This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
Come March 8, another Women's Day will get buried under marketing buzz. But it's a good time to introspect on what empowerment really means.
March 8, International Women's Day approaches. And the marketing gurus are hard at work. Selling. Selling. Selling us women the idea that we are empowered if we buy. Empowered if we spend. Empowered if we get a facial, a manicure, a pedicure, even a botox job. Empowered if we dress right, look right, are the right shape, have the right hair, of the right colour. The origins of March 8 have now been well and truly buried under the lavender hues of the marketing buzz that surrounds us through an ever-obliging media.
Time to take stock
A Women's Day, however, should be a time to assess, to introspect, and certainly to celebrate. We need to make an honest assessment of where we are, introspect about what still needs to be done and celebrate what has been achieved.
So while we, who live in cities, are being told that nirvana lies in spending more, there are millions of Indian women who cannot afford to buy enough food to feed their families, let alone themselves. While we are told how to exhaust the country's energy sources by buying energy-intensive gadgets that will reduce our “drudgery” (although most women who can afford such gadgets pass on the “drudgery” to other women who they employ), the other half, or more than half of Indian women spend hours each day collecting the fuel wood that will light their inefficient stoves. What remains of the day will be spent collecting water. In their case, for the fraction of energy they need to cook, they drain a great deal more of their physical energy. And no energy planner takes into account how to reduce this very real “drudgery” that the majority of Indian women are never spared.
I choke each time I listen to an advertisement on a popular radio station in Mumbai where a domestic help complains to her employer about the amount of work she is forced to do and threatens to quit. The response of the woman employer is to tell her about a new liquid that magically removes stains and cleans tiles without any effort! The domestic responds (you can almost ‘ hear' her beaming) that now she has no problems! If only new cleaning agents would remove the drudgery of cleaning.
And while young women living in cities are being lured by the marketing brigade into believing that they can let their hair down and party until there is no tomorrow, we have gang rapes in Kolkata and Noida that remind us that no woman, regardless of her age or her class, can assume that she will be safe or that law-enforcers will be sympathetic.
In Kolkata, when a 37-year-old woman is gang-raped in a car, she is asked by the police to describe in lurid detail how the rape took place and mocked while she tries to lodge an FIR. A Minister in the West Bengal cabinet goes further by asking what a mother of two was doing in a nightclub drinking. And the media does not help by giving details such as the fact that she is an Anglo-Indian or that she is separated from her husband. How is any of this pertinent in a case where the police initially failed to take the basic steps required in a rape case?
In the Noida rape, where a minor was gang-raped by five men, it becomes worse. Not only do the police reveal the identity of the rape victim, the Noida superintendent of police, in full view of television cameras, proceeds to cast aspersions on the victim's character by claiming that she went willingly with the men and that she had consumed alcohol. Are the police anywhere in this country trained at all to deal with rape? Have they not been taught the basics about how to deal with such cases? This was not your havaldar in a small chowki but an SP, someone who should have known better.
Remember them too
So, certainly let's celebrate March 8 as Women's Day and applaud the women who have succeeded. But even as we admire a woman like the boxer Mary Kom, who is preparing hard for the Olympics, let us not forget Irom Sharmila from her home state of Manipur, or ordinary Manipuri women who live daily with violence and the lack of basic infrastructure that could ease their daily burden. Even as we appreciate the women who have clambered up the corporate ladder and made it almost to the top, let us not forget that the majority of women in India work in the informal sector where there is no job security, no increments, no designations.
The glass is not half full. It is three-quarters empty. There is a long way to go before we get to the point where March 8 will be a day only of celebration.