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Empowering the Women of India

Prominent women personalities who spoke at the Swami Vivekananda 150 Women Convention, stressed the need for the fair sex to stop following the Western concept and to stay within their roots

Published: 25th January 2014 07:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th January 2014 07:52 AM   |  A+A-

Swami-Vivekananda

Over a thousand women professionals from different walks of life came together at the ‘Swami Vivekananda 150 Women Convention’ on Thursday.

The convention was put together by prominent women from different fields. It was an attempt to provide an alternative and indigenous thought on the role of Indian woman — both for India’s success and for the world to emulate.

Speaking about the need for an alternative model of development, the women panelists emphasised that modernity and empowerment of India did not have to be on the Western model. While economic and social empowerment of women was important, it did not have to go hand in hand with single motherhood, broken families and conflicts between men and women, they said.

During the convention, it was said that in order to promote and explore the idea the Swami Vivekananda 150 Women Convention (SV150WI), chapters will be planned across the nation.

The SVI50WI will provide successful Indian models for the world to consume, reversing the conventional trend of India being a consumer of Western models of modernity, said Dr Padma Subramanyam, the organising chairperson of the event. The hot topics discussed during the convention included women’s role in ancient Indian society, the freedom struggle, women in Indian politics, the meaning of women’s empowerment in the Indian context, the challenges faced by Indian women including, abuse, trafficking, violence, female foeticide and child marriages.

A recurring motif of the discussion was the Indian and the Eastern concept of community versus the Western concept of individualism as a stand point to guide economy and empowerment.  The thematic convention titled ‘Indian woman as the guide for the world at crossroads’ had on its panel a host of leading women personalities, including the chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute V Shanta, director of the Aditya Birla Group Rajashree Birla, danseuse and scholar Dr Padma Subrahmanyam and cultural expert Prema Pandurang.

Akhila Srinivasan, managing director of the Shriram Life Insurance Company Limited, Hema Gopal, vice-president of Tata Consultancy Services, renowned gynaecologist Dr Kamala Selvaraj, Dr Preetha Reddy of Apollo Hospitals, Vanitha Mohan of PRICOL and Kumari Nivedita were some of the organising vice-chairpersons.

‘female-centric model needed’

If India becomes a superpower, it should have an alternative female-centric model for progress of the world, said renowned danseuse Padma Subrahmanyam. She said that the present Western model of individualism was creating a situation where an individual’s interest was becoming more important than that of a community, resulting in the disruption of the duty-based family system.

She said that in an Eastern culture like that of India, family and women were to take care of the elders, the infirm and the unemployed. But the present system of individualism in the Western society has led to a situation where it is the State that provides all the care and none in the family has any duty towards the other.

The idea that the India of today will be the America of tomorrow must change and that India should not get affected by the ‘infection’ of individualism, she said.

Exploring the origins of Western feminism, she said that in the West, for several centuries, women were not considered as human beings but as animals. “Even when that changed, it was not at the same level of man. The man had the image of god and everything else, including the woman, was thought to be for his consumption,” she said. This injustice prompted women to rise in protest and fight against the system. “In India, we have not had a situation like this. From the earliest of days, women were worshipped as deities and revered. Pujas were done on young women,” she said. She narrated the role of women from the days of Gargi Vachaknavi and Avvaiyar to Chittoor Rani Padmini. She said that these scholars had attained reverence from kings and were involved in decision-making.

‘mere degree isn’t empowerment’

Empowerment of women does not come merely with a graduation or a PG degree, said Dr V Shanta, veteran doctor and chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute. Speaking at the convention, Dr Shanta said real empowerment comes when women have an understanding of their capabilities and are able to take independent decisions.

“Gone are those days when women sat as mute spectators,” she said. She added that women today needed to take decisions on all concerns — be it for their education or career. Speaking about the need for women to be empowered, she said, “Empowerment cannot be given to you on a golden platter, it should come from within you.”

“Going to pubs or consuming cigarettes will not make you empowered,” she said, and asked women not to treat marriage casually. “It is important to be a good mother and a good wife, as they shape the future of the county. It cannot be treated casually,” she said. “Women have a multiplicity of duties,” she added.

“Does the education system address these challenges?” she asked. Even though there has been empowerment, the process has been painfully slow and more has to be done in the area, she said. She added that empowerment does not have to result in conflict between the genders. “Equality is not about one being better than the other, it is giving respect to each other,” she said.

‘spiritual upliftment helps’

Before talking about educating women about violence, one should talk about educating men to respect their women, said cultural commentator Prema Pandurang.

“We have got into a situation where everyone from the age of three to 53 is in the danger of sexual abuse. Men must be taught that a woman is no toy or a plaything,” she said.  She said that women have a multiplicity of roles to play today — be it as a daughter, wife, mother, boss or an employee. No country that disrespects women can think about progress. Giving examples of a host of historic and legendary women characters from India, Pandurang emphasised that in India, women were considered to be divine and spiritually farsighted. She said that women like Sita and Draupadi showcased various facets of women strength — be it in overcoming the calamities with calmness or in their endurance and their ability to punish and to forgive. She also spoke about the Bhakti poets like Meera Bhai and Andal, who defied boundaries to achieve the goal of divinity. “Empowerment does not only come out of economic strength, but spiritual upliftment,” she said.

“But today, owing to a wrongly defined secularism, students are not even allowed to read prayers in schools. Then how will they then find a direction in life?” she asked. 

‘intelligentsia shouldn’t be a copy’

Indian women intelligentsia should not be a carbon copy of Western intelligentsia, said Rajashree Birla of the Aditya Birla Group.

She said that India needed to bring about its own kind of development model for empowerment of women.

She said that in the West, divorces were on the rise today. “There are more children born out of wedlock than within wedlock, and there is an increasing number of single women. But in India, meanwhile, a large number of women are still able to support their families and have a wider outlook that helps them sustain their family,” she added.

“The Indian woman is able to think beyond herself and understands that the joy of giving is far more than the joy of receiving,” she said. Speaking about India’s history, she said that India had a legacy of women in empowered positions, right from the ancient days. These women were educated in the Vedas and trained to be scholars, she said. Women were also allowed to marry late so that they would be able to pursue their scholarly obligations better, she added. 

She further pointed out that in the late 19th Century, Indian women were already in colleges when no British university was admitting women. The voting rights of women were another point she highlighted.

Unlike many Western countries where women attained voting rights centuries after being their countries became democracies, in India, it happened simultaneously with men.  But today, there are several challenges and paradoxes in the empowerment of women, she said. While on one hand there are women leaders reaching heights, on the other there is abuse, women trafficking, child marriage and female foeticide, she said. She added that the low sex ratio was a challenge and steps must be taken to deal with the mentality that considers girl children inferior to men, she said.

The various forms of abuse should be looked at collectively to find a holistic solution, she added.



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