Friday, 31 March 2017

India must go for gender equality

 Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenges of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.
Kofi Annam
Former UN Secretary General

It is impossible to think about the welfare and sustainable development of India unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing”, noted Swami Vivekananda  some hundred years ago. Addressing about 6,000 women Sarpanchs (a Sarpanch is an elected head of a village-level statutory institution called the panchayat) from across the country on International Women’s Day 2017, Prime Minister Modi said, "If women, who are 50 per cent of the country's population, participate and are included in the nation - building process, our country can achieve great heights."

So, how is women's status in India? No doubt, in many ways, today is the best time in modern history of India to be a girl. Opportunities for a girl's successes are as unlimited as her dreams. Girls are defying all odds and showing Killer Instincts. PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar became the unlikely heroines and saved the country's pride from returning empty-handed from the Rio Olympics (2016) for the first time since Barcelona 1992. In other words, today's India offers a lot of opportunities to women, with women having a voice in everyday life, the business world as well as in political life.

Yet an alarm is sounding, revealing a disturbing portrait of millions of girls missing and others struggling.[1]  Though India is moving away from the male dominated culture, discrimination is still highly visible in rural as well as in urban areas, throughout all strata of society. While women are guaranteed equality under the constitution, legal protection has a limited effect, where patriarchal traditions prevail.[2]

With the whole world celebrating International Women’s Day with great pomp and show, it would be only apt to refer three or four  incidences which took place in the first three months of this year to describe the position and space Indian women especially the young ones occupy today.

We live in the age where tweets, WhatsApp posts and Face Book status updates have taken over as news. Often, it is mindless celebrity gossip and random tripe, but occasionally it leads to something more troubling. Trolling of Dangal actor Zaira Wasim, martyr’s daughter Gurmehar Kaur and teenager singer sensation Nahid Afrin exposes our biased mind about women’s achievements.

The controversy surrounding Zaira Wasim – who was trolled on social media for her success in the film and meeting Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who described her as a Kashmiri role model – has only exposed the bigotry and hypocrisy of the pro-separatist lobby in Kashmir and elsewhere. The cheap trolling suggests that believing Muslims are not willing to accept a boy-cut hair girl without burqa as their role model. She was subjected to sexist abuse. The pressure heaped on the 16-year-old forced her to tender an apology for her success. She went on to say, 'I am being projected as a role model for Kashmiri youth. I want to make it very clear that I do not want anyone to follow in my footsteps or even consider me as a role model...'

Similar kind of trolling happened to Gurmehar Kaur, the English literature student of Delhi University and daughter of an Army martyr, who had found herself at the centre of a social media storm over her stand supporting freedom of speech by saying that war had killed her father, not Pakistan, and for challenging ABVP (all India student organization affiliated to the RSS), withdrew from the campaign and opted out from the mega march against violence.[3] Kaur sought privacy, tweeting, ‘I've been through a lot and this is all my 20year self could take’. Sources said after having faced rape threats and vitriol on Twitter, Kaur left for her hometown, Jalandhar.

Lastly, just days after a Muslim girl from Karnataka was trolled and slammed for singing Hindu devotional songs, a pamphlet was issued against the 16-year-old singer Nahid Afrin from Assam, the winner of a TV talent show, by 46 clerics to stop her from performing in public.

Against the backdrop of such wholesale bigotry and misogyny, these young girls are indeed a role model for youth especially females across the country – and should be encouraged to express their views.

The targeting young girls (or women) reflect the height of emerging intolerance in the country. How can opinions be suppressed like this? Our Constitution gives all citizens freedom of speech and difference of opinion does not mean that attempts should be made to muzzle voices with uncivilized threats.

Recently, an Indian movie (Lipstick under my burkha), made by an Indian woman (Alankrita), about Indian women was blocked from Indian theaters by an Indian man (Pahlaj Nihalani, Chairman of the national censor board) even as it collected awards at international film festivals. In the movie four feisty women in a small-town of India try to chase their little dreams, desires and fantasies through secret acts of rebellion.  It appears that even the government statutory bodies like the Central Board of Film Certification are very interested in perpetuating the male gaze, and anything that is an alternative point of view makes them uncomfortable. I think everyone dreams what they do not get or want to have in reality, if makers of films trying to show facts about life of women/men why some people in the name of society and to prove their ego ban such efforts. 

