Just like a woman

Published: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 06:48 Updated: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 06:58

The women's bill not only seeks to reverse 63 years of women's exclusion from the national polity, Its introduction will provide a challenge to patriarchal practises whose roots stretch deep into our cultural psyche
Ratna Raman Delhi

The newspapers report about those vociferously against the women's reservation bill as top stories. Lalu bhai is against the bill because Rabri Devi endorses whomsoever he supports. In patriarchal India it is inconceivable for any wife to do otherwise. Mulayam Bhaiyya worries that reservation for women will cut into the men's share of electorate seats. Mamtadi is miffed because the Left Front favoured the bill and she wasn't consulted on the sub-reservations. So, she rushed out of the House, followed by the fiery speech- maker who supported the bill but wouldn't give it his vote. 

The bill has been passed by the Rajya Sabha. This is after its 14 years of vanvaas. Will this bill be cleared when brought to the Lok Sabha?  

It seems to be dogged by more than just a curse and one ambitious stepmother. There seem to be many objectors to the bill and an absence of sympathetic siblinghood. The pundits announce that it is unlikely that the bill will be introduced in the Lok Sabha in any kind of unseemly haste. A detailed new strategy has to be chalked out now by the UPA chief. 

What exactly are the implications of this bill for the women of India? 

The current reservation is for 33 per cent of seats. As we have learnt at the University of Delhi, reserving (OBC) seats alone does not ensure that there will immediately be candidates who will fill them up. This will probably be true for a while on the parliamentary front for women's seats as well. However, this does not take away either from the historical nature of the bill or the reasons for introducing this form of representation. 

The BJP leader, Arun Jaitley, has warned that not clearing the bill would mean 63 more years of marginalisation for women. This bill not only seeks to reverse 63 years of women's nominal inclusion in the national polity. Its introduction will provide a challenge to patriarchal practices whose roots stretch deep into our cultural psyche extending perhaps to several hundred years. Women, in our society, as indeed in most patriarchal societies, have existed under the supervision and protection of men. Their subjection has also been greatly assisted by religious practices, laws, legislations and blatantly unequal resource distribution that have invariably favoured men.

We need to remember that before we became a modern, democratic nation, women under patriarchal dispensations led lives of oppression and deprivation. Although Sati was abolished over 170 years ago, child widows and women who lost their husbands were treated inhumanly. Traces of this social and personal ostracisation linger even today. Daughters were invariably a liability. Betrothed in infancy and married soon after, they were deprived of their childhood, had no recourse to legal or economic power and had little control over their bodies. 

In fact, lives of most women in the absence of any system of safeguards and checks are marked by ignominy and cruelty. Living in natal homes or abandoned by the households they were married into, subject to all manner of ill-treatment and vulnerable to sexual exploitation, the lives of majority of women in India testify to the patriarchal manacles and iron chains that kept women in bondage, depriving them of all possibilities of liberation. 

Women are not a privileged sex even today. Widow's homes in Benaras and Brindavan stand testimony to the wretched condition of destitute women. Bourgeois homes in north India were sites of endemic bride-burning in the last three decades of the 20th century. Now, modern technology ensures that there is no need to wait for a daughter to be born to a grim future. The ultrasound, unthinkingly introduced by a premier medical institution, is now a reigning deity seizing and devouring millions of female foetuses and putting all our mythical Kansas in the shade.

Sixty three years ago, there was really no history of the suffrage struggle in India. The right to suffrage was granted to Indian women at a time when India became independent and at a point when a Constitution modelled largely on the British pattern enshrined universal suffrage as a political right. This is why women's participation in the political life of the nation has always been presided over by benevolent paternalism. 

In popular perception, women still need to be guided by their husbands while voting. Reserving seats for women would deprive the populace of able male leaders. Women do have a right to education and employment but they must continue with their primary duties of domesticity and childcare, refrain from threatening men in the body politic and avoid incurring the wrath of the clerics, the appointed spokespersons of the gods, by breaking forbidden codes. 

The fact of women's rights being subsumed by the urgency of nationalism is not peculiar to India. Women's issues were usually an afterthought and rarely constituted part of any main argument. This holds true largely for the world outside India as well. Women's struggle for suffrage in Europe and America received low priority since the approaching First World War led to a girding up on the part of militant nationhoods. Even during the French Revolution, that definitive moment inworld political history which eventually introduced the important ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality to the entire world, women were left out of the newly framed Rights of Man and Citizen. 

Across the seas, John Adams' charter endorsed the rights of all communities in nation-building. However, it was left to his wife to point out that the American Constitution excluded one half of the human race, and no mark for guessing that she was talking about America's women. 

Womens' position in realpolitik, it was once argued, had been marginalised by the advent of capitalism.  Subsequent events in history have shown that alternate political systems have also not been transformative for women. Socialism championed the rights due to the proletariat, but left women out in the cold. Women activists in Left groups have complained uniformly about being relegated to secondary positions in political activities; a position that they were all too familiar with given the constructs of religion, the hostility of the public sphere and the prescriptions of the family. 

