Updated: March 9, 2021 9:10:08 am
The long journey of Indian women towards redeeming the promise of equality is too significant to be limited to a day in the year. But International Women’s Day 2021 demands that the ordinary trappings of the occasion — from the regulation political lip service to easy-to-consume brand campaigns — be kept aside to acknowledge and catch up with a vital shift. Women are now at the centre of all important contestations of Indian democracy. They might still remain on the margin of institutions and power, but their struggle is no longer only about pushing the system to grant them a bigger foothold in public spaces. In the fault lines and barricades opening up across India’s democratic landscape, their impatient and fierce assertion is right at home.
That was the spirit that brought thousands of women on to the streets during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, not just in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh but also its replicas in public spaces across the country. That is also why women farmers from Punjab have dug their heels in at Delhi’s borders, along with the men, to protest against the Centre’s three farm laws, never mind the highest court’s anxiety about their presence in the agitation. It is an assertion that comes with a price, but that has not led women to back down from a face-off with an increasingly heavy-handed state. From Sudha Bharadwaj to Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita to Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur, so many women have faced penal action and imprisonment in the course of political mobilisation, activism and protests. This visible contestation is connected to other larger changes that are afoot. From the growing numbers of women in higher education to their mounting presence in voter turnouts, the Indian woman’s choices add up to an insistent demand for greater freedom and agency.
The empowerment brought about by politics and education is in contrast to the increasingly precarious economic conditions, leaving a substantial section of women with the electric charge of aspiration but not the release of opportunity. The pandemic has only worsened this deprivation, with an alarming number of women being pushed out of the workforce and education. In each of these cases, caste and class and location have served to deepen gender inequality and increase family and clan control. Political parties mostly deal with the woman voter who demands a better life by turning her into a recipient of welfare schemes. The woman as unapologetic political being; the woman insistent on her sexual and personal autonomy, on equality of employment and opportunity, is answered with a patriarchal and cultural backlash. That manifests in violence and intimidation and workplace harassment, in the slew of criminal defamation cases against women who said #MeToo as well as the state-sanctioned misogyny of “love jihad” laws. The history of International Women’s Day underlines the importance of solidarity and mobilisation to the many hard-fought battles of feminism. It’s a lesson that is lived out and practised every day, in private and in public, by India’s women — and will shape the future for both women and men.
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