Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Time to Give Women Their Due

By: Meghnad Desai

In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen says with some pride that 50 years before Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, Sarojini Naidu was president of the Congress. Hence we Indians are way ahead of the Brits etc in honouring women. Of course, Sarojini Naidu had a ceremonial role for one year in an organisation, while Thatcher was PM.

The point is worth discussing. But what does that say about the lives and opportunities of women in Britain as against India? Across South Asia, upper caste and upper class women have made it to the top. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was a cabinet minister in the first Nehru government after Independence. Indira Gandhi was prime minister some dozen years before Margaret Thatcher. Benazir Bhutto, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, her daughter Chandrika Kumartunga, Sheikh Hassina and Begum Zia - all made it to the top when women find it hard to get to the top in the West. Just look at Hillary Clinton's struggle.

But Sen has also been the first to point out how many millions of women are 'missing' in South Asia. The sex ratio in South Asia is one of the lowest in the world. These are women who were either killed in the foetus or throttled at birth once they revealed their sex. The rest were malnourished, beaten up, died in child birth or for the glory of our ancient culture persuaded to perform Sati.

Thus it is not at all surprising that men were seen on live TV in Rajya Sabha tearing up the Women's Bill which the UPA had stealthily introduced on last day of the session much to the mirth of the women ministers. Clearly both sides treat this matter as frivolous. The UPA is interested more in being able to claim that they have done something for women with no intention of passing the Bill. The opponents of the Bill can pretend that they are not so much against women's representation but they must have their OBC piece of flesh. The Bill has been around for 12 years. I bet if it had been about MPs' perks and privileges or their freedom to misbehave and disrupt proceedings, it would have been carried unanimously in five minutes.

Yet a Bill so important should invite a big national debate in Parliament. As a legislator in UK I know we would have extensive debates on the floor of the House of Lords if such a vital piece of legislation was before us. We would be lobbied by NGOs and ad hoc organisations. The Bill would lead to debates outside Parliament.

In the Rajya Sabha a Standing Committee on which men are in an overwhelming majority - except for the vacancies they are all men - will discuss the Bill away from public gaze. Even so, the country should make this an occasion to highlight the plight of women in India. It is not the case that the deprivation is only a SC/ST/ OBC issue where women are concerned. Foeticide happens in rich middle class families. I was at a restaurant in Delhi - GK II, since you ask - where on the next table a group of women, obviously affluent, were chatting away in Punjabi about this or that child in the family which had been aborted after amniocentesis. This as they chomped their way through delicious South Indian food.

South India is not as bad in terms of women's health This has to do with Christian missionaries and the strong anti-Brahmin movement since the early 20th century. Women's literacy and infant and maternal mortality numbers are also better. Move across the Vindhyas and the situation is dire. Gujarat which is progressive in many aspects is backward in women's human development numbers.

Reservation at 33 per cent is much below the women's share of the population. If such concessions were granted it would be just the beginning of the solution which requires the full redress of all the handicaps women suffer. Of course the Bill will be dropped as one or the other of the 'secular, anti-communalist' dada of North Indian politics - Lalu or Mulayam or Paswan - will issue a veto. Congress lacks the guts to stand up to any opposition be it from current allies or future possible friends.

But then Put Not Your Faith in Princes. In the West, women's position is by no means fully equal. What has changed is the language in which they are spoken of and spoken to, the respect with which they are treated in public and private, the fury which any news of domestic violence arouses - even if defended as 'part of our culture' by Asians and Africans, the tremendous boost to girls' education and their participation in sports and public life. Indian men should begin to examine their own behaviour towards women. Do men indulge in needless lewd talk when women are around, do they belittle their women colleagues and friends pointlessly - as I witnessed to my shock in a Parliamentary delegation from India visiting the House of Lords, do they condone or even worse indulge in beatings up their wife/mother/daughter/maid servant?

Do Indian men still regard women as their property, their chattel? This is what they call a no-brainer. Reform will have to come from below and start at home.

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