Let me tell you the story of Parvathi, a poor little rich girl born in British India in the late 19th century. Her father, a wealthy landlord, married her off to another rich man. Today we would call it a child marriage. Parvathi’s life was one of domestic confinement. Though she lived in a palatial home, she was illiterate, had no job, no electricity, no cooking gas, and no car.
She gave birth to four children in quick succession – not in a hospital but at home. She never stepped out of her native village. At the age of 33 she died of rat fever. Today, one hundred years after Parvathi’s tragic death, her great grand-daughter writes to share her dreams of a 21st century turnaround in the fortunes of women.
Since the day man began to record his exploits, about 5000 years ago, woman has been subordinate to him. How and when this came about we have no clue. Was there a golden age of equality any time in the remote past? We don’t know.
Then, in the 20th century, two major events dramatically changed the lives of men and women – the democratic revolution and the technological revolution.
The impact of technology is self evident. But the evolution of democracy was slow, sporadic and irreversible. 25 centuries ago there were half baked democracies in Greece. Socrates was an early casualty of a ‘democracy’ that coexisted with slavery and the subordination of women. The 18th century witnessed the Declaration of American Independence and the French Revolution. But democracy came of age only in the 20th century following the collapse of colonialism.
The principle of equality apparently predates democracy. One thousand years before Christ, the Hebrew prophets, Samuel and Elijah said, “All men are equal in the eyes of God.” But today, we still live in an unequal world. There are marginalized groups everywhere - and women form the largest of these groups.
The religions of the world played a dubious role in keeping women down.
Take the example of sati, a horrendous Hindu practice that lasted for well over a 1000 years. It is mentioned in the Mahabharata. Sati flourished during the Gupta period which is often acclaimed as a ‘golden age’. In the 14th century, Muhammed bin Tughlaq, and three centuries later successive Mughal emperors tried to halt it. The Portuguese in Goa had been the first to ban sati in 1515.
The French banned it in Pondicherry. In 1829 when the British banned sati in the Bengal Presidency, the matter went first to the courts and then to the Privy Council in London, which upheld the ban in 1832. But sati remained legal in some princely states. On the Indonesian island of Bali it was practiced as late as 1905. Nepal practiced sati well into the 20th century. In India we cannot say with certainty that the practice is obsolete. The banning process spanned an incredible five centuries!
Social change is painfully slow and hence the deep sense of frustration experienced by women worldwide. But we must remember our glass is half full. We may not have equality but we do a Constitution that grants us equality. We have voting rights, democracy, education, employment, healthcare, financial resources and property. We drive cars and fly across the world.
Neither our great grandmothers nor our great grandfathers enjoyed these privileges. We often fail to count our blessings because we take them for granted. A scientific advance that made the 20th century very special for women was the invention of contraception. This was more liberating than anything they had ever known. Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 whereas women in many developed countries are still fighting for the right to control their bodies.
Today’s woman has yet another freedom, namely painless childbirth. A few decades ago women had many disabilities that we cannot even imagine today. It was only in 1948 that admission to engineering and technology courses was thrown open to women. (I’m not making this up.) In 1970, the Uttar Pradesh Government under Charan Singh wrote to the Union Government stating that “women officers should not be admitted to the IAS” and if this was not feasible, “then at least they should not be sent to UP.”
This very state very soon had Mayawati as its Chief Minster. Rule 5(3) of the IAS Recruitment Rules 1954 stated that when a woman officer marries, “the Central Government may, if the maintenance of the efficiency of the services so requires, call upon her to resign.” This rule violated the Constitution but remained unchallenged for 18 long years. In 1972 after someone raised the issue in Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made sure the rule was changed.
In 1974, when the Committee on the Status of Women asked a certain public sector giant about their policy regarding recruitment of women, they received a shocking reply: ‘Our general policy has been to avoid as far as possible appointment of female employees in the organization, lest it may create administrative problems.
Besides, as a private business organization prior to nationalization, we gave due consideration to efficiency, discipline, administrative ability and hard work – and in our opinion, women candidates in general were not up to the mark.’ Seven years later a nationwide competitive examination enabled me to join this very organization as a Class I Officer.
Times have changed. Today the world’s greatest superpower is poised to elect a woman President. Believe it or not, the 21st century is going to be the turnaround century for women. Women’s empowerment is an idea whose time has come.