Women in India have a voice that is heard all over the world. Not that their silence went unheard because it was that deathly quiet that has probably given birth to movements like ‘beti bachhao, beti padhao’ and slogans like ‘Equal rights are not special rights‘, ‘Woman is the companion of man’, ‘Gifted with equal mental capacity‘, ‘You have everything to take the world in your stride‘, ‘A woman can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon‘, and ‘Next to the wound, what women make best is the bandage‘. Even Bollywood isn’t too far behind in picking up women empowerment issues and bolding projecting them through dialogues that have had a positive effect on the social structure that hasn’t been strong so far as gender bias is concerned. Besides fighting for getting equal pay to the heroes, we have heard the iconic ‘No means no‘ from Pink, ‘Nail polish kisi bhi time lagana har ladki ka birthright hota hai‘ from Mary Kom, ‘Aadmi ke marne ke baad biwi bewa hoti hai, rakhail nahin‘ from Chandni Bar, ‘Roti kamane ke liye aurat ghar se nikli nahin ki tankha dene wala har aadmi usse apne baap ka maal samajhta hai‘ from Lajja and hundreds of others that we have all heard. Yes, all this has definitely done a lot to change the way society in our country has been treating women for centuries. However, all this has changed to quite an extent and we are now in a position to talk about women as being that critically vital person in the family who has the power to educate and inspire.
It is not as if the fight or the tussle or the movement for women emancipation is over. There is yet a lot to be done. Yes, despite the fact that we now have women leading corporate board-rooms, blazing a path in politics, commanding troops in the army, leading decision-making in the civil services, and actively pursuing careers like driving trucks, buses, and auto-rickshaws to name just a few. The truth is that women have shown us that a passion for a profession is as much up their sleeves as is managing a home. They have made it amply clear that a woman is indeed a thunderstorm with a touch of lightening!
The list of women achievers is long
It is time that the world acknowledged the role of women from India in inspiring and educating the future generations in not just respecting their individuality but also the fact that their contribution leads to results that speak for themselves. The newspapers have been talking about Sneha Mohandas who has successfully lead campaigns on spreading awareness about breast-feeding, Arifa has embraced self-reliance by promoting the traditional crafts of Kashmir, and Kalpana Ramesh works on the issues relating to water conservation. There are umpteen examples of women achievers who have transcended obstacles that range from severed limbs to social ostracization to fight back and get to a point where life moves up from a simple act of staying alive to living with a goal. Malvika Iyer, for instance, went on to earn a PhD despite having lost her legs in a bomb blast.
Women achievers are everywhere. We know women writers like Kiran Desai, Nayantara Sehgal, Shobhaa De, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Mahasweta Devi, Anita Nair, Ismat Chugtai, Manju Kapur, Amrita Pritam, Krishna Sobti, Kamala Suraiyya (Kamala Das), Namita Gokhale, Sudha Murthy, Anuja Chauhan, Anuja Chandramouli, Madhulika Liddle, Kiran Manral, Richa Mukherji, Kanchana Bannerji, Urvashi Butalia, Preeti Shenoy… and the list is endless. These writers have explored not just one but multiple genres and have excelled in writing everything from historical thrillers to romance and from literary classics to pulp fiction. Limits in creative expression are not for women. I could, if space wasn’t a constraint, go on listing women in social activism, art, politics, sports, education, administration, mountaineering and here again the list can go on to fill quite a few pages. The point is that are no limits to women achievers anymore. The truth is that women are more powerful than being sensual, more inspiring than just playing second fiddle to men, and more outgoing than being limited to the whims of a patriarchal mindset. Women now understand that empowerment is not just about self-respect but goes way beyond this to encircle thought leadership and this is what is poised to usher in an era of a society that will evolve correctly.
Arundhati Roy can ‘hear her breathing’ on a quiet day which is akin to believing that women now know that they are no longer an artefact of silence. Shashi Deshpande warns that ‘ten different mirrors show you ten different faces’ and that self-revelation could be a cruel process but a necessary precursor for transforming the inequalities that have carried on from the past. So yes, it is true that things happen only when you ‘go out and kick ass’ to quote Maya Angelou. This is precisely what the modern Indian woman has done with aplomb!
The battle for women is far from being over. Kangana Ranaut believes that ‘we have to prepare our girls just the way we prepare our boys’ and this is what is now the right path. Stepping up on the dias to get a standing ovation is one thing but to make sure that things do not tumble and fall into the past matrix is quite another. We are well past the stage where we dismiss women empowerment after listing out names of those who have been first to do one or the other thing. Obviously then, one would not keep quoting Indira Gandhi as the first to become a Prime Minister or to be given the title of ‘women of the millennium’ by BBC, Kiran Bedi as the first woman IPS, Justive M Fatima Beevi as the first female judge in the Supreme Court, Arunima sinha as the first woman amputee to climb the Mount Everest, Shila Dawre as the first woman auto-rickshaw driver, Sania Mirza as the first Indian woman to win the WTA, Saina Nehwal as the first Indian woman to reach the top in World badminton rankings, or Mary Kom who was the first Indian woman to win a gold in Asian Games. Women in India have moved on and have made winning and reaching the top a habit.
