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Monday, May 23, 2022

For a republic where women matter

🔴 Mrinal Pande writes: The state needs to take the first step towards examining women’s actual experiences in the contexts of unequal pay, allocation of inferior work and denial of rights over their minds and bodies

Written by Mrinal Pande |
Updated: January 26, 2022 10:30:34 pm
Some 200 years ago, the eccentric Raja Gangadhar of Jhansi had understood that if there is one universally accepted symbol of powerlessness, it is a woman. (C R Sasikumar)

“One man’s word is no man’s word; we should quietly hear both sides.” —Goethe

When all is said and done, reality is not made of laws and data, but the actual experiences of human beings. Real-life stories of women surfacing from time to time in our republic reveal how despite constitutional guarantees of equality, the state has seldom, if ever, intervened systematically to ensure that women are treated equally. We have a very progressive Constitution on paper. Article 14 guarantees equality before law to all the country’s citizens. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on various grounds, including religion, caste, race and gender. Article 16 provides for equality of opportunity and equal pay for equal work to all in matters of public employment. But our laws have never seriously improved the unequal terms of male entitlement over women’s labour and/or their bodies.

Some 200 years ago, the eccentric Raja Gangadhar of Jhansi had understood that if there is one universally accepted symbol of powerlessness, it is a woman. When asked by the British resident why he dressed in women’s attire every few days, he replied that the British sarkar had effectively emasculated all native princes by divesting them of their power as regents. The British alone were men and erstwhile native rulers had been forced to wear bangles, he said. (Maaza Pravas by Vishnu Bhatt Godshe).

From Raja Gangadhar’s point of view, law combines coercion with authority. In our time, one of the country’s sharpest legal minds, Justice Leila Seth, raises the same point. In Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, she asks: “What at root is justice? When I speak to children about the Preamble to our Constitution, I explain justice as being fair. But how can one be fair if the laws are not adequate and the interpreters of the law not sensitive?”

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Let’s talk of concrete instances. Last year, an interim order was passed by the Supreme Court allowing eligible women to appear for the entrance exam of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Naval Academy conducted by the UPSC. The Government of India said that the implementation of the court’s order in 2021 may be difficult. A year later, on January 18, the court revisited the subject and asked the state to explain why of the 1,002 women who had cleared the entrance test in 2021, only 19 women had been admitted to the prestigious NDA in 2022?

The usual approach taken by Indian men in authority towards working women remains protectionist at best and severely critical at worst. A cringe-worthy example of sexism is a recent comment by the health minister of Karnataka, who rued that too many women in India are westernised and wish to stay single. Even if they do get married, they refuse to “give birth”, preferring surrogacy, he said.

This mindset repeatedly surfaces in electoral politics too. When it comes to ticket distribution, women — even those with a record of winning elections — must remain at the mercy of party bosses, mostly male. This is justified by pointing out biological factors — family responsibilities, child-bearing, etc. In UP, for instance, a sitting woman MLA is being challenged in her own constituency by her husband, a party post holder, for a ticket. An MLA’s daughter, who had married against her father’s wishes, has moved the High Court to ask for police protection for her husband and herself, and later released a video requesting her father to recall his goons who had roughed them up outside the court.

As party workers, men have a clearly articulated agency for change and decision-making when tickets are distributed or portfolios are assigned. Women, by and large, remain abstractions with abstract rights and are deemed suitable mostly for the reserved categories men cannot fill. Even pro-women intervention by the state is made without seeking female opinion, though steps such as Ujjwala Yojana, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Jan Dhan Yojana are all glibly defined as a compassionate means for the “empowerment” of women. On addressing women’s actual debasement by rape, pornography, and sex discrimination, factors that eat into their sociopolitical status, the state remains schizoid.

Since the Justice Verma committee’s tweaking of the older rape laws, our judiciary has begun accepting a supposed distinction between sex and gender. But when the matter of female sexuality is discussed and adjudicated upon, women are seldom seen as having an agency of their own. If a menstruating woman enters a temple or a married woman denies her husband consent to have sex, their defiance becomes not a question to be debated under equality laws but as social questions, and are finally adjudicated upon not as a question of basic rights of a citizen but as a part of a certain social structure.

The Indian state has, so far, not fully confronted the relationship between state and society. The NDA echoes its bitter rival, the UPA, in the matter of keeping the bedroom out of bounds for India’s rape laws. It stated (in an affidavit to the Delhi High Court): “What may appear to be marital rape” to a wife “may not appear so to others”. And, that criminalising marital rape may “destabilise the institution of marriage apart from being an easy tool for harassing husbands.”

The point to note is that whether in a bedroom or in a cave, in a woman’s experience, a rape is a rape. What married men want from their wives may not always automatically be what wives also want from husbands. Why must the state, instead of protecting a woman’s sexuality from forced violation and expropriation, continue to present or treat her merely as family property when a crime is committed against her?

If we truly wish to rethink the republic as one in which women really matter, we need to move beyond reflections about family relationships. The state needs to take the first step towards examining women’s actual experienced reality in contexts of unequal pay, allocation of inferior work (compare numbers of men in the formal sector to women), and denial of rights over their minds and bodies.

Did we, the women, ever give our consent to be ruled by a toxic brand of masculinity that would treat us as merely a vote bank and/or second-class citizens? We may occasionally be handed crumbs of progressive or revised legislation, but what do they matter? Like the native princes of Raja Gangadhar’s era, in the name of loyalty to the queen or Hindu Rashtra, we are still largely denied our essential status as independent and equal citizens. A feminist theory of state has barely been shaped much less articulated. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, every reform was once an opinion.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 26, 2022 under the title ‘We, the women’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati

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