Around the world, the feminist movement or the women’s movement started at different times, raised diverse issues and appealed to women at different levels. Every country treats its women in a unique manner, good or bad, derived from the baggage of cultural norms, traditions and practices.
There are myriad issues that the movement aims to address varying from nations to communities – sexual violence, domestic violence, reproductive rights, maternity leave, women’s suffrage, workplace safety, female genital mutilation, equal pay, etc. What constitutes as a fundamental right is restricted to a state as that is determined by the law of the land. Law has a binding force, yet, it is often perception and practices that drive the behaviour of a society towards its women and permit or prohibit rights guaranteed to them.
India is a land of cultural and ethnic diversity. The history of one of the oldest civilisations that inhabited our land goes back thousands of years. Indian history was punctuated by constant assimilation of migration, invasion, tribes and groups from far and wide resulting in a society that is vibrant and unique.
The status of women in the melting pot of cultures, India, has been subject to regular and intermittent change resulting in the present state of women in the country.
Equality of women, still a long way
India in ancient times was home to women sages that were greatly revered. India is a land where goddesses are worshipped by men and women alike and where the country is ‘mother’ land. Women were active in royal courts, often forming part of administrative and advisory councils and played an active role in politics as well. A fast-evolving civilisation absorbing surrounding and invading traits, India soon succumbed to gender discrimination resulting in confinement of women to households, female foeticide and infanticide, derogatory practices, illiteracy and several other ill-practices that were part of all religious faiths. Eventually, several bad practices that discriminated against women stayed and became customs within those communities; the practice of Sati, child marriage, purdah system, instant triple talaq, etc., to name a few.
When India was fighting for Independence, women from all walks of life and across the country came out of their homes and joined the freedom struggle. Post Independence, the founding fathers of the nation who were drafting the Indian Constitution included provisions to ensure rights of women are protected and women are empowered so they can live and work as equal citizens with the men. In time, several laws were enacted by the legislature and policies framed by the executive to protect women, improve their quality of life, ensure they are given equal opportunities for education and employment. However, despite provisions in the Indian constitution and myriad laws to protect and empower women, the status of women in the Indian society and among society has still to go a long way before achieving equal status as men.
Law is effective only when it is implemented with the same intention it was made for. In most cases, it is perception in society and practice that obstruct delivery of justice and fair implementation of the law. Members of the bureaucracy, polity, law enforcement and the judiciary are part of the very society that discriminates against women. So, when they come in a position where they have to administer law or deliver justice, their personal prejudice often comes in the way that leads to the women being denied their rights.
So, in order to uplift women and ensure desired implementation of the law and give justice swiftly to uphold the rights granted to women by the Constitution, it is imperative to change perception and the resulting practices.
Laws should be in sync with changing society
India is one of the few nations in the world with many laws specifically for women – The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, The Dowry Prohibition Act, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, Special Marriage Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, etc. There are, however, glaring gaps that prevent women from asserting their rights owing to societal perception and practices.
In 2018, the #MeToo movement came to India when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta made allegations of sexual harassment at her workplace, a film set. Similar stories of women from ‘educated’ middle-class and upper-middle class shook the nation that was left aghast with the extent of exploitation in certain industries and organisations. The merits of these allegations can be debated separately but what was important was the fact that so many women could not and did not address the offence of ‘sexual harassment’ despite there being a law in place due to shame and perception where a woman is ‘judged’ for coming out in the open with such allegations.
It must be noted that the segment of women that are active on social media do not represent the complete cross-section of women in the country. Internet and social media, despite the penetration in urban and rural set ups in the country, are restricted to fewer women than men. Smartphones are now household commodities but using powerful social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., is restricted to girls and women who are educated and ‘allowed’ to be active on social media.
The #MeToo movement highlighted harassment at workplace, yet it is only indicative of a larger issue as a significant number of Indian women do not work and stay in the confines of their homes – before and after marriage. Instances of child abuse, harassment from family members, sexual abuse by family members such as fathers, brothers or uncles, emotional and financial abuse perpetrated by male and female members of the family are commonplace misdeeds. These acts violate a woman’s right to life and right to live with dignity as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
These incidents not only go unreported as the woman feels a sense of shame in talking about it or reporting it. If at all she gathers courage to approach authorities despite being discouraged by her family, her complaints are not registered, and if registered do not reach their logical conclusion because of the bias among authorities that works against delivery of justice.
When the practice of instant triple talaq was banned, millions of Muslim women in India were saved from the barbaric practice. The constant fear of being divorced in an instant and at whim was nothing less of torture and living a life of insecurity for many married women.
Stalking is another offence that needs to be taken seriously by women and, more so, by the authorities. An act of stalking in person or in cyber space can lead to more serious offences such as rape or murder if not addressed in time. Other cyber crimes such as impersonation, fraud, blackmailing, identity theft, trolling, pornography, harassment, cyber bullying or forwarding videos of rape or abuse are other ways that affect women on a daily basis. Such crimes are targeted towards the weak, mostly women and children, across social strata. However, now other groups are also getting affected and young college girls, educated and working women are falling prey. With more than 196 million social media users in India in 2017, the magnitude of the problem is huge.
Independent India has evolved and, with it, the judiciary processes and laws that have to be in-sync with the changing society. A truthful evaluation of the grassroots situation and changes occurring will need to be done, and processes introduced to do them regularly. Deterrence will need to be taken into consideration while framing laws to further their reach and potential. Also, there should be a well-planned strategy to boost awareness and change parochial mindsets, societal perception and practices alongside. Women need to speak up for themselves, support and stand up for each other to battle perception in society and discriminatory practices that prevent their well-being and come in the way of asserting their rights as equal citizens. A famous American poet Maya Angelou had said, “Each time a woman stands for herself, she stands for all women.”