By Kankana Basu
When Sita, Queen of Ayodhya, prayed to Mother Earth to open up and deliver her from an unbearable situation of public humiliation, little did she know that she would be setting a trend for women to follow down the centuries? Spurred on by Indian mythology, women down the ages would pause, put their foot down firmly, stage protests or resort to various other methods — both violent and non-violent — to demonstrate what was acceptable to them and what was not.
Forerunners of liberation
At another time and in another age, Rani Laxmi Bai would ride headlong into the raging battle for Jhansi (in the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the British), clearly giving the message that no male bastion was too difficult or intimidating to be stormed by a woman. More than a century later, Priya Jhingan would become the first lady cadet to join the Indian Army.
Travel further down the annals of history and one is likely to stumble upon the name of Sarojini Naidu, one of the first female voices to be officially raised in society. When Mahatma Gandhi planned the salt march in protest against the British colonists, it was slated to be a peaceful all-male demonstration. The Nightingale of India, a feisty feminist, vociferously put forth her objections and insisted that women be included in the march. Gandhi acquiesced and, for the first time in history, the gates swung open for women to actively participate in carving the nation’s destiny. Sarojini Naidu went on to become the first woman President of the Indian National Congress (1925).
Ironically, while the freedom movement got women out of their homes and into the public arena, it was the British colonisers who, in a back-handed manner, started the women’s rights movement in the country. The abolition of sati as a barbaric practice by Lord William Bentinck (1829) and the subsequent discouragement of female infanticide (both strategies supposedly aimed at gaining political leverage) set the stage for women to recognize, vocalize and fight for their rights, in the decades to follow.
The demands of women have changed drastically over time, studies reveal. While earlier decades saw women fighting for voting rights, the right to education, basic health and sanitation facilities and a life of dignity, in the following years the thrust was more on equal economic opportunity, gender equality in workplaces and impartial laws in the matter of ancestral inheritance. As the social fabric changed with each age, women’s grievances took on new shapes and hues.
The needs of the contemporary woman now stand mainly at freedom from sexual harassment at the workplace (this includes obscene gestures/text messages, exposure to objectionable graffiti, verbal innuendoes), rape, dowry deaths, harassment by husband/in-laws, gender/caste discrimination and the inability to take custody of children in cases of marital strife. Though the Constitution of India guarantees equality of sexes (granting special favors to women, in fact) under Articles 15, 16 and 42 and gives a woman the right to demand her fundamental rights, in reality the situation often stands compromised. Single judge verdicts in harassment cases often create loopholes, enabling culprits with money and clout or unscrupulous women to twist laws to their own advantage.
Married women form the bulk of the exploited lot and certain important Acts were passed to safeguard their rights. These include the 1955 Act forbidding polygamy, the Child Marriage Act of 1929 and the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Crimes like eve-teasing, rape and indecent exposure come under the common umbrella of crimes against women and rape, after murder, can result in the maximum punishment of a life sentence.
The female identity as an autonomous factor has always been at the center of controversy with many a woman opposing the change of name/surname after marriage.
In 1999, noted writer Githa Hariharan won a court case that gave her the right to name her children after herself instead of the father; a verdict considered an important milestone in the struggle for women’s rights. The plight of widows and divorcees has also been a cause of grave concern. This came into the public view when the Supreme Court of India (in 1986) ruled that an old divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano was eligible for maintenance money. The decision was vociferously opposed by fundamentalist Muslim leaders and the Union government subsequently passed the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights upon Divorce) Act.
The Hindu personal laws of the mid-1950s gave women rights to inheritance and the law applied to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. The rights of rural women, in particular, came under focus and a move was made to eradicate nutritional discrimination, malnourishment and maternal mortality. They were also given representation in the Panchayati Raj system as a sign of political empowerment.
Some major bodies under which the women’s rights movement saw appreciable progress were the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the Self- Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Show of support
While public figures like Flavia Agnes, a practicing lawyer in the Mumbai High Court and founder of MAJLIS (a legal and cultural resource center) continue to fight tirelessly for the progress of women, people from the informal sector also contribute in a major way. Actors, activists, film- makers and literary luminaries are known to lend their shoulders to the cause of women with visible results.
Veteran journalist Mrinal Pande will be remembered for vociferously objecting to film lyrics that demeaned women and encouraging the idea that being loved by a man was the be-all and end-all of a woman’s ambitions.
Actor Shabana Azmi famously refused to do a scene that required her to put slippers on the feet of her inebriated (screen) husband, thus setting an example for future actors to uphold the dignity of women. Film- makers like Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair famously sidestepped commercial formulae, preferring to make films that highlighted problems of abandoned widows and pedophilia lurking in family closets.
While the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay sensitively portrayed the plight of the Indian women and explored their confines well ahead of time, they also gently encouraged them to break free of society-created shackles. In recent times, we have vocal women like Urvashi Butalia focusing on women-centric literature with her publishing house Kali for Women.
It is interesting to note that some of the worst perpetrators of cruelty to women are women and some of the greatest crusaders for women empowerment have been men!
Though a journey was embarked many years back, a lot of distance still remains to be covered before drawing in sight of the destination.
The list of grievances waiting to be addressed appears to be endless — the special problems of disabled women, female convicts and prison inmates, female senior citizens living alone, women trapped in the flesh trade…
But in a country where more than half the deities prayed to are feminine in gender, no distanc
e is too far.
Spearheading the movement
Guru Nanak: The founder of Sikhism strongly promoted equal rights for women.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy: He challenged Hindu culture, campaigned for abolition of sati and the right for women to hold property.
Jyotiba Phule: One of the greatest social reformists, he founded a school for infant girls (to discourage female infanticide), a home for upper caste widows and backed a widow remarriage initiative.
Pandita Ramabai: Widowed at 25, she educated herself in England and returned to work for women’s education and social reforms.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar: A scholar, philosopher, reformer and philanthropist, who ensured that women were given equal education.
Peary Charan Sarkar: Educationist and text-book writer, who actively campaigned for women’s education.