It appears that female's abhivyakti (expression), khvaab (dream), or kalpana (fantasy) frightens us. And we want to regulate it by hook and crook. In recent years, we have seen a spate of honor killings in the country (the honor killing is defined as a death that is awarded to a woman of the family for marrying against the parent’s wishes, having extramarital and premarital relationships, marrying within the same gotra (clan) or outside one’s caste, etc. Honor killing is different from the dowry deaths that are also a very common practice in India), especially in the North India. According to the official data, between 2001 and 2015, love/marriage was the main recorded reason for such murders, suicides, abducting women and culpable homicide cases. On an average, there are seven murder cases, 14 suicides and 47 kidnapping cases (mostly because somebody eloped with kith and kin and others) every day. Terror, on the other hand, killed 3 to 4 people, including civilians and security forces, in the same period.

It appears women are not born, but made. What better than India to exemplify this statement by Simone de Beauvoir. [4]  Therefore the chains that tie women down are not only external but are welded together invisibly by dint of growing up in what is still a patriarchal society. In order for women to free themselves from these shackles they need to be made aware that they are there in the first place, and this is where de Beauvoir’s ideas are unfortunately still of relevance today. Even if society’s mores have moved on from those described by de Beauvoir around 70 years ago, the essential remains the same.

Most of us will agree with de Beauvoir that women should not allow themselves to be limited by other people’s ideas of what they are or how they should behave or what they should look like. But this needs an enabling or conducive environment.We have to recognize that we can control a woman’s body, lock her in the house, cover her face with a veil, but her mind cannot be truly domesticated.

"Today women are more eager to learn new things in their workplace. They have proved to be more sincere". And they know how to mobilize resources to complete an assigned task. Hence, we have to create conducive environment where women can chase big dreams and contribute country’s welfare and development. .
In my paper, Empowering Women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda, it is argued that there is an urgent need to formulating a feminist agenda to empower women living in highly patriarchal and traditional surroundings with several obstacles. [5] The ‘agenda’ is based on the premises that no doubt efficient policing, stringent punishments and legal measures would reduce the incidences of crime against women but these cannot eliminate growing gender inequality in India unless and until the mindset of the society is changed. The article suggests that women-centred reproductive health care along-with enlarged education and employment opportunities for females may alter patriarchal constructs despite strong structural resistance. And this feminist agenda will contribute significantly towards women’s empowerment and reduce gender gap significantly.

Here the State and society have to swing to their side, like the Assam chief minister, the Union law minister and a chorus of other voices spoke for Nahid Afrin, defending her from the clerics. After getting support Afrin, who was seen in the famous reality TV show Indian Idol, said “she is not afraid of the threat and will continue to pursue her dream of making it big in the music industry.” 

From small villages to big cities, snug families to urban alienation, young women are going the extra mile to earn their living and carve out new careers. They need holistic skilling solutions and last-mile connectivity to chase their dreams. In her new  book, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta, a former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, explores today’s India through portraits of seven young people who, despite many obstacles, aspire to mobility and opportunity. Hope India’s policy makers as well as public at large are listening.

[1] See my post: India confronts epidemic of missing girl children at --

[2] Refer article Women Situation in India at: ttp://

[3] In the raging debate on the right to freedom of expression, LSR student Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of Captain Mandeep Singh, who died in a Kashmir terror attack, was seen holding a placard that reads, "Pakistan did not kill my father, war did".

[4] The Second Sex, the classic manifesto of the librated women by Simone de Beauvoir, was first published in 1949. Never before had the case for female liberty or empowerment been so forcefully and successfully argued. De Beauvoir believed   that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”  Also refer article by Maureen Youngere:  “One is not born a woman, but becomes one” at

[5] Kothari, Devendra. 2014. “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, Journal of Health Management, 16 (2), pp 233-43. Also refer  my post: India confronts epidemic of missing girl children at --