Aruna Asaf Ali was one the younger generation of freedom fighters who entered the fray in the 1920s, becoming a member of the Congress after marrying Asaf Ali, a member himself. She is remembered for hosting the Indian National Flag in Bombay during the Quit India movement. Post-Independence, she became the first Mayor of Delhi and was awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Bharat Ratna. In an interview, she has said that, like Dr.Ambedkar pushing for the rights of his community, women too should have made sure that they had proper representation in the national decision-making. We all joined the movement initially, not so much for ideological reasons, but for the our love for our husbands, sons or brothers. Men decided the next course of action and we followed them like lambs, no questions asked. We loved and trusted them so much that we forgot to push for gender equality. We should have.
Subash Chandra Bose, the most fiery and patriotic of the national leaders, formed the Indian National Army, to overthrow the British rule in India with the help of Japan and Germany. He formed an all-female regiment, named Rani of Jhansi regiment, which underwent training and fought on par with their male counterparts. In February 2020, the Indian government laid out the following arguments in front of the Supreme Court, as to why women cannot be given Permanent Commission in the armed forces : prolonged absence due to pregnancy, psychological limitations, family separation, career prospects of spouses, education of children, male troops not accepting commands from a female leader. The Supreme Court stated that the ‘101 excuses’ devised by the government reeked of a stereotypical mindset and ruled in favour of the women officers.
This is the very unique dichotomy of India’s treatment of its women. Women participating the freedom struggle, had to come back home, take a bath and make rotis and rice for dinner. Girl children had to go to school and take care of younger siblings and domestic chores. Professional women must cook, clean and care for the elderly and the children, project deadlines notwithstanding. For women of rural India and urban slums, it becomes harder, when there is no piped water supply or kitchen appliances, worsened by alcoholic husbands. Contrary to popular perception, the employment rate of rural women is greater than urban women. Feminisation of agriculture, but without accompanying property rights and representation in panchayats and other decision-making bodies, is another glaring example.
Women in India work 577% more than Indian men and 40% more than women in China and South Africa. In 2018, every 15 minutes, a rape was reported in India; so many more go unreported. India fares dismally on all indexes and rakings on gender equality. Women are paid 20 to 30% lesser than men and the female labour force participation in India, already disappointing, has actually fallen this year, bucking trends of similarly developing countries. Experts say that it maybe because of better incomes; implying that professional lives for women is encouraged only if the men’s income needs supplementing. Despite being 50 percent of the population, only 14 percent of Lok Sabha members are women. Women are being disadvantaged in domestic, social, economic and political spheres.
This is not to say that no progress has been made. Educational attainment of Indian women has improved significantly and legislative decisions favouring women have been passed; for example, 33% of seats in panchayats and urban local bodies are reserved for women. Judicial activism has contributed too – prohibition of Triple Talaq, the Sabarimala temple verdict and so on.
Are Indian women worse than their peers in similarly placed developing countries? It would appear so. Why? Perhaps because India, being a land of paradoxes, where Dasara, a celebration of feminity and fertility, is the one of the biggest festivals, but women are considered impure when they menstruate. Appearances and symbolism are accorded highest importance. The appearance of an ideal family, where the woman is keeper of home and hearth, has to be maintained at all costs. The ideal of an Indian women still remains this : beautiful, intelligent, accomplished but, at the same time respectful to elders, devoted to husband and children; still perpetuated by cinema and media. Whatever her talents maybe, the moment she drinks alcohol, or expects to move out of her in-laws’ home, she is a bad apple who can ruin the community. For society to become more equal, this ideal must change to independent, clever, strong and capable, respected at home and outside. Besides, Indians are very resistant to change, especially when it comes to mindsets. And in changing mindsets is where the solution lies.
Irrespective of race, colour, religion, country and culture, women have always been oppressed. Why? In the next blog!