“The way a powerful river breaks down even the strongest rocks and hills, in the same manner an intelligent woman destroys the fraud propagated by perverted ones. May we bow to such intelligent women.” — Rigveda
The path of power runs through the casuistry’s cartography. In ancient India, women were placed on a pedestal — as the Yajurveda says, “O woman, you are as strong as earth and are on a very high pedestal. Protect the world from the path of vices and violence.” Now it is she who has to be protected. It isn’t surprising that women are at the bottom of the social pyramid. Only during the hypocrisy of electioneering do women become the Goddess of Voters. India saw a moral lockdown during the pandemic: between March 25 and May 31 this year, women made 1,477 complaints of domestic violence. The period saw more complaints than those received over the same period in the previous 10 years.
Women have been subject of both abuse and worship for time immemorial. West Bengal celebrates Kali as the supreme mother. The goddess cult represents the exalted woman — Saraswati who gives knowledge, Lakshmi who gives wealth, Durga who avenges wrongs. The Indian woman in reality is treated like a devdasi or a Surpanakha by politicians who render lip service from poll platforms.
Even well-spoken Kamal Nath couldn’t control his tongue; he mocked a former colleague as an item, though he apologized later. Nath symbolizes the misogynistic mindset of the political hierarchy.
Earlier, Azam Khan, a powerful Samajawadi Party minister, had attacked his political rival Jaya Prada with the crass claim that she wore “khakhi underwear”. More recently, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijaiwargia made a sexist remark about Priyanka Gandhi by accusing the Congress of fielding “chocolatey faces”.
In fact, deriding women challengers has become more pronounced after the increasing participation of women in almost every sector from business to politics. Senior Socialist leader Sharad Yadav has often courted trouble for his remarks on women, both inside and outside Parliament. During election campaigning, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam campaigner Nanjil Sampath referred to Puducherry Lt Governor Kiran Bedi as someone who “we do not know is a man or woman.” Yet, women have become yet another vote bank meant to be wooed during electoral battles only.
There is hardly a political leader who doesn’t swear by treating female colleagues more than just better halves. Come elections, all of them would engage in competitive munificence to influence women voters. In Bihar where caste dominates the social hierarchy, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised much more for the female voters. His state is hardly known for women’s enterprise. Yet, the Bihar chief minister promised: “For women, a special scheme will be brought where enterprises set up by them will get loans up to 5 lakh with 50 per cent interest fee waived.”
In fact, hardly an election — the Assembly or the Lok Sabha — happens where special benefits aren’t announced to empower Indian women. Contrary to Hindu tradition, their empowerment is limited to only some monetary concessions, enactment of a few legislations to ensure their safety at home and outside and giving token representation in institutions of governance. They are rarely given the role of leaders. Even various Parliamentary Acts like Panchayat Raj have been misused by political patriarchy to dictate terms to their spouses. While the Act provides for a woman to become a sarpanch, it is their husbands or elder brothers who manage the panchayat.
As women, both from rural and urban, started asserting their rights and demanding their participation on merit, the male-dominated Establishment created powerless institutions like the Women’s Commission in both the states and at the Centre. They are given all perks of the power and junior minister status, but remain under the administrative control of ministries dominated by their male counterparts.
Almost all states have created a separate Ministry for Women’s Welfare more as a favour and fealty.
Their budgets are minimal. Neither the Commissions nor the ministries dealing with women’s issues enjoy financial and administrative autonomy. Ironically, there are more welfare schemes in India aimed at helping the girl child or women than the number of medical colleges. Every chief minister and many Central ministers have announced freebies for girls varying from marriage grants to widow pensions. But, all they enjoy is fancy and glamorous names.
Even in post-Independent India, women got place of pride only during religious celebrations or weddings since the scriptures mandate no ritual can be completed without female participation. Even after women acquired better skills and education, they were denied important offices where they could make a difference. For example, women officers occupy less than 12 per cent of Secretary level posts at the Centre. Female administrators rarely head important ministries like Defence, Finance, Home, Commerce, Personnel and Railways. Paradoxically, women revered as Lakshmi at home aren’t trusted with leading financial institutions or banks. Of the 40 odd prominent public sector banks, hardly a couple are headed by women. Of the 800 universities, hardly a dozen have women vice-chancellors. There is just one female chief minister and L-G.
Such denial of real power has caused great harm to the women. Crimes against them have been growing endlessly. They are soft targets for social and digital media. According to a study, one in every seven tweets directed towards these women was problematic or abusive; one in every five tweets was sexist or misogynistic. The National Crime Records Bureau’s latest report claims 88 rapes take place daily. The recent spurt in sexual assaults on girls in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal reflects total callousness for women safety. During 2019, over 4 lakh cases of crime against women were registered as against, 3.75 lakh a year earlier.
What explains the pendency of the over two decade-old Women’s Reservation Bill except sexism? Caste-based regional parties predictably oppose it. Why are national parties silent? Is it because women are increasingly proving to be more successful when they have full freedom and authority? Leave alone giving women one-third seats in legislature, parties are unwilling to appoint even 25 per cent of women as party office bearers.
The fact that the country has, so far, had only one female prime minister and just about a dozen chief ministers during the past 70 years explains the vice-like male grip over the social order. The Indian male of every shade and shape wants to confine women as deities inside the four walls of a temple with pomp and show to bow before her on a daily basis. Outside the realm of mythology, the woman remains a follower not a leader. The Rig Veda says about the Bharatiya nari, “May you be the empress and lead all.” For the Indian male, she is indeed an empress but, sadly, only of the kitchen and at home and not even a kitchen cabinet.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla