May you be the woman you want to be in a man's world

[हिन्दी] "A judge's son is a lawyer, and this lawyer's father is an inspector. Then who is the judge?" 

When this question was asked in a training workshop, many participants floundered on the answer. Deep-rooted gender biases and harmful gender stereotypes and narratives, often affect the gendered way we think. Perhaps that is why it is not so obvious to many that a woman can also be a judge as well as a mother!

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to equality to all its citizens, regardless of their sex or gender. The constitution grants all human beings equal opportunities and rights.

Additionally India has many statutes governing the rights of women. Some of these are:
  • Right to Compulsory and Free Education Act (RTE Act 2009) makes it mandatory for all children, including girls, between the ages of 6 and 14 to receive education. And yet as per World Bank data, the country’s overall female literacy rate is 69% in 2022. 
  • The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, ensures that men and women receive equal pay for the same work. However, according to the World Inequality Report 2022, men earn 82% of the labour income in India, whereas women earn 18%. In the year between July 2022 and June 2023, an average salaried Indian male made INR 20,666 in a month. A woman, on the other hand, made INR 15,722.
  • The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, provides legal protection to women from physical, emotional, and verbal abuse by their spouses or relatives. But according to the annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau out of the 4,45,256 cases of crime against women registered in 2022 (an increase of 4% compared to 2021) domestic abuse or cruelty by husband and/or relatives was the highest reported crime at 31.4%, followed by kidnapping and abduction of women (19.2%), sexual assault on women(18.7%), and rape (7.1%).
And these are the cases that were registered. A lot many such cases go unreported and unheard.

Women break the glass ceiling: But why is there a ceiling in the first place?

We are often told that times are changing and more women and girls are demanding to get their rightful place in society by breaking the glass ceiling, even as they battle the painful blisters caused by the shards. Yes, there could be some iota of truth in it. But the current snail’s pace at which this transformation is taking place, has even prompted the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to warn us that ‘on the current track, gender equality is projected to be 300 years away’.

“Women’s rights are being abused, threatened and violated around the world,” said Antonio Guterres of the UN.

Gender equality implies that women, men, boys and girls of all classes and races have equal access to, and enjoy, the same rights, resources, and opportunities. 

Patriarchy on the other hand is a social system in which positions of power, dominance and privilege are primarily held by men. 

Hence in patriarchal societies (like in India) social norms for men and women are often very different and lead to gender inequalities - when men are valued more than women, and have far greater power, resources, opportunities, entitlements, privileges than their female counterparts.

Right from the time a girl child is born, harmful and gendered social constructs are deeply ingrained in her at every step as she grows up (provided she is lucky enough to not get ‘killed’ before or just after birth). A report by United Nations Population Fund says that India accounts for nearly one-third (45.8 million) of the total 142.6 million missing females in the world, mainly due to pre- and post-birth sex selection practices stemming from 'son preference'.

Girls are encouraged to play with dolls to prepare them for their already determined future roles of a caregiver. Boys are given toy cars, toy guns and sport equipment to make them bold and aggressive. I have seen that even the return birthday gifts are gendered - lip gloss and nail paint for girls, and whistles and catapults for boys. All this happens routinely even in the so-called progressive and educated families (in India as well as the West).

Why cannot men do household work and child rearing?

I was a senior faculty in the renowned Loreto Convent College (an all girls’ institute) in the past. I once asked my 17-18 year old students, if those who had a brother, ever felt that they were treated unfairly by their parents. All of them said NO, except that the brother could stay out till late in the evening while they were supposed to be back home earlier. They attributed this to their parents’ concern for their safety (it never occurred to them that they were unsafe because of the males roaming around at that time of late evening/night).

Carrying the discussion a bit further I asked them if they helped in the household chores, in case their domestic help did not turn up. This time the reply was a big YES. Did their brothers also help? And not a single girl said Yes. Perhaps it was their first realisation of the numerous entitlements and privileges their brother(s) had by being born a male - one of them being freedom from doing any house work.

