The predominant force in social organizations of the Indian society is patriarchy, and the family id its chief institution. The Indian woman’s self identity is deeply rooted not only in her marriage – but in her role in the family, the community – the society. However, the English educated middle class of colonial India started questioning the rigidity of old traditions, and this gradually led to a change in the attitude towards women as well. The Nationalist movement saw women’s participation in large numbers and they played a major role in the struggle for freedom.
In 1917 the first women’s delegation met the secretary of sate to demand women’s political rights. The Indian National Congress supported this demand. In 1949 independent India gave them their due by enshrining in the Constitution the right of equality for women . since then Indian women have participated in large numbers in peoples movements including those for land rights, the environment, anti-price rise, anti-liquor agitation’s etc. However, in reality the status of women have not really seen any real changes. The clearest indicator of discrimination against women in India is the skewed sex ratio.
Though formally equality for women have been on the agenda of the Indian government since independence, no practical changes have taken place. This essay goes on to analyze the government’s stand on the gender issue in India by looking at pre independence and post independence India and it’s political scenarios. It also will look into the construction of gender identities. The role of patriarchy and the family in modern India will also be looked at closely. Last of all, the essay will try to look into how class plays a role in gender discriminatory practices.
The essay will begin by taking a look at the sex ratio in India and what they reflect about gender discrimination. ‘There is growing evidence to support the claims that in India women in a specific age group die in greater numbers than men in the same age group, that they expect to have shorter lives than men, and that the proportion of women in the population is less than men and is decreasing. What is most disturbing about these facts, which have a direct bearing on the problem of women and their development is that this trend, which was discernible from the early decades of this century, has accelerated since independence…
Women’s lives are cheaper and more expendable than men’s. Their inferior status stands in the way of their survival. ‘ [Mukhopadhay, 1985:25] Women in many societies experience powerful pressures to produce children, particularly sons. In certain cultures daughters are treated as an additional burden in the family resources. In spite of that the normal distribution of population that prevails in most countries of the world reveals a higher population of women than men. However, every year in India women in poor communities come under intense pressure from family and society to abandon, poison or suffocate girl babies.
Richer families may abort girl children before they are born. Sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and the dowry system – three prevailing norms of the Indian society are now illegal, yet their continuance leads to the loss of thousands of girls from the population. Natural population tends to have more girls than boys. However census results from May 2002 show that in India there are 960 females per 1000 males, with female infant mortality rates in India 40% higher than male rates. It is estimates that 40-50 million girls have gone missing from the Indian population since 1990.
Such patriarchal gender biased beliefs and practices have been present in India throughout its ancient history. The status and role of women in India have however changed over different time periods. Rajan says, ‘the construction of women in terms of recognizable roles, images, models, and labels occur in discourse in response to specific social imperatives. ‘ [Rajan, 1993:129] The colonial Indian woman was thus constructed as courageous and modern in thought, but at the same time sacrificing and the keeper of traditions and customs.
A document entitled ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy’ was prepared for the Congress Party in the late 1930s. According to Banerjee[1998:WS3], ‘this report clearly showed that: “even then, Indian women were by no means icons awaiting male handouts, as has been visualised by several scholars. ” [Chatterjee, 1988]’ The recommendations of the WRPE were indeed quite radical and lofty, and many of them are still ‘a part of the unfulfilled demands of the Indian women. ‘ [Banerjee, 1998] But in the post independence period the WRPE was effectively forgotten. There were however some early successes.
As Forbes points out: ‘The Indian constitution declared equality a fundamental right. This document also guaranteed equal protection of the law, equal opportunities in public employment and prohibited discrimination in public places. The Hindu Code, passed as separate Acts between 1955 and 1956, rewrote for Hindu’s the law of marriage and divorce, adoption, and inheritance. Adult suffrage added women to the electoral roles and political parties pledged their commitment to women’s issues. The new state developed a bureaucratic structure designed to meet the specific needs of women.
This included creating the National Social Welfare Board, assigning special duties to block development officer, and asking the Department of Health and Welfare to prepare a specific plan with women in mind. In the documents of the new Indian State the past had been undone, modernity was triumphant, and women were no longer subordinate to men. ‘ [Forbes, 1996:223-224] However, even as formal equality was being explicitly enshrined within the Indian law, fundamental problems remained. In the reform of the ‘personal’ laws of marriage, divorce inheritance etc in the 1950s Muslim women were not touched.
The Act itself was called the Hindu Code. This action itself reflected the discriminatory governmental policies. Alongside, notwithstanding the formal guarantees of equality, Indian women’s lives continued to be characterised by pervasive discrimination and substantive inequality. Nehru – who had previously presided on a committee on women’s status, overlooked the radical ideas brought forward by the various women’s organisations for economic equality and concentrated on constructing women as dependants not recognising women as paid workers in his first Five Year Plan.
The unproblematic tradition of regarding women as targets for household and motherhood oriented welfare services was given recognition in official policy documents. ‘ [Banerjee, 1998] As Banerjee goes on to say, the Nehruvian plans were based not on providing equal opportunities, but on the advancement of the economy. These Plans were modelled in such a way that they ‘aggravated the disparities between the different sections of the economy’ [Banerjee, 1998] instead of reconciling them. Apart from providing some welfarism for the disadvantaged groups – among whom women were also included – no other provision was present for them.
The Indian political scene however got a severe jolt when ‘Toward Equality’ was published in 1974. It was a report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India appointed by the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare. This report pointed out that the Indian State had failed in its constitutional obligation of not discriminating on the grounds of gender. According to Forbes [1996:227], ‘The authors of this report charged that women’s status had not improved but had in fact, declined since independence:
The review of the disabilities and constraints on women, which stem from socio-cultural institutions, indicates that the majority of women are still very far from enjoying the rights and opportunities guaranteed to them by the constitution. The social laws, that sought to mitigate the problems of women in their family life, have remained unknown to a large mass of women in this country, who are as ignorant of their legal rights today as they were before independence. ” [Toward Equality, 1974:359]’ Women continued to face discrimination not just at home, but also in employment.
The report showed that over the years of governmental planning employment of women had decreased dramatically in organised industries. Women’s decreasing work participation rate and share of employment and increasing poverty and economic and social insecurity in the sectors which they had dominated earlier was not even viewed as a problem that had to be dealt with. Even with Mrs. Gandhi as the Prime Minister, women’s issues were not promoted. She seemed to be promoting housewifery for women instead. In fact she openly stated that she did not consider herself a feminist and concerned with women’s issues.
However, as a result of ‘Toward Equality’ the lobbying of the various women’s organisations and the pressure from the UN the Sixth National Plan did include a separate chapter on women. Also Rajiv Gandhi’s government took a positive stance towards women. Programmes for the development of rural women were out forward. A new department of women and child development was created out of the Ministry of Social Welfare. Another move initiated by him was to bring about a responsive system of governance at the district level and below. This has led to the direct participation of approximately 2. million women in the political system in India today. ‘ A massive churning is taking place among the submerged humanity of India.
It is sending shock tremors to the bedrock of patriarchy of Indian society. ‘ [Bandopadhay, 2000:2698] As Bandopadhay quotes [ibid. ], ‘Mahajan, “patriarchy is insidiously at work even among those who pride themselves on their modern attitudes and egalitarian practices. ” [EPW, March4, 2000]’ The construction of femininity has been and still is constructed in such a way that it is linked deeply to the family. It is precisely this rootedness, that has made it impossible for even Indian feminists to seriously challenge the family as the single most oppressive institution… Though for the last 150 years, liberal thinkers have tried to amend archaic and sexist laws derogatory to women… However, the psychological and social realities in which women live have remained virtually unchanged. The hierarchy and power relations of traditional institutions produce people who are mutilated. [Ghadially, 1996:16] Also the changes that have taken place have mostly favoured the urban middle or upper class women.
But a vast majority of Indians live in rural areas in extreme poverty. The relationship between class and patriarchy thus also appears to be complex and variable. Not only are patriarchal systems class differentiated, open to constant and consistent reformulation, but defining gender seems to be crucial to the formation of classes and dominant ideologies. Again, the relation between changing modes of production, patriarchal structures and class positions is both aligned and disjunct. For example, men and women of the same class often have differentiation access to forms of social privilege, wages, means of production.
The lives of women thus exist at the interface of caste and class inequality, especially since the description and management of gender and female sexuality is involved in the maintenance and reproduction of social inequalities. Dowry murders, female infanticides, domestic violence, are still everyday occurrences in the rural areas and among the largely illiterate working classes in the urban areas of modern India. Generalised assumptions however should not be made on the working class women alone, as these incidents are common even among the upper classes and the well educated.
As Ghadially says, ‘these groups (the lower classes), the minority communities, and rural women deserve to be studied in their own right… ‘[Ghadially, 1996:17] In the light of examining all these factors, we can conclude by saying that, in spite of the discriminatory practices and differential attitudes of India’s patriarchal beliefs and systems, progress has been made, even if it has only been a little. Though formally Indian women have long been given equality, to truly achieve it they have to fight for it and go a long way.