Saturday, August 30, 2008

Insidious intent

Indian Express, Aug 30, 2008

The immediate crisis over Marathi signboards for all shops in Mumbai might have subsided with the intervention of the Bombay High Court and the state government’s firmness, but several larger issues remain unresolved. The Bombay High Court, in response to a petition by the retail traders’ federation has insisted that the “rule of law must prevail” and that “no one can hold the state to ransom”. The court was referring to the manner in which activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, at the urging of their chief Raj Thackeray, had gone around the city threatening and attacking shops that did not display signboards in Marathi.

However, a far more serious issue remains unaddressed. Besides urging his cadre to virtually take the law into their own hands, Raj Thackeray also wrote an open letter to the Maharashtra police urging them not to “pick up lathis and serve externment notices” against members of the MNS who were terrorising local shopkeepers into displaying signboards in Marathi.
In a letter addressed to “all my police brothers and sisters”, Raj Thackeray has claimed that the agitations conducted by his party are “directly and indirectly for you all”. Maharashtra’s “entire police force (except some IPS officers) is Marathi,” he writes. “You have an idea of the way in which Maharashtra and the Marathi language is being strangled in Maharashtra by bhaiyyas and some baniyas”. He then appeals to their consciences before they move against MNS workers. “Will you and your families like it in case the Marathi language and Maharashtra die at the hands of these bhaiyyas and baniyas?” he asks.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Changing men

The Hindu, Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Other Half

This has been a season of medals — gold, silver and bronze. Men and women, strong and beautiful, have competed as never before. And for a brief moment, the problems around us have evaporated as all of us, regardless of nationality, have basked in the reflected glory of this international bunch of achievers — from tiny Jamaica to the mighty United States of America and China.

The dust will soon settle, the stadia will fall silent, and the achievers and the voyeurs will return to their daily lives. Has something changed in all of us through such an effort? Or are the basics of life and our attitudes untouched by progress on the sporting field, or in the economy or elsewhere?

Incremental change

I would like to believe that there is change. That we should celebrate every little effort at changing entrenched customs and attitudes. And that in the end all this will add up to something.

Last week a friend got married. It was a Hindu wedding. But the person conducting it was a woman. So was her assistant. The ceremony was simple, dignified and participatory. For many of us it was the first time we had witnessed such a ceremony conducted by women. The women priests told me that they and their kin had been conducting religious ceremonies for over two decades now, in Pune and some other parts of Maharashtra. When they began there was opposition. Today, no one questions.

This is only one of several instances we know of where women have broken through stereotypes and roles set for them. Recently, there was a news item in a Bangalore newspaper about women being a part of a Brahmin “thread ceremony” that had remained an exclusive male domain. Not long ago, the Army agreed that women had the right to join the forces as equals. There are scores more of such examples of change. Two or three decades back, none of this would have been considered possible in this country. Yet, it is happening.

We can be cynical and dismiss all this as exceptions that do not reflect the reality of the majority of Indian women. Absolutely true. They do not. Being a woman in India, particularly if you are poor and belong to a lower caste, is not a happy prospect. Despite this depressing reality, however, we can look on these and other developments as small, perhaps faltering, steps towards change.

Yet, while women are breaking new ground almost every day, we hear little about men who are breaking out of moulds. If women feel that they are forced into stereotypes, what about men? Are they not expected always to be strong, hard-working, aggressive, earn money for the family etc? These are roles forced on men by society and any man wanting to break away from these expectations faces ostracism and is considered less than a man. As a result, many men suppress parts of their personalities, often the more creative parts, because they feel they must conform.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Niketa's Choice

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 10, 2008

The Other Half

Thanks to media interest, millions of people have had a direct peek into the life and the choices before a 25-weeks pregnant woman and her husband in Mumbai. Niketa and Haresh Mehta, who were married earlier this year, decided to seek the court’s permission to have an abortion when their doctor informed them that the foetus in Niketa’s womb had a complete congenital heart block. Rather than going through with the pregnancy, the couple decided on an abortion only to come up against stipulations in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 that permits abortions only up to 20 weeks, and that too on certification by at least two medical practitioners that either the mother’s or the child’s lives are at risk.