This is just one small example. Social norms for men and women are often very different, and lead to gender inequalities. Women are expected to be meek, submissive, docile and ‘good’ mothers and wives.

Men are expected to be ‘bold’, ’aggressive’, and ‘primary decision-makers’- giving an easy escape to men from child-rearing and household chores. Men are in-charge to manage finances. With no control over money matters and property/ land rights, women become more vulnerable whereas men gain absolute authority and control over them.

While most parents in urban and economically well-off families are giving the same quality of education to girls and boys, girls are not exempt from learning how to cook and help in housework. Boys on the other hand are kept away from taking part in ‘mundane’ chores.

In poorer households boys’ education is prioritised as they are groomed to become future bread winners, whereas girls are expected to prioritise housework over education to become ‘good’ wives and mothers.

Thus, from early childhood, sons are valued more than daughters and given more power, resources and opportunities, that later manifest into entitlement, domination and control over the women. A husband can demand sex at free will and the wife is expected to satisfy him. Lack of bodily autonomy makes her very vulnerable. This also constitutes rape – as non-consensual sexual intercourse regardless of marriage or relationship status, is rape.

With very little decision making on when (or if) to marry or to have (or to not have) children, women’s education and career takes a backseat whereas men get social license to prioritise their education and career and not share domestic work and child rearing.

Motherhood is glorified (and so is womanhood). We have even dedicated special days for them. But short of paying lip service and singing praises of her selfless love and sacrifices, we do very little to share her workload and give her equal rights.

The shameless farce and hypocrisy of it all!

In many parts of India, girls fast on 16 consecutive Mondays every year to get a 'good' (?) husband; a married woman, irrespective of her social and educational status, is expected to fast at least once a year for the wellbeing and long life of her husband. Instead of debunking the myths associated with it and questioning the rationale behind it (there is no reciprocal fast mandated for men), this fast (called ‘karwa chauth’) has been glamorised by the show biz industry and celebrated with a lot of fanfare. Then again, there are special fasts to be kept by a mother for the well being of her son(s)- provided she begets one. But none for the daughter.

Gendered division of labour deprives girls and women of equal opportunities for education, work force participation, economic activities as well as leisure activities. To add fuel to fire, we categorise women into being working women and homemakers- as if those who also work outside their homes are ‘home-breakers’, and also that ‘those who do not earn a salary do not do any work’, as all household and child rearing chores come under unpaid labour.

Women applying for high profile jobs are often asked ‘if they have any plans for marriage’; ‘if they have children’; and ‘how they will manage office and childcare/ housework’. Has any man ever been asked these questions?

These are just a few examples of socially accepted harmful gender norms and cultural practices that wrongly normalize and justify gender inequality. Gender inequality also sets the underlying tone for violence against women and girls. Women also suffer emotional violence while being forced to, or trying to, conform to social norms. This makes them very vulnerable to other forms of violence, and more difficult to seek help.

Yes, there are some so called modern families (read men) who 'allow' and 'permit' their womenfolk to wear modern clothes, take up salaried jobs, and enjoy some leisure once in a while. Such few and far between women are deemed fortunate and are expected to be grateful to have landed such a progressive husband who maybe makes breakfast or does housekeeping once a week.

But who gives him the right to decide for her? Why should she take his permission by default? Why should she be grateful for being allowed to move freely within the limits and boundaries set up by him?

It is high time to seek and demand answers to these and myriad other questions from the menfolk- be they our fathers, sons, brothers and husbands- as well as women indoctrinated by them to accept the status quo.

As a sequel to ‘May you be the mother of a hundred sons’- a thought provoking book by Elisabeth Bumiller, on the lives of women in India - I wish that ‘May you be the woman you want to be in a man's world’.

(Citizen News Service)
4 March 2024

(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media) and Global AMR Media Alliance (GAMA). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here

The Sangai Express, India (part-1, op-ed page, 6 March 2024)

The Sangai Express, India (part-2, op-ed page, 7 March 2024)

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