To Be or Not To Be a woman in India???

Dr. Navniit Gandhi
Thursday, August 9, 2018

It is a silly question, isn’t it? To be or not to be… a woman in India? Well, do we have any choice in deciding our gender or the nation we are born into?
As destiny would have it, I am a woman--born in India.

In all the years of childhood which I can recollect, there was hardly ever a moment of regret that I was a girl; a woman. Never in school; never in college and never with family or with friends (boys as well as girls) or later, with colleagues—were there any moments of shame, guilt or dismay-- emanating from gender. During the teen years in Mumbai, instructions to come home early in the evening were seldom given and if given, they were not because parents feared harm of any kind. No one in the family or neighbourhood or in the wide circle of acquaintances—was a victim of dowry related harassment or rape or molestation or honour killing or any other kind of gender-based violence or discrimination. In fact, in our family, as well as in a large number around —the women called the shots. They managed the finances and took all the major decisions at home. Our grandmother too was very fair in her ways and knew very well to cherish her own dignity and respect the freedoms of her daughters-in-law and other women in the family. And, her writ and judgments unconditionally prevailed.

By the time school-life came to an end, there were plenty of socio-economic ills to think about and write on, that glared unabashedly at us in India… We knew by then that terrorism, poverty, an unequal society, and corruption were some of the maladies afflicting the nation. Gradually, the list of issues which we became conscious of kept growing. And as the teen-years bid adieu, there seeped in another issue somewhere at the bottom of the list and which till then, had never directly touched us and that was: the threats to the freedom and dignity of women in India.

Gradually though, a sense of unease began to dawn that all was not well; that women are generally looked at as ‘objects’. The horrifying stories of atrocities on women repeatedly fed to us by the print and electronic media, began to raise doubts and questions: Why are women burnt alive in India? Are women indeed unsafe in India? Is India really the rape capital of the world? Are women really powerless; mere ‘victims’ of abuse? Which is the real India? Is Bhanwari Devi the symbol of real India or Indira Gandhi the real face of India? Were we not taught in school that all the rights and liberties had come naturally to women in India? Unlike the American or the British women—we did not have to face ridicule or bullet shots or menacing glares because we wanted to vote or contest an election. No man sneered at us or threw abuses at us because we went to work in offices or laboratories or wanted the right to contraception or divorce or wanted the freedom to decide whether to marry or not and whom to marry.

The head said that the statistics had to be believed, whereas the heart refused to believe that women just ‘suffered’ in India. The whole wide world echoed that the most unsafe place in the world for women-- was India. Could all the reports emanating in the West, be true? After all, I had not witnessed any brutality from close quarters. Were women certainly and surely well-treated in the other countries? Were all roads and all regions only in India unsafe for women? Could there not be exaggerations or data distorted in the reports? There are no rights that our socio-political and economic systems deny to women; no access or opportunity that is denied by our nation… Of course, there were; there are and there will be parochial elements in families and societies who shall do not hold anybody’s dignity and liberty in high regard. And are there not men who are abused and exploited; who are denied opportunities and equitable treatment for some or the other reason? On how many occasions have you (if you are a woman reading this) been discriminated against while seeking a job or while trying to be in the civil services or politics or while trying to be an artist or a writer or an engineer? There are countries wherein the freedom to drive or to abort or to become the head of the State is still a faraway dream for women, whereas we never had to struggle or strive for the basic freedoms.

There are several perspectives to be understood, while thinking on or commenting about what is happening with women in India.

One, the media certainly paints a very grim picture. An hour of listening to a TV news channel or of browsing the newspaper —convinces you that women in India are being raped left, right, and centre—all the time, everywhere. One is petrified at the horrifying picture that is painted of women being terrorised, burnt, killed, molested and abused all the time. There is absolutely no justification for such happenings, but the fact remains that for several hundreds of years—women have been receiving a raw deal in every society on this planet—cutting across the national, religious, regional, or racial differences. The statistics pertaining to domestic violence and rape in the most developed countries such as the US, Sweden, Belgium and some others is as shocking as one can never imagine but their media does not try convincing the rest of the world that it is impossible for women to hold on to their lives and dignity in these countries. Again, the purpose here is not to justify that if it happens in the rest of the world, it is fine if it happens in India. The purpose is to introspect, and understand all the perspectives.