The Bombay High Court heard the case. On Monday, August 4, it denied the petition stating that they could not make an exception in the case and that nothing in the report of the expert committee they had instituted suggested that the child’s life was at risk. They also suggested that the court could not change the law, that this was the job of legislators and that people like the Mehtas should seek a change in the law.

The case has thrown up a fascinating number of issues that concern individual choice, ethics, technology and the law. In each instance, there are no clear guidelines, there is nothing that is black and white.

Much of the press coverage, for instance, has stressed the right of Niketa as a mother to choose whether she wants to bring this child into the world or not and whether she wants to be burdened with the possibility of a disabled child. There is nothing wrong with this formulation. The battle for women’s reproductive rights has rested on the issue of choice. Yet, there are limitations — ethical, scientific and legal.

For example, women’s groups around the world have fought for liberal abortion laws so that women do not have to put their lives at risk by seeking illegal abortions as a result of unwanted pregnancies. Yet in India, women’s groups have had to figure out how to prevent a liberal law from being misused for sex-selective abortions. Of course, it could be argued, and indeed has been argued, that this too is a woman’s choice. Women prefer not to give birth to girls because they want to spare them the suffering that they are bound to encounter for the rest of their lives as well as the problems they themselves will face as mothers of girls. Yet, the “choice” for sex-selective abortions has been denied under law in India because of the growing evidence of the impact of this on sex ratios in some parts of the country.

Niketa’s case also brings into focus the question of the use and misuse of technology. Ultra-sonography and earlier, amniocentesis, were principally meant to detect genetic abnormalities. Yet in India they have been deliberately and callously misused to detect the sex of the foetus following which women seek an abortion. There would be cases of genetic disorders followed by abortions too but as these are usually detected at a later stage in the pregnancy, as happened to Niketa, legal abortions are not an option.

But, like choice, technology too has a flip side. Thus, while the technology to detect genetic abnormalities has been misused to determine the sex of the child, advances in science today are ensuring that even children born with congenital problems, such as arterial blocks, can actually be treated and can go on to live normal lives. So the same mother who uses technology to ensure that the child in her womb is normal and healthy also has the knowledge that even if there is a problem, there is now a medical solution.

The case has raised legal issues including the need to amend the MTP Act. Those against sex-selective abortions have argued fiercely for maintaining the 20-week limit while others would argue that there is a case for relaxing it by a few weeks. The time limit varies from country to country where abortion is legal. Therefore, there should be no objection to debating the possibility of amending the law.
Not an easy choice

While changes in the law can be debated, the ethical dimension, on whether abortions are right or wrong, is not as emotive an issue in India as it is in countries like the U.S. Although there are religious groups that strictly prohibit abortion, this dimension has not been central to the debate. Yet, while women constrained by religious belief would not consider abortion as an option, even those not bound by religious belief often hesitate and feel guilty when seeking an abortion. It is never an easy or simple choice for any woman.

Of course, the question of choice is restricted to an urban class in India that has access to and can afford to use technology to monitor the progress of a pregnancy. Poor mothers have neither the time, nor the money, to go for regular check-ups during pregnancy. If they and the child survive the pregnancy, that in itself is often a miracle given the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in this country. And if at the end of nine months, a deformed or incapacitated child is born, the gods are blamed for it and life goes on. The question of choice simply does not arise, not on whether to get pregnant, or on what to do about an infant with severe health problems.

Niketa and Haresh will now have to live with the choice that has been made for them by the court and the law. But they should be lauded for being open and seeking a legal way out. As a result, they have thrown open an important issue for people to understand and debate.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bad news for Maharashtra

Here are some facts that appeared in different newspapers today, based on data from the National Family Health Survey -3, that remind of us about the real state of affairs in this country:

1. In Maharashtra, one of the better off states in the country, 35 per cent of pregnant women deliver their babies at home. The good news is that contraceptive use has increased from 61 per cent in NFHS-2 to 67 per cent in NFHS-3. But the sad news is that over one third of women in the state cannot access institutionalised delivery and have babies at home.

2. More bad news. Full immunisation coverage of children has decreased in the period between the two surveys. NFHS-2 found that 78 per cent of infants between 12 to 23 months had received all the basic vaccinations. By NFHS-3 this figure had dropped to 59 per cent.

