(Financial Times) Mother India: the missing women’s revolution
In these moments of self-congratulatory glory, as India celebrates 70 years of existence as a free nation, shouldn’t we Indian women stick out our necks as grumpy dissenters and call out the hollowness of Indian democracy?
August 15 1947 marked the overthrow of a perverse and oppressive colonial power — but, in the years that have followed, what kind of independence and freedom have we enjoyed as Indian women? Yes, we got the vote. But sorry, no, that is not enough.
In newly independent India, the politician and social reformer Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar spoke of the importance of passing a wide-ranging set of reforms that sought to radically overhaul personal law and, especially, women’s legal rights. “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex . . . untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap,” Ambedkar said then.
Seventy years later, how do we evaluate our position as Indian women? Every time we hear the expression “emerging superpower”, should we not remind the braggarts of the more apt phrase: “palace on a dung heap”?
As a fiercely proud Tamil and, by extension, Indian — and as someone who is also deeply ashamed of what that identity actually entails — I feel that being woman in a caste-infested society is to live in a state of perennial subjugation. In India, caste still controls every sphere of life. Patriarchy and misogyny, operating through caste structures, mean an obsession with the control of women. Control of women’s sexuality through arranged, endogamous marriages to maintain caste purity is only the beginning. Factor in sex-selective gender genocide, dowry deaths, honour killings, socially sanctioned domestic violence and marital rape — and what emerges is anything but a pretty picture.
Being an Indian woman means being stripped of autonomy. How can we celebrate some larger freedom as a nation-state when we are robbed of self-determination in our day-to-day lives? What pride can we take in a state where there is more noise made about protecting cows than about women’s safety? How can we celebrate our country’s economic progress without grieving at the fact that Indian women — whether in the tea plantations of Munnar, the garment factories of Bangalore or the free-floating migrant sector — are the most ruthlessly exploited section of the workforce?
What is there to rejoice in our ideas of nationhood when we bear in mind that the occupation of Kashmir and the militarisation of India’s north-eastern states has been accompanied by the rapes of scores of women by our armed forces? As feminists, we should not fail to realise that when the powerful and the super-rich speak of the glorious nation-state of India, they have no clue about our tiny, everyday insurrections, our struggles for equality, our multiple transgressions. They refer only to a consolidated marketplace of a billion people.
Someday, we will put an end to misogyny and caste, reclaim our streets, our lives, our dreams. That day, we, as Indian women, can dance to the drumbeats of freedom and celebrate a real independence day.