Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women Empowerment: A Different Perspective

By Shahidur Rashid Talukdar,
Here is the paradox. In one hand, we have ladies leading our countries and on the other hand, we are not even letting others see the face of the earth. Based on the declining sex ratio, a recent study has predicted that by 2020 India will experience twenty percent more males than females! This is the worst possible discrimination that we can inflict on women. We are denying them their right to be born!
From times immemorial, women have been at the receiving end of both joy as well as misery. In mythology, we idolize them and in our temples, some of us, worship them. At home, we love and respect them as mothers and sisters. In our youth, we dream about them. We admire them for their beauty and grace. The list goes on. However, the reality says, despite all these nicest feelings from our side, women are still oppressed! Our collective love, respect, and admiration fail to give them a place in the society they truly deserve! Is not it ironic? Individually, all of us seem to be or at least, pose to be, nice guys: quite benevolent to our female counterparts. Where is the mismatch, then?
Well, however, we pose ourselves but the truth is that the society has, by and large, been patriarchal. Over history of time, across the geography of the world, as I am not sure about the rest of the universe, policies have favored male supremacy. Encompassing all the frameworks of religious, social, and political spheres, we have devised policies that give us a greater pleasure, better position, more power, higher degree of freedom, and better share of opportunities. The consequences of our policies now we can see in our vicinity. I am not endeavoring to go for analysis of communities or scriptures, as it is none of my objective here to describe who did what, which religion suppressed women more and which gave them more rights.
Women in Islam
However, recently there has been considerable debates about ‘can Islam liberate women or not’, but the outcome, as usual, is blurred. Though the scriptures give a certain degree of rights, the practice of the followers i.e. the Muslims are significantly different from the scriptures. Although some of the greatest crimes against women such as female infanticide are less prevalent in Muslim societies, honor killings fill the gap. In practice, Muslims follow their scriptures fairly selectively. And above all, there has been little effort to look into the implied meaning of the scriptures rather than the literal. So ultimately, it becomes another phase of the same old story.
Women and the West
Although every society has had its share of discrimination against women, the west seems to be swiftly embracing the changing landscape of women’s participation in nearly all spheres of life, although with some if’s and but’s. Even though women are quite visible in the public arena, the participation is far from a true empowerment. In most offices, the ladies embellish the reception counters or fill the clerical posts while the men in the office occupy the powerful positions. For the same work, the females continue to receive significantly less salaries compared to their male counterparts. Women candidates are still not the best fit for politics. Leaving the west aside, the picture is quite bleak in India and much of the South East Asia.
However, we are making some small progress, at least. Now women have voting rights almost everywhere in the democratic world. They are quite visible in the streets, universities, and offices which was not the case in past. The progress is slow, though, as the age old menace can’t be solved in a day. So the process will take its time. Meanwhile, we should ensure that the progress is being made in the right direction.
Theoretically, we have moved upward from participation of women to empowerment via emancipation. But practically, can we say a lot has changed? The practical indicators such as domestic violence, eve-teasing, female feticide or infanticide, or dowry death do not reflect much of improvement in this regard.
Failed notions of women empowerment
The barest notion of empowerment would include dimensions such as Health, Education, Mobility, Financial Freedom, Political Space, and Freedom of Choice. But here is one question that pops up in my mind. Does these aforesaid suffice? And I find the answer, no. All these measures don’t give women the status they deserve. They need and deserve something more!
Let’s analyze why and how these measures fail to empower a woman. Education is supposed to address majority of these issues. However, an educated woman is also a woman, right! Can’t she be married with someone by everyone else’s choice regardless of whether she likes it or not? Yes, it can be. On the pretext of caste, religion, status or tribe, she can be sacrificed. Can’t she be confined within the four walls of her household? Yes, pretty much. Does education give her financial freedom? Only to a certain extent. She might get a job, but her salary may not be commensurate with her qualification. Studies have found that women, on an average, earn ten to fifty percent less than their male counterparts. Further, does she have the autonomy to spend from her earnings? Well, the in-laws might not like it! The financial freedom of women is not even welcome in many societies. The conservatives in Bangladesh grumble over their declining grip on the womenfolk because of the latters’ financial independence with the help of Grameen Bank.
Financial advancement
Not only that women’s financial advancement is not just envy-free, it has its associated cost. In most cases, the working women are not free from their household responsibilities. So they have to shoulder a double burden. Even after that do they get their due? Usually not. The story is pretty similar among the rural and poor women as well. They work both in the fields and at home. But, being women, they remain sub-credited in both. The marginal gain in credit is less than the additional burden of responsibilities they have to carry out. Thus education and earning capacity do alter the situation but does not necessarily ameliorate it for the women. In some cases, these improvements have positive effects in women’s lives whereas in some other cases, ironically, the situation is exacerbated by multiplying the burden of work for them and not earning the womenfolk enough of credit.