Role of policies in empowerment
Women empowerment is a continuous shift of perspective from one triumph to another, from one tale of inspiration to another, and from one reason to speak out to another. The effort has also been made by those who take care of our policies at the national level. For instance, a lot of these achievements could happen because empowerment is linked to community engagement and welfare of the girl child. Saying that an achievement is the sole output of the determination of a person is like believing that the upsurge in India’s literacy figures is ONLY because there are people determined to get literate. Discounting the role of the government in promoting good education or the role of policies in making this possible is never going to paint the entire picture correctly. Thus the government and the public sector have definitely played an important role in the emancipation of women. The ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao‘ scheme addressed the declining Child Sex Ratio and gender-based sex-determination and also ushered in anera of education, survival, and protection of the girl child. We have Mahila-E-Haats that has helped women entrepreneurs to leverage technology and showcase their products and services. Mahila Shakti Kendras have encouraged community engagement to empower rural women to move towards skill development, employment, digital literacy, health, and nutrition. The STEP or the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women connects competence, training, and entrepreneurship and has helped women to be achievers in agriculture, food processing, handlooms, tailoring, stitching, embroidery, handicrafts and even soft skills orientation in the sectors of tourism and hospitality. The Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana is all about connecting the benefits of banking and savings to tenets of empowerment.
The real conversation is from one woman to another
In one word: everything. The first step to take when any concept has experienced a radical change or transformation, is to prevent the possibility of a slip-back. No one wants to regress into the dark past with women relegated to the background and, therefore, the right thing to do is to make literacy and self-reliance powerful enough to stop any attempts to reverse any good work done. This is an area where women achievers can definitely have a major role to play. They can inspire other not-so-aware mothers to make sure that their daughters get all the benefits of education and being self-reliant. Begum Abida Ahmed too insisted that ‘we must have educated mothers. If a mother is educated, it is her first duty to treat the male and female child equally and in the same way, so that the girl does not develop a complex from the beginning.’
It is not as if men must stand aloof and just watch… quite obviously, they need to be just as participative. However, women who have tackled hardships and obstacles that regressive past systems had laid, know best how to communicate the tactical steps necessary. We know that the existence of voiceless women has been existing for ages and as an article published in India Today pointed out, women ‘face deep-rooted prejudices in social relationships-they do not, generally, have equal status in marriage. The dowry system is still rampant. Clandestine bigamy and child marriages are persisting in contravention of the laws, with complete impunity.’ These evils still exist and bringing in legislations to remove basic legal inequities in the socio-economic system is not enough.
The major conversations need to be from one woman to another… from an achiever to one who has the right to dream of being an achiever… from those who have raced ahead of the arrogance of these regressive times to those who are still caught in the strange twilight of systems that must no longer exist… and from those who have the answers to those who are still searching for them. Dr S Padmavati believed that a women’s weakness was a myth in a man’s imagination… maybe, but the more important truth is that the silent voice inside a woman’s mind can roar only when her own vocal cords are primed and activated. No one can help a woman prime them but another woman and the final activation needs to be done by her alone.
It is women achievers who fully understand that self-esteem is all about an intuitive handshake with her own desires, needs, and wants. What to wear, what to eat, how to do something, where to be and at when are all facets that meekly appear in a queue when the biceps and triceps of self-esteem are awakened. The woman who is still struggling to find a voice needs to be told by these achievers that low self-esteem is all about negativity that can be damning and almost undefeatable. The intelligence to counter this comes from educated awareness and a direct conversation which, in these times of technology revolution, is far easier than it was before.
Among other vital things that achievers must communicate is the necessity of speaking out without inhibitions and without any fear. Yes, this can be difficult but then communication here is not about getting up on a dais to make a speech. Communication here is being to express one’s ability to create a format of personal space with dignity, the need to distance themselves from the feeling of being suffocated by circumstances and allowing the fresh breeze of freed thoughts to enter, and the need to let the world know that they know how to survival. No, there is no battle with men here but a simple conversation where a woman stands up to speak what is in her mind and the world sits up and listens.
The other aspects that achievers can let women still on the other side know is that knowing your worth is what prosperity really is and that when her wage, salary, or income is in a tangible form, the smog of regressive policies is emphatically pushed back. If this smog still persist, then fighting for what is right is the obvious next step.
Women in education are the core of the empowerment corps
Empowerment is inevitable when the right set of beliefs about the benefits of education and self-reliance are communicated to those who need it most. As I mentioned it earlier in this article, a woman to woman conversation transcend all boundaries of disbelief and reticence. The hesitation to step forward and assert one’s rights is one hurdle that must be overcome and we are lucky to have in India a host of women achievers who are convinced about this.
Besides women who are in the media or are writers or activists, it is women from the world of education who are best suited to lead this communication revolution. Prof Sanghamitra who is the Director of Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkatta and serves on the Prime Minister’s Science and Technology Innovation Advisory Council, Professor (Mrs) Karuna Jain is a Board member of IAMOT and lending her expert views to a lot of advisory groups, and Dr Vinita Sahay, Director of IIM Bodh Gaya are examples of women who are on the fore-front of lending their expertise to the academic empowerment of women in India. This isn’t the end of the list of achievers who have dedicated their lives to this task. There are others like Sarika Baheti, Transformation Coach at AMpower, Member of Committee at PVI at All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association and Founder-Chairperson at Neeranjali that spreads awareness about water conservation, Dr Kusum Aggarwal, an expert in Gandhian philosophy working towards a peaceful co-existence for all, Dr Sangita Passey, a Commonwealth scholar and a mathematician dedicated to teaching making girl power sturdier, and hundreds of others who have made empowerment more than just a cliché and a mere buzzword by their work.
The not-so-final truth
There is no final truth or verdict or answer as the world in which we live has a constant need to keep the flow of problems and solutions going on. As things stand right now, it is women achievers who not only need to tell other women to join the success camp by linking-up with education and self-reliance, but also accept those men who wish to be a part of their force. Men may be from Mars but this planet is still in the same solar system as Venus is in.
Note: This article was first published as the cover story in the January 2021 issue of Education Post
11 February 2021