The women rights movement in India that gained prominence in the 1980s and 90s has often been claimed to be a success. True, India has seen some improvement in women trafficking cases and rapes,inter alia but the situation is far from perfect. For instance, sexual violence is still a huge problem with around 30% of married women facing it at least once in their lives and the figures for stalking and related incidents are equally shocking. Not only the oppressive social structure, but also the response to it has also been the culprit. Many elitist feminist movements post independence failed to question the social order which perpetrated patriarchy, instead satisfying themselves with freebies for women or some philanthropic work. However, some of the post-70s organisations realised that women rights in India can be talked about only to a certain extent without discussing the more pressing need of changing societal structures and thus have since worked for the betterment of women. The policymakers on the other hand, have been lenient in addressing root causes and are unaware of ground realities, something that this article tries to understand. It seeks to re-explore the core issues on which Indian feminism stands and what is meant by ‘social transformation’.
There are broadly two aspects in a typical Indian woman’s life that sustain the patriarchy which this article specifically deals with, first, the trade offs that they face such as that between education and children and second, the role of marriages in their lives and how it shapes their societal position.
Women, Children & Jobs
“No one wants to hire a mid-career mom”-Devyani Shahane-Carvalho,a housewife recently told a newspaper. Unfortunately, the statement also reflects the plight of many other Indian mothers. This problem manifests itself in various ways and has several dimensions.
Firstly, higher educated women choose less children. The average fertility rate of college graduates is 1.9 kids per woman,3.8 for illiterate women. This shows that education for women comes with a realisation that having children has an opportunity cost in terms of their lost careers. Education being an able means to provide the requisite understanding of how women are being deprived of decision making,this is perhaps why rural India still prefers to keep its women uneducated. This in turn, deprives them of agency and informed life choices thus maintaining the authority of men. Women resisting the system have often been seen as unhealthy by the society thus forcing them to choose children over education.
Secondly, women are considered second-class citizens and are systematically discouraged from choosing work. This has ample evidence. For instance, the women who in the 70s and 80s worked in the informal sector dropped out when the average household income rose after liberalisation. Similarly, educated women in financially sound households are disinclined to work perhaps because working women are seen as a social stigma in that they are considered to be “forced” to work thus reducing the family’s social status. Also,a Pew research claims that 84% Indians believe that men should be preferred for jobs over women in times of financial crisis.
All this in turn, cements the belief that they are only apt to work at home, something quite emphatically depicted in the recent Anubhav Sinha release,Thappad. The women,Amrita like lakhs of others becomes so attuned to her everyday routine, which largely includes ensuring that her working husband is well-fed,has adequate rest,stays fit among other things, that people around her start taking her for granted. This lack of financial independence and reliance on her family reduces her to an inferior creature who is then subjected to violence(let alone a slap). This is the plight of India’s many Amritas and shows that their social standing and familial importance gets reduced because of the roles society assigns them.
The Institution Of Marriage
Marriage as an institution and the watertight social norms that accompany are an equally organised agency of perpetuating patriarchy. It not only decides the status of women after but also before ‘the sacrosanct union of two souls’.
The problem lies in the societal attitudes towards marriage. The ordinary Indian parents for decades,preferred sons over daughters because they believed the girl to be a burden on their households who would get married into someone else’s home and not be able to support their parents in their old age. Women financially supporting or living with their parents after marriage is considered a matter of suspicion and shame.This in turn perpetuates their inferior treatment in terms of education, health and jobs, accompanied with an urge to marry them off early.
When asked in a poll about the number of boys that women in India wanted,60% preferred at least two sons and an additional third wanting at least one. This desire for boys over girls has led to 63 million women “missing” from our population. Albeit a larger number of women are getting educated,are participating in national level politics or getting better property rights but if Indian parents still have an unmistakable bias against girls then it seems that marriage has been able to resist any change in societal structures and that too,quite successfully. This is also partly due to the fact that women are effectively constrained in making choices in regards to clothing, sexual freedom and relationships.
Legislations And Alternative Solutions
Before delving deep into understanding the possible changes that can be made at the society level,let’s have a look at how the laws have also failed Indian women.
For instance, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act,2005 is one of the many laws that have proved to be quite impotent. First, one can’t impose criminal penalties on the accused unless a protection order is violated. Also, the definition of domestic violence is too broad to be made any sense of by the courts. Second, the relief in the act is to a huge extent, based on the Protection and Residence officers’ discretion leaving less for the judge to decide, jeopardizing the sensitive issue of justice to the victim.All this is not brow-raising when women constituted only 8.29% of the parliament when the law was discussed and passed in 2005. Not only that,there is a huge backlog of cases and victims are told to wait for as long as 3 months. Judicial attitude is equally to blame. For example,in 2006,SC restricted legal definition of shared household in relation to the act to that belonging to or rented by the husband to avoid “societal chaos”.
For a deeper understanding,a cursory glance at some other laws is desirable. For example, The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2013 demands that firms have internal committees for sexual harassment complaints but has near to zero compliance or the Dowry Prohibition Act,1961 which is rarely enforced in letter or spirit.
Howsoever,acts such as Prohibition of Sex Selection Act,1994, or Hindu Succession Amendmnet Act,2005 and many similar laws have helped but have poor enforcement,the police often siding with the accused or the case not being reported in the first instance.
Women rights organisations have suggested several other measures to rectify the solution. For example,role-reversals is a much suggested solution. The women do the job,the men the household work,giving the former greater financial independence and social acceptability over time. Even though women might take up the task of breadwinner,the society or men will not accept themselves in their new tasks,not because they are not suited to it,but because the household work has no dignity.
Nuclear families,which are considered as another possible answer, have not provided definitive help in ending patriarchy and it comes at cost of reduced social security and frequently, severance of familial ties. Also,much acclaimed self defence techniques have neither shown concrete and verifiable results nor have they changed attitudes.
The Meaning Of ‘Social Transformation’
It is not that the laws or similar abovementioned alternative solutions are completely impotent but they can’t be really effective without political and social willpower. This boils down to the societal attitudes which straitjacket women and their aspirations. Perhaps that is where social transformation comes in. It is,however,quite a broad term. It is generally what people make of it thus giving it different interpretations and it is upon the society to accept one of them. However,there is general consensus that the root problem lies in how we perceive the institution of marriage and how it affects even remotely related issues like Indian parents’ birth decisions or education given to girls,as illustrated above. Social transformation will help adress this root problem.
This can be achieved by changing the belief that the girl’s parents are not her responsibility needs to be changed. Parents need to be made to realize that their children, both men and women, have shared duty in this regard. Perhaps, effective implementation and appropriate amendments to laws such as Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act,2007,which sets the legal framework in relation to the shared responsibilities of children towards parents, would help.Also, the legal process needs to be flexible and easier for victims of patriarchial violence or discrimination.
Also, the woman, along with her husband, needs to be given greater autonomy,if she wants to move into her husband’s home. She should not be forced to concede to patriarchal norms of the residing place of women after marriage.
In addition to that, patriarchal narratives need to be changed by altering how parents bring up their children(teaching boys to be strong and girls to be emotional and docile). Everything,from the toys girls play with(dolls etc.) to the movies they are ‘supposed’ to enjoy more(rom-coms,etc.), needs to be changed and both boys and girls be given the freedom to make their own choices in this respect. This could help erase the inherent gender bias against women and ensure that men don’t feel privileged over women.
Sex education plays an equally important role in that it helps break sexual stereotypes and bring to an end,biological misinformation. Boys and girls need to be taught the importance of private space of others. Children need to be made aware of regular biological processes like menstruation so that they don’t need to see them with suspicion and a sense of confusion.
Most importantly, there is a need to give up those traditional values that advocate the persistence of male-headed households and physically and socially constraining women for sake of preservation of social order,before it starts to hurt the ever changing Indian society. The society decides what is right for it and if some customs don’t fit into the present-day social structure ,they shouldn’t be carried on for their own sake. The social transformation that has since been vividly discussed, essentially refers to this societal change, notwithstanding the different interpretations that people give it.