If we look at the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s in America, despite RosaParks' flagging off the movement, it was a struggle focusing primarily on issues concerning the black community. Repeatedly, as history documents, women's rights continue to be given short shrift in the fight for collective community rights, despite their active participation. 

Meanwhile, very little has really changed in the way women's roles are perceived. The objections being raised today to stonewall the women's bill have been voiced on earlier occasions when equal opportunities or employment for women were under discussion. Legislation has been slow and its effects comparable to the trickling down of water from the smaller end of the funnel, obstructed by the sediments of culture, patriarchy and customary practice.

Virgina Woolf (English novelist and woman of letters, elite and upper class) opined that the right to vote implied little beyond an empty symbolism. Although women were granted suffrage between the wars and were officially first-class citizens, they continued to lead third-class lives. Woolf was clear that women's primary requirements were those of economic freedom and personal space, not franchise. Perhaps, she recognised that the fault lines of hegemony and power develop around the intersection of material and psychic space. 

Today, women have reached several milestones on the economic and personal front. A percentage of women actually enjoy the right to education and employment, and these rights exist no longer merely on paper. Women have a share in their husbands' income, and in property, should the husband predecease the wife. They are also seen as the natural guardians of young children. The recent amendment to the Hindu Law now ensures   daughters a right to property. 

Sati and child-marriage are no longer permissible under the law. (Although, there has been a sporadic recurrence in both in the recent past). Women remain single, widows remarry and 'divorcee'" is not a derogatory adjective qualifying a woman, but signifies a woman who has opted out of marriage. The legal age for marriage for both men and women has shifted towards more reasonable ages in the last 50 years and continues to do so. 

 The government of India has launched Ladli schemes to empower the girl child. The Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) has become more gender sensitive. It no longer puts up hoardings in different cities asking men to save towards the wedding of daughters and for aeronautical engineering college admissions for sons. Media and television now present fathers who opt out of corporate lunches to eat sandwiches in parks with their daughters. Enlightened men cook breakfasts for their wives and share television viewing time with Tata Sky Plus. Corporate mothers-in-law and savvy bahus dot serial kingdoms. 

Yet, this is the projection of a few privileged lives, comprising less than ten per cent of the population. Even this minimal leap, we must remind ourselves, has been made possible because it was identified through rights and statutes. Laws and bills thus have proved their magical ability to work wonders in our secular state. 

Indeed, a majority of our women occupy the twilight zones of poverty and powerlessness. Transforming the lives of India's burdened and marginalised women and enabling them is a gargantuan task

The bill promising 33 per cent reservation, which aims at giving women direct access to political power at the local and national levels, must no longer be read as a form of tokenism. It must be treated as our new mantra, and associated with the potency and power attributed to our ancient chants. Perhaps, just perhaps, it will enable women to construct new mythologies and dream of new social structures. Perhaps they will be able to draw blueprints for unimagined futures and sketch out bold outlines for new tomorrows. By wiping the slate clean of patriarchal edicts the women's bill should motivate women to script new agendas.

Some direction is provided in the writings of French feminists, radical and otherwise. Having learnt their lesson from the French revolution, women in modern France demanded and were given 50 per cent representation in Parliament. This is perhaps an equitable distribution in a world where women number approximately one half of the human race. (This claim will certainly be challenged in our BIMARU states as patriarchal cultural practices have succeeded in achieving a demographic index that is perhaps dangerously close to the proposed percentage of seats reserved. If, for every hundred men there are only 66 women, there could definitely be arguments to keep reservations at 33 per cent.) 

On a more pragmatic note, the clearing of this bill will definitely allow women easier access to governance and remove hurdles in the participatory political processes. Years into independence, we implemented reservations in order to provide for equitable lives cutting across class. Similar attention must be paid to beleaguered women marginalised by virtue of their gender across class and caste. This could go a long way in dismantling prescriptive cultural codes; grow new nerve cells in ossified brains and give women new agency.

So, Mamtadi and Laalu bhai  and Mulayam bhaiyya, because  there still isn't 50 per cent reservation for women and quotas have yet to be demarcated in the proposed  33 per cent, do not allow these minor details to derail the implementation of a legislation whose time has come. That would be tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Think instead of the immeasurable increase in your stature at this juncture if you do flag off the women's reservation bill and continue to work towards the further amelioration of women's lives. 

It is time women were finally brought back from exile, given their rightful place in society, and empowered to reach for the skies. 

The writer teaches English literature at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi

The women’s bill not only seeks to reverse 63 years of women’s exclusion from the national polity, Its introduction will provide a challenge to patriarchal practises whose roots stretch deep into our cultural psyche
Ratna Raman Delhi

Read more stories by Just like a woman

This story is from print issue of HardNews