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?

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