What women want

Indian men have always claimed to know what women want. A new Supreme Court judgment and the RSS chief’s comments on divorce will, hopefully, force them to do a quick rethink

It’s not easy growing up as a girl in India. It’s more difficult to be a woman, a working woman in this country, often described as one of the most dangerous places in the world– if you are not a man. The gender divide is far too wide here and even though that may be slowly, very slowly closing, it makes life more perilous for those who try to force open the doors of male privilege. In a country where sex crimes hit the front page every morning, there are thousands of unseen, unknown women who have learnt to live with gender prejudice and humiliation, believing there’s no other option. 

The Government recently told the Supreme Court, in response to a plea for greater equality of opportunity in the armed forces, that women are not suitable for commanding posts because male troops are not prepared to accept women officers. That was not all. It was argued further that male and female officers could not be treated equally when it came to postings because of their different physical standards. Greater family demands, the risks of being taken as prisoners of war, and doubts about exposing women officers to combat situations were cited, to claim that women were inadequate for the job. 

Luckily, the Court spurned such retrograde (and sexist) arguments and ordered that all women officers should get permanent service— a privilege till now only available to men. “To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is not only an affront to their dignity as women”, ruled the judges, “but to the dignity of the members of the Indian army”. Hopefully, this landmark judgment will raise the number of women in our million-strong army from the current 4% to a more respectable figure and women officers will soon be on par with men when it comes to promotions, ranks, benefits, and pensions– instead of being projected as showpieces in the Republic Day parade.

But men are men. They will not cede their prejudices easily. Tokenism may continue to replace real change. That is why, despite all our claims of being a global power, we come in at 122 among 162 countries in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index– with China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka ahead of us. To get a real idea about how we look at women recently came from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who said that divorce happens more commonly in educated and affluent families “because with education and affluence comes arrogance, as a result of which families fall apart”. This mindset must change. 

Education and financial independence (what Bhagwat calls affluence) are the very factors that make it possible for women to claim an equal role in a society where they have been treated as a lesser partner in any relationship, particularly in marriage. Millions of poor and middle-class women find themselves trapped in loveless, unhappy marriages from which they cannot escape in fear of social censure. This is particularly true in those parts of India where tradition ensures that women have little choice in deciding who they marry. The decision is taken by family or community elders for reasons very different from love. The belief is that love must follow marriage, not the other way around. 

It is true more and more women are now asserting themselves. Either by seeking out their own partners– ignoring considerations of caste, community, gotra and, at times, even gender– or by rejecting the very idea that marriage is a must. More and more women are seeking careers that give them a sense of pride. Others, trapped in marriages they are no longer ready to live with, are walking away to repurpose their lives, discover the happiness, the equality they have been denied. They are no longer fearful of what society will think of them. Education and financial independence give them that choice; not arrogance. It comes from a quest for gender justice. 

Families are falling apart, true. But they are falling apart because women are no longer scared of walking away from a marriage that’s not working. Divorce, for them, is an instrument of free will. It’s like quitting a dissatisfying job to take up another where you think you have a better shot at success. It comes from the instinct for self-preservation, not arrogance. Arrogance is when men refuse a woman of menstruating age entry into a temple. Arrogance is when widows are treated as social outcasts. Or young brides are burnt because they did not bring along adequate dowry. At the modern workplace, arrogance is the inequality of opportunity, pay grades and the way women are treated. Weinstein’s case is an example.

The battle for gender justice will continue. In fact, it will pick up the pace. Men must now learn to live with the reality of equivalence. Tradition has to yield way to new societal realignments that promise women new choices, the most important being the right to do everything a man can do without being questioned or punished for it. 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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