I don’t know who coined the phrase – Behind every successful man, there is a woman. But I suspect it was Thomas Munro.
Some two centuries ago, Mr Munro, a settlement officer and collector in South India wrote a letter recounting how one farmer “cannot afford to pay his usual rent because his wife is dead, who used to do more work than his best bullock.”
Rabid exploitation and hatred of women is deeply entrenched in the Indian society. The roots of this hatred run bedrock deep and are directly proportional to the extent of our vehement denial of this misogyny.
Misogyny – harder to spell, easier to practice
The moment one mention’s the word misogyny, pat comes the counter – but we worship women as goddesses in this country. Alas, nothing could be farther from truth. We don’t worship women as goddesses, we only worship goddesses as goddesses.
Thanks largely to this sort of denial and some twisted justifications provided by the self-appointed guardians of social morality, we have become oblivious to the fact that the condition of women in the country is steadily deteriorating.
Thomson Reuters Foundation and World Report surveys show India as the 4th most dangerous country for a woman, in the same league as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Congo. At least the Taliban in Af-Pak are open about their disdain for women. But Indian society is hypocritical. We worship goddesses and yet fail to protect women from crimes and then blame them too for bringing it upon themselves. Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male.
No woman, no cry
Our hatred for women starts even before they are born. Female infanticide claimed 50 lakh girl babies in India in 2016. Yes, that is 13,700 murders every day.
45% girls are married off before the age of 18. 10% teenage girls are already mothers. The country probably has, in absolute numbers, more teen mothers than almost anywhere else in the world — a rough calculation would put the figure at about five million.
70% of Indian married women have faced domestic violence at some point or other.
Honour killing numbers are up from 28 in 2014 to 251 in 2016, almost 800% jump.
We are one of the worst offenders when it comes to sexual harassment, eve teasing & rape. Despite 90% of such incidents not being reported, there were 35,000 such registered cases in 2016, a jump of 90% over the previous year. 7 out of every 10 women has faced sexual harassment at work place.
And in continuation of the legacy from Thomas Munro’s time 200 years ago; where the jobs require free labour, that is, no payment for work done, 90% of the work force consists of women. However, where there is paid work, women constitute only 10% of the work force.
So was the Indian society always like this or did things change for the worse at some point in time?
We were like this only
During the early Vedic period (2500 – 1500 BCE), available data shows that liberal attitudes and practices pertaining to women existed during this period. Women actively took part in religious and social activities. They had freedom to choose their life partner and marriage was not regarded compulsory. Daughters were not considered a liability. However, the society was still patriarchal and male dominated. Husband had a superior position in society compared to wife. Polygamy was allowed. A widow could remarry but only to the brother of the deceased husband.
The high status that women enjoyed during the early Vedic period gradually started declining in the late Vedic period (1000-500 BCE). Women started to get confined to the house. Excessive importance was given to concepts such as purity and cleanliness. Sons started becoming the sole heir of family property. A woman’s place was her home and bearing sons to continue the family lineage was her prime task. Women were kept constantly under the control of men and slowly started losing the right to education and knowledge. This downfall coincided with the era of our great epics – Ramayana & Mahabharata. These two great epics still exert a considerable influence on the Indian society. Sita is the epitome of an ideal Indian woman, a woman who surrenders her desires and ambitions to follow her husband, one who never questions her husband and does what she is told. Draupadi from Mahabharata exhibits more courage and freedom yet she is used and abused by the menfolk of the family and only god could save her. Then we have Gandhari again from Mahabharata who blind folds herself and lowers her capabilities to meet those of her husband.
The period between 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. or the Manu Smriti period was one of progressive deterioration in the position of women. It is Manu’s code that has had the most negative impact on Indian women for countless succeeding generations. Even today, it is Manu’s laws which keep millions helpless in the confines of Hindu orthodoxy. Despite a few odd passages here and there about glorification of women, by and large his laws place women socially on a level with the lowest of all groups in society, the Sudra. Manu’s social codes and sanctions left their marks permanently on the future status of the Indian women.
From 1000 AD onwards, Muslim invaders took control of the country. During their reign, position of women became even worse. Polygamy and Purdah were two of the most important social institutions of the Muslim conquerors of India. Strict enforcement of purdah system meant seclusion of women from men who did not belong to their immediate family. Therefore, opportunities to educate women reduced considerably leaving them at the mercy of rigid patriarchal values and practices. Hindu civilization also stopped progressing and got caught in blind faith and old customs resulting in propagation of regressive practices like Sati, Jauhar, Child marriage, female foeticide, Devadasi system etc.
Its only when the British started an era of social reforms with the abolition of Sati in 1829 AD alongside tireless efforts of prominent Hindu social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Jyoti Ba Phule is when this decline was arrested. However, as the data put forth by me above shows, we have a very long way to go before our treatment of women will classify us as a civilized society.
Long walk to freedom
Among other things such as education, law and order, equal rights etc the key to improving women’s status in Indian society is the internalization of the concepts of freedom and dignity. Freedom means each person in every role respects the other’s liberty and dignity. This respect is accorded at work, home and at public places. Unfortunately, concept of freedom and dignity are not yet known in India, leave alone internalized. The idea that women should choose their life, their attire, their career, their faith, their partners, their jobs, to have an offspring or not, their future: this idea is anathema to most Indians. Seventy years have passed since India gained independence and still we don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of the concept of freedom. Unless that change happens, women will continue to be slaves of an outdated thinking and the country will continue to be one of the most wretched places on earth for humanity.
“You can’t beat women anyhow and that if you are wise you don’t even try to”- William Faulkner