake of the infamous Mathura case of the 1980s (where a 16 year old tribal girl was raped by policemen at a police station – but the case was lost because of the fact that she was “not a virgin” before the rape, as she had a boy friend). Following a petition signed by four leading lawyers to the Supreme Court the law was amended, to put in place severe punishment for ‘custodial rape’ but again, how many raped adolescents or young women, will dare to go to court? The social contumely and shame would be hard to live with, even if she won the case. There is a new law on sexual harassment at the workplace (again, following the Visakha case judgment) but there are grey areas in trying to prove sexual harassment ( as I write, a case of a research student alleging sexual harassment by her university professor at Mysore, is making news) and although by law, each organization is required to have a committee to investigate complaints of sexual harassment , the practicalities and social costs are considerable, especially for women.

* I go looking for a village woman in Rajasthan who has become the sarpanch (village administration head) following reservation of the post for women under the 73rd Constitutional amendment. She is veiled, unlettered, poor and shy. It is, I discover, her husband who makes all decisions. “That’s not empowerment!” protests the journalist accompanying me. True, but in the state of Andhra Pradesh, another sarpanch, equally unlettered and poor, raises her voice so stridently that it is the men who sit in a circle along the periphery of the meeting she has called, while the women, all Lambadis (tribal nomads) take center stage and discuss community budgets. Which is the ‘archetypal” village woman? I don’t honestly have the answer.

Yes, elected women are used by their men as surrogate candidates, leaving the females powerless, but the reasons are manifold. Poverty is a problem (there is a Janani Suraksha health scheme for assisting pregnant women to access medical services and improve maternal health, but lack of awareness about the scheme, plus corruption in disbursements, impedes implementation). Patriarchal social constraints are a problem – as one strident group of tribal women told me, “We know all about women’s oppression and double burden. It is the men who need to be sensitized”. Quite true. Distortions of traditional customs is another problem — dowry was originally streedhan (the woman’s property or wealth) which she could use in emergencies, but has become an extortionist demand under consumerist lifestyles, leaving her worse off. The stereotype of the Oriental woman as helpless and subjugated, is also partially a myth – ancient history chronicles achiever women like Lopamudra and Vagambhrini of Vedic times, who were erudite, Andal of the 9th century who composed highly lyrical Tamil poetry before dying at 16; her songs are still sung as part of temple rituals. Rani Ahalyabai ruled the princely state of Indore in central India. So, have we regressed or progressed?

Even MMR (maternal mortality rate) can be misleading, because the national average masks wide variations among states (Kerala has a low MMR, UP and Bihar have horrendously high MMR) so diversity is another problem in assessing the Indian woman’s situation. Statistics are no use. It is true that men’s mindsets have not kept pace with the changes that women have appropriated in their perspectives – women have moved into male bastions, as officers, pilots and surgeons, while the men continue to see domestic chores as “women’s work”. There are no ‘women’s studies courses for men, and the lone boy who enrolled for the course I taught, was ridiculed by his peers as “crazy”.

It is, then, a mixed bag that we see today, six decades after gender equality got written into the Constitution – some impressive progress, some lingering manifestations of social traditions that treat the female as a second class citizen, traditions that will take several generations to change. The daughter-in-law may be a post graduate and well informed, but her mother-in-law, brought up in the old tradition, still calls the shots, and tradition demands that the younger woman respect the authority of the older one. It is a half full glass – you can either look at the half full portion and celebrate the progress towards gender equity, or focus on the half empty portion and bemoan the setbacks. Arguments for both sides can be made with perfectly valid examples — after all, one can say, we had a woman prime minister (Indira Gandhi) for over 18 years, who ruled with great authority (and was called in fact, ‘the only man in the cabinet of ministers”), women serve as high ranking police officers and scientists and doctors (the cardiologist to the President of India, was a woman, some years ago), pilots (Indian Airlines routinely operates flights with all-women crews, on March 8, to mark International Women’s Day). Girls routinely top examinations at the high school and college levels, go to Harvard and Princeton on fellowships and head research projects. (On the other hand, only 18 out of 499 high court judges are women).

