“How did you permit your unmarried daughter to work and settle abroad?”. In a single question to my mother, a “well-meaning” relative bluntly articulated the mind-set, deeply ingrained within patrilineal family structures of Indian society, that women exist only in relation to a man and without a husband she is but a ship without sails. On the eve of the 73rd Independence day of India, we need to consider if the female half of the burgeoning Indian population is truly liberated? Freedom, as defined by Webster’s, is the ‘absence of necessity, coercion or constrain in choice or action”. Are we, the women of India living with complete freedom? Are we free to wear what we want, speak what we want, live the way we want? Can we walk down the street safely at night? Do we have the resources and opportunities to be financially independent? Voting rights, the right to abortion, the freedom to choose a spouse?
Fortunately to some of those questions, the answer is an emphatic yes. India has made some great strides in the path of women empowerment over the last 7 decades. Back in the days of our mothers and grandmothers, women were not presented with so many opportunities – to work, marry, divorce, travel, educate themselves, start a business. As a country we have seen considerable gains in women’s education with female literacy now up at 53.4% from a mere 15% in the 1960s. We have a 12% representation in the parliament today. 28% of the work force comprises of women (although that number could have been better). About 60% of the urban services sector comprises of women.
Plethora of laws and schemes have been put in place by the Indian government to support the cause of women. Women in India have access to abortion upto 20 weeks of pregnancy unlike quite a few western countries like Finland, Austria, Poland, and Ireland where abortion laws are still limited or those with a blanket ban like Malta. The more recent Maternity Benefits Act that commenced in 2017, makes India the country with the third highest paid maternity leave policy only after Canada and the Netherlands. However benefits like these do not reach women working in unorganised sectors (like our household help). Despite the smorgasbord of supportive opportunities offered and legislation passed on paper, the Indian government has some distance to go before being able to implement these to benefit women across various segments of the population.
With all the talk of workplace numbers and maternity benefits, how can women effectively participate in the economic success of India when the coveted sense of safety and security is still elusive. Living in London, I clearly feel the difference when my clothing choices are not governed by the mode of transport, time of the day or the company I have. Indian women still do not feel safe in their own country. There are 34000 rape cases reported in a year. The harrowing ordeals of the 23-year old Nirbhaya, brutally gang-raped in the nation’s capital in December 2012, still lives in our psyche. Couple these with issues like female foeticide (at 2000 cases a year) and domestic violence, it’s easy to see that India is still a country riddled with a patriarchal mind-set. This is clearly depicted in the portrayal of women in Indian cinema. From raunchy item numbers (“main toh tandoori murgi hoon yaar..”) to gut-wrenching characters like Kabir Singh, Bollywood continues to objectify women and undermine their perception in the Indian society.
To fight the issues affecting the freedom of women in India, firstly we need to continue to encourage more women to be educated, work for passion and financial independence. It is only through education that women, the forebearers of the next generation can bring about change in our society. Financial independence will give us the freedom to make choices that serve us and free us from the shackles of the society. Secondly, we need more female leaders with an increased representation in government and in the corporate world. As women have fewer role models to look up to, female leaders at all levels need to mentor the upcoming generation and to inculcate the culture of being supportive of each other’s growth. Lastly, the government needs to do more to improve the law and order situation, by educating the police force to better serve and protect women. A lot needs to be done to improve the shambolic and mind-numbingly slow justice system where thousands of cases are stuck for years and it takes too long to get justice, preventing women from reporting crimes.
Nelson Mandela once said that a society is not truly free until its women are emancipated from all forms of oppression. This Independence Day lets remind ourselves to do our bit to support the ladies – report violence, help her out when in need, support their choices, encourage them in their work and educational endeavours and of course shut down the casual sexism like my mother did – “She did not need permission, in fact this is what I dreamt for her – wearing pant suits, working for a multinational, returning home with ruddy cheeks from a cold foreign country and not needing to ask a man to foot her expensive bills.”