As far as women’s mobility is concerned, surely the educated and independent women enjoy a greater mobility than others but do they enjoy a sense of security as well? There have been reports of harassment of the members of the very team formed for the prevention of eve-teasing! So practically nothing can bring immunity to women’s insecurities and sufferings in public places. Can we call it empowerment?
Freedom of choice
Last but not the least, freedom of choice remains yet another void in the social space for women. From the choice of school to the choice of subject, from the choice of dress code to the choice of life partner, nearly everything is decided by others. If the choice of others reflects the preference of the lady under consideration then it’s well and good but the problem is when the choice of others goes against her will and she is bound to accept that too. Unfortunately, the latter happens quite often regardless of the girls’ educational and financial status.
This is something so deeply ingrained in our societies that we hardly can notice it. In some cases, women are forced to cover themselves up, while in other cases, the man made, established norms make them reveal, ensuring enough access into their body parts to the male eyes, what they would not have revealed otherwise. Flashing in sleeveless and shorts during cold winter is a part of the norm for women when men are cozying wrapped in warm cloths. Is it liberating? Quite often the reverse also happens. When women chose not to reveal themselves, we force them to reveal. We go even to the extent of making it illegal for them to pursue their choice. So we end up curbing the very freedom we claim to ensure. Both these enforcements hinder the freedom of choice. And hence, both deserve equal condemnation. However much is achieved, if the basic freedom of choice is not provided, women will remain far from being empowered.
Political empowerment
The political empowerment is viewed as an empowering tool for women. However, this can also go against them. The parliamentary bill by the Government of India to ensure that at least one third of the parliamentarians would be female has been experiencing a bitter sweet welcome. While many have welcomed the bill, there has been some legitimate opposition to the bill per say based on its political repercussion that it will enervate the representation of minorities in the parliament even further. But I see the problem from another perspective. For a long time, there has been such reservation in local administration, i.e., village panchayats and municipalities. One of the bitterest experiences of such a compulsory reservation is that in many cases, the women are compelled to take part in the political processes, which is not necessarily their choice.
The concomitant byproduct of this policy is that the male members of the women’s family become leaders de facto irrespective of their fitness. These ‘leaders by chance’ pay little heed to the public sentiment or to the actual elected representatives’. A glaring example of such an outcome has been successfully portrayed in the Shyam Benegal movie “Well Done Abba”, where the elected lady representative “Bal Amma” only signs the papers, and the result is “bawdi chori”, stealing of the well on a massive scale! Thus, a measure to empower the women may result in the community getting poorer leadership. Empowerment of women yet remains a distant dream, in many such cases.
Missing link between measures of empowerment and their outcome
Thus it is evident that all these components of empowerment individually fail to empower women and so do they do collectively also. The parts together fail to make the whole! Why is it so? Where is the missing link? How to bridge the gap between the measures for women empowerment and their outcome? We have considered all these dimensions ignoring the most basic one – a respectful attitude towards women from the society.
In order for the women to lead a good life, I suppose this is the ultimate goal of all status equality and empowerment; we must change our attitude towards them. And that alone has the potential to make their life easier, sufferings smoother, contributions significant, efforts worth and their existence meaningful. Without this fundamental component of respect for women, no religious scriptures can ensure their rights, no volume of feminist activism would bring them security and peace in life, no job can compensate them enough, no amount of education can actually liberate them. Through the measures of liberation we can end up increasing their miseries, through legislations of freedom we can actually bind them to our frames of references. A true freedom of choice can only follow from a profound sense of respect towards women.
This respect towards women must be inculcated both in letters as well practice. We have it in letters for ages, but now it is high time that we show it in practice. For the younger generations, and the generations to come, we need to show and make them feel that girls are individuals just as boys are, they are free to chose from the available options about their lives, that they have an equally important say in the family matters and in communal affairs, and that women are respectable members of the society. It starts from our families. If we are respectful to our wives, mothers and sisters, our children will also be respectful to their mothers, sisters, and wives. And ultimately, a meaningful transition – from oppression to empowerment will be possible.

(The writer is a PhD student at Texas Tech University, Texas. He originally hails from Assam, India)

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