So why do we still hear of dowry deaths, even among the urban rich, and child marriages on the day of Aka Teej (considered auspicious)? The answer is not difficult to find – India, unlike other countries, especially in the developed world – is not a homogenous entity. There are women at different levels, from the most highly educated, politically powerful and socially respected, to the most tradition-bound, illiterate rural women. Each subset includes tens of millions, in a population of around 500 million females. So how does one generalize about “the Indian woman”? I am often asked by foreigners when I address audiences abroad, whether I would be considered “a typical” or “representative” Indian woman – the answer is : which Indian woman are we referring to? Yes, there are a few million women like me, and a few million other women with whom I have hardly anything in common too ! Generalizations become odious in the Indian context of “women’s progress”. Yes, there has been undeniable progress, yes, we are better off compared to two generations ago, but at the same time, yes, we do still have millions of women who have not benefited from the legal progress we have made – but we need to keep in mind that in the Indian context, we cannot equate “illiterate” with “helpless” or “ignorant” ; there are unlettered rural women who are strong in terms of asserting themselves (examples of rural women’s mobilization, like the Chipko movement in the Himalayan regions where women hugged trees to stop felling by contractors, to save the environment) are plenty.

What we need, then, is not the ‘bra burning’ brand of feminism, or the kind of overseas experts’ perspective that thinks that Indian women have too many babies because they do not know any better (they have repeated pregnancies, if their progeny are daughters and they want a son, so it is a social problem, not one of ignorance’ or ‘lack of access to contraception). Samia Altaf in her recent book “So Much Aid, So Little Development” (Johns Hopkins University Press, and Woodrow Wilson Institute, Washington DC) describes strategies from western “experts” that involve paying stipends to train girls in reproductive medicine, only to see no change thereafter, because no Pakistani (or Indian) girl is going to go door to door to create awareness about reproduction among male strangers – just not done, in the Oriental cultural context. Multilateral agencies donate incubators to save the lives of newborns in Thane district (Maharashtra state) but either there is no power (so the equipment is useless) or the mother has other children to look after at home and can’t stay at the clinic with her newborn, and therefore leaves with the child, trusting to God for its survival. This is the reality. Strategies for “empowerment” brought in by experts from outside the social milieu, who do not know the indigenous socio-cultural matrix, cannot work because they are inappropriate and do not address the ground realities.

What we need is an inter-disciplinary approach, that seeks to tackle economic, social and cultural dimensions together, to be effective in terms of true, and meaningful gender equity. The development model we have adopted, from the West, is also at fault – by prioritizing GDP and economic indices, we ignore the social indices, which can in fact worsen even as GDP rises (as studies on the feminization of poverty, have amply shown). We hear of honor killings, because women, like everything else, from water to plants to forests, become commodified under the current growth model based on profits. We need a different, humanistic model, putting people first, rather than profits. Women’s situation will also then rise.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is an author, columnist, independent researcher and academic resource person, based in Bangalore (India).


3 Responses to “Women’s Status, Movements in India – An Overview”

  1. meher engineer Says:
    May 6th, 2012 at 02:59

    well written article. said much that needs to be said, for example in the comments made on the strategies that come from western experts, which fail to take into account the real difficulties that women face when they try to put them into practice.

  2. Kotravai Says:
    September 1st, 2012 at 01:37

    //What we need is an inter-disciplinary approach// – when we recommend this our own women pals look at us as ‘reactive feminist’ and am glad to see you saying What we need, then, is not the ‘bra burning’ brand of feminism.

    thanks to Sanhati for publishing this article

  3. Guruprasad Says:
    October 2nd, 2012 at 02:19

    Yes we should have good laws to protect women, at the same we should also focus on the Mis-Use of these laws especially 498a and there are so many, so many cases where the Families had/have destroyed……….

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