By the way, is it not the media which plants the most subversive and stereotypical images of women in the minds of its audience in the society? Our soap operas and advertisements have distorted an average Indian male’s psyche more than anyone else. It hurts to see how even the young generation is looking at women as objects which are devoid of feelings. A kind of restlessness lurks that we are not safe amidst our own family members, school teachers, security guards, friends, and even in our own housing complexes and cities. Are we not regressing? The visuals and messages bombarded at us by our Bollywood and by the information on the internet—are so very lewd and suggestive. It is as if nothing else matters, and it is fine to attack the freedom and dignity of a woman---be she a one-year old toddler or a fifty-year old mother.

The second equally crucial perspective here is that societies in general, and ours in particular are becoming increasingly cruel, aggressive, and crazy. We are becoming cold-blooded and that is evident in our treatment of trees, rivers, the marginalised—which include the transgender, the physically and mentally challenged, vulnerable women and children, tribal folk and the poor as well. Could our increasingly-turning sadistic disposition be because of addiction to harmful chemicals/substances? Or, because of our mad obsession with gadgets? Or because of our economic compulsions in a highly inequitable society? There is anger; greed; and desperation to have it all in life at the earliest. The vulnerable become easy targets then…

And here again, we must not forget another perspective and that is—that the gruesomeness in us comes to the fore more so when the initial traces of such behaviour go unpunished. There are some human actions which must be deterred, and deterred firmly and effectively. All acts of crime against the vulnerable, such as crushing the pavement dwellers with over-speeding vehicles or throwing acid on an ex-lover or brutally raping a woman or a little girl, or poaching the tigers and elephants or any such act of brutality-- must meet severe punishment. Letting the perpetuators go unpunished or punishing them after decades of delay—encourages the inhuman instincts in humans.

Our nation; its law and order machinery; our society and its social systems—seem to be failing us miserably. However, more than that—it is our families which are failing us. How can a few law-enforcers control the conduct of crores of us? How can a PM or a CM or a Judge ensure that no act of violence takes place in this vast country and that attitudes become constructive? It is usually from the parents and particularly the mother that a boy learns for the first time that girls are secondary in all matters or that they just don’t matter. The parents make known to their kids that the only thing that is to be done with girls is that they ought to be bundled off at the earliest to someone else’s house in matrimony. The parents—overtly or in undertones, instil in the psyche of their kids that it is ok if girls eat later and eat the leftovers, or if their dreams are sacrificed at the altar of the family’s honour and that it is the father who is the ‘head’ and provider in the family etc etc

We have failed in our families to slap the boys when they make fun of women or of their bodies for the very first time; we have failed to punish the first signs of a girl’s dignity being trampled upon by a family member and we have failed to convey to our young boys and girls that if only they respect the freedoms of all others, that they shall be able to cherish their own. Women in their 60s and 70s who claim to have seen it all and are supposed to be wiser, mercilessly crush the dreams, the liberties and dignity of their daughters or daughters-in-law and feel triumphant about it too. Which law or law-maker can check such attitudes? And, such unchecked attitudes result in gory crimes eventually.

This picture too, just as any other, is not entirely black though. There were and there are women who respect themselves; hold their freedoms dear and draw strength from within to safeguard the freedom and dignity. There are men too, who respect the freedoms of all around them, while they cherish their own. There is no dearth of glorious achievements which have been made possible due to such men and women. Whether climbing the mountains or navigating the oceans and the skies; whether proving the prowess in art or literature; or securing remedies for all the injustices that happen—they have done it all.

And, thus there is hope…
There is hope as long as there are parents who love their sons and daughters alike, and there are plenty of them out there…
There is hope as long as teachers challenge stereotype images of what men and what women must do, and there are teachers who do challenge…
There is hope as long as there are sensitive and sensible writers, teachers, doctors, uncles, aunts, law-upholders and enforcers, film-makers and journalists, and there are…
There is hope as long as the society does not comprise only the dead, and there are many who breathe fire and challenge the attacks on freedoms…
There is hope as long as we, the women—are a little impatient, intolerant and angry, and yes—there are many who are!!


“I do not think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”-----Oprah Winfrey

Dr. Navniit Gandhi is an academic, a feature writer and an author. Her publications include several academic papers presented at National and International conferences/seminars, nearly 250 feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and on web portals, two e-booklets and seven Books. Presently, she teaches at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and counsels and conducts training workshops at Gurukul, Kuwait.
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