Seema Anand is a doctor of narrative practices and a partner at Tharoor Associates. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host an International Women's Day follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011.
In preparation for the final leg of the freedom struggle the Indians drafted the first Fundamental Rights Bill in 1931 and into it they added the Principle of Gender Equality – for 2 reasons primarily.
First – to prove Britain wrong when they said that India was not socially advanced enough for self-rule and second – to give women the right to join the freedom struggle and swell the numbers of agitators.
Women’s rights organisations at the time had identified specific issues that they wished should be included in the principle – dowry prohibition, widow remarriage, polygamy, etc. but they were told that India was still under colonial rule (Victorian Britain did not subscribe to gender equality) and specifics could only be dealt with after independence.
Unfortunately, independence from Britain in 1947 came as a shock to the women’s rights activists.
Gender equality had been fine while it was being used to undermine British authority in India, but when it threatened the positions of Indian men themselves in such areas as inheritance and the Hindu marriage code it was unacceptable.
Every great freedom-fighting ‘father’ of this very young nation turned against it. Apparently, Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister and foreign minister of India (1947 to 1964), was the only one who tried to push through promised laws but he was warned that the Congress Party would very likely lose the elections if he persisted.
So the gender equality laws were shelved and over the several years that they lay dormant they were hacked at and shaved till finally when they were passed between 1951 and 1961 they were shadows of what had originally been proposed.
There were such gaping loopholes that often one could not be sure if indeed they had even been contravened. Worse, there was no functioning infrastructure set up around them so that they could not be effectively enforced and today, almost 60 years later, this has not changed all that much.
For almost 70 percent of the women in India who live under the poverty line, uneducated, underprivileged, without even basic human rights, gender equality is not a myth; it is unknown. It is not that do not have recourse; they have no idea that they have recourse. For them the sub-sections of the constitution that empower positive discrimination in favour of women are not even bits of paper, they simply do not exist.
Add to this the politically engineered myth of the ideal Indian woman – Mother India in the image of Sita – one who nurtures, cares, gives – selflessly, silently; tolerating the inequities, never complaining, and you have the other side of the double-edged sword.
This image was created as an extension of the ‘satyagrah’ or the non-violence movement which was the strategic warfare of the freedom fight, but whereas the ‘satyagrah’ movement ended with independence, the image of Mother India carried into the new nation and became the identity of the Indian woman, mis-translating her silent strength into voiceless weakness, robbing her at once of her dignity and her capabilities.
If, as philosopher Charles Fourier said, to judge the social development of a country one needs to look at the status of women in that country, where does that leave us? India may offer the highest civil and political status to women but it is still only the tiniest percentage, less than 1 percent, of the illiteracy and mortality rates of Indian women which is the reality of our country.
The women of India have an incredible strength, a resilience bred over millennia of invasions, deprivation and injustice; they have an intuitive intelligence honed through survival. But they also belong to a land that has steeped itself in limiting traditions and shackled its women in prejudice.
Once again the freedom struggle begins – the women against generations of oppression; they cannot help but succeed, the question is however – how long?