Independence Day is always a time of introspection and hope. So what does freedom mean to the Indian woman? There are vast contradictions in the way the lives of women have progressed as well as regressed over the seventy-one years since Independence.
The lives of women in India were always stacked with obstacles — this must be the only country where widows were expected to commit Sati or were treated with shocking cruelty. Their heads shaved off, forced to wear dull clothes and eat food without salt or spice. In spite of reform movements and leaders encouraging remarriage, widows are still being banished to Vrindavan to live in utter penury and dependence on charity.
Dowry has been prevalent in other societies too, but in India, killing brides who bring inadequate dowry took on epidemic proportions. Women are still dying from burns ostensibly caused by stove bursts, but the number seems to have reduced, or the crimes are not reported.
The freedom struggle was a time when women came out of their homes to march alongside men in their fight for independence. Rani Laxmibai is an icon of the 1857 Mutiny and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal of the Indian National Army; Kasturba Gandhi was inspired by her husband, but later there were women like Sarojini Naidu and Usha Mehta active in the freedom struggle. Unlike women in the West, who had to work in factories when the men were out fighting, and expected to resume their role as housewives after the War, Indian women were not forced to go back to their kitchens once independence was achieved.
Again, social reformers had fought for education for women, and post-Independence women did go for higher education and ‘respectable’ careers like medicine and teaching, while those with fewer resources took up secretarial work or nursing. In the early days, women were often expected to give up working outside the home after marriage, that is not so common now; women can follow any career they choose. They continue to pursue careers and look after their families, often with no support from their husbands. The Indian workplace is not too considerate towards working women; employers may be legally compelled to give longer maternity leave to women and family leave to men, but that sometimes results in discrimination against women in the matter of employment. The law also expects workplaces with a certain number of women to provide crèches, but hardly anyone does. That’s just one of the reasons why qualified women are dropping out of the workforce. And any woman knows how tough it is to return to a career at the same level of seniority.
Still, in certain sectors like media, banking, education, women are breaking the glass ceiling and making it to top management positions. Show business is still not fair to women in terms of opportunities or payments, and sexual exploitation is more of a threat. In a thriving film and television industry, female producers, directors and technicians can be counted on the fingers; oddly enough it took a prolonged battle for women to be allowed to be make-up professionals in Bollywood.
Women in India got the vote when the constitution was drafted and women are given equal rights when in many other counties, they had to fight long and difficult battles to win this right. A progressive country like Switzerland granted women the right to vote as late as 1971, and Saudi Arabia, not known to be female-friendly in 2011.
In a rare progressive move, Indian women were granted the right to legal medical termination of pregnancy in 1971, while in many Western countries, women are still struggling for access to safe abortions and fighting powerful anti-choice lobbies.
The problem of female foeticide and infanticide still exists, however, and there are states with dangerously low sex ratio. Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu or Haryana may get the rap for killing the most girl children, but even in so-called educated and upper-class urban homes, the birth of a daughter is not as much an occasion for celebration as the arrival of a son. This craze for sons also means that Indian boys grow up pampered and entitled. In poorer homes, sons get better nutrition, education and healthcare than a daughter. But is it also girls from underprivileged backgrounds who are striving for achievement, and small-town girls are flocking to Mumbai too, for the sake of their careers.
The progress and visibility of women in urban India cannot be a yardstick to measure the progress of women in villages or semi-rural areas. So if there are more reports of violence against women there, and fewer arrests or convictions, the safety of women can no longer be taken for granted in cities too. Domestic violence and marital rape are not even given the kind of attention and legal support they deserve. There are hardly any legal aid centres or safe houses for women who want to escape abusive marriages. Tougher still are the social attitudes that expect women to dress or behave in a certain way or get no sympathy if they are attacked.
Despite an uneven playing field and a mountain hurdle, Indian women are excelling at education (more and more girls topping board exams), sports, media and the arts, and, when opportunities are available, in the careers of their choice. India may be getting a bad rep because of increasing cases of violence against women, but there is also a lot to be thankful for. A perfectly egalitarian society may be a long way off, but it no longer seems like an impossible dream.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.