3. The bad news doesn't stop there. NFHS-3 also found that two out of five children in Maharashtra are stunted or too short for their age, a clear indication of malnutrition. 37 per cent of the children were underweight and one out of five was wasted or too thin. All this in a state that ranks amongst the top five in the country in terms of GDP.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Why women?

Here's something I wrote earlier this year that was never published. It incapsulates what I feel about the status of women in India today.

There are fewer women than men in India. That is a reality. You see fewer men than women in the public space in India. That too is a reality.

It’s not a bad idea to ask “why” in relation to both realities.

For the answer to that question explains the paradox of women in India, why they seem powerful and powerless, why they are successful yet bereft, why they are visible yet invisible, why they are desired yet eliminated even before birth, why they count yet do not seem to matter.

Every single day I walk past these two women. There are two women and three children. Once in a while I see a man. They live, eat, sleep next to a small garbage dump on our road. They are rag pickers. When the sweepers from the surrounding multi-storied buildings dump garbage in the large metal bin, the two women rummage through it to extract plastic, bottles, and anything else that could be recycled and sold.

In ten years, I have seen no improvement in their lives. They started as young, single girls. Today both are mothers with no evident male around. Yet, they laugh, scold their children, bathe them and clean them up, feed them and live their lives. Some like me “see” them every day, exchange smiles, a few words. To the majority of the thousands living in the buildings near this small dump, they are invisible.

When I open the newspapers every day, I do not see the women near the garbage dump. Instead I read of women who have “made it”, who are successful in a world of men, who have climbed the corporate ladder, who are in politics, in parliament, in government, who are pilots, models, actors, government officials, software engineers, entrepreneurs… The whole world, it would seem, is their oyster. These too are Indian women. But they do not include the two near the garbage dump.

I also read each day about women who are violated, raped, murdered for dowry, tortured and forced to leave their marital homes, roughed up on the road, harassed in offices, schools and colleges. The crime graph is climbing and women remain the principal victims. The two women near the garbage dump would have suffered their share of such violence. But you cannot tell if you look at them. Yet, this too is the story of Indian women.

And then there are the “missing” women and girls. Even before they are born, the message is clear. “Not wanted”. Women who produce girls are also not wanted. So modern technology ensures that only boys will be born. The more money you have, the more certain you can be of the sex of your child. So the richest parts of India also have the lowest sex ratio in the zero to six years age group – one thousand boys but often less than 800 girls.

Now the inevitable has happened. In some of these areas, boys cannot find girls to marry. So they are importing them from other states. Sometimes, one woman must service a whole family of men. This too is modern India. I am not sure what my two women near the garbage dump think of this. I doubt if they had a choice about the sex of the children they produced.

But then there are also the joyous sights. For me, the best is to see the dozens of girls, hair tightly plaited and tied usually with bright red ribbons, in neat and clean uniforms, making their way to school. Their mothers never had this chance. What these girls will make of what they learn remains a question mark. But a door has been opened for them, one that was tightly closed, one that could swivel and slam in their faces, but they have the option of sticking their toes in and preventing it from banging. At least they can dream now.

And they do. Speak to these girls. There is no limit to their dreams. What will you do when you grow up? Like lightening comes the response – a doctor, a teacher, a singer, an artist, a computer engineer, a pilot. Words that never entered the minds of their mothers, leave alone escape their lips. So some things have changed.

Women’s enhanced visibility in the media is also a change, although not always positive. The media determines how “success” is measured. So if you are photogenic, you are noticed. If you are brilliant, but don’t have the physical attributes to brighten up the grey areas in a newspaper, then your chances of visibility decrease. If you are rich, you will always be famous. If you are poor, you have to be exceptional to get anywhere near that elusive word “fame”.

But even the partial frame held up by the media serves up pleasant surprises. Like girls from conservative Muslim homes topping the merit list. Like girls from the rural hinterland making it in the city. Like women from an area where the media has hardly any reach producing their own rural newspaper. Like women repairing hand pumps, working as masons, designing and building houses and toilets, saving money and shaming the men, standing up for their rights against unimaginable odds.

So all is not gloomy. Yet there is enough and more to be concerned about. There is enough and more that we need to “see” so that we are not taken in by the superficial, by the celebratory, by the glamorous. Yes, let us applaud those women who have “made it”, who have broken barriers, who are doing what their mothers never dreamed of, who are surprising even themselves and everyone else.

Yet, let us also ask: Why?