For tomorrow’s women
Dear Damu and Shanu,
The day before yesterday your grandmother went to an event organised by a local non-governmental organisation. It was meant to felicitate and honour women of her generation who had been active in the movement for women’s rights. She was delighted to be there. Along with her were a handful of other women, some in their
Eighties — Dadi was probably the oldest of them. They all had very interesting pasts — one had been part of a women’s militia in Kashmir and had taken training in gunmanship, another took part in the salt and swadeshi campaigns, a third was an academic who had battled with her colleagues to introduce the study of gender. I thought then that there was so much we had learnt from these women, and I wondered how they had lived their lives and managed things with such equanimity — or, at least, seemed to. Take your grandmother, for example. Four children, all within a year or two or each other, a husband who did not earn very much and who often stayed away from home, a mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, a sister, living in the same house — she handled all household responsibilities and also had a teaching job that helped her earn money. How gracefully our mothers dealt with their multiple tasks.
It was the legacy of their battles that opened up so many things for us. Having a feminist mother made it so much easier for us — my sister and me — to negotiate things like jobs, the choice to marry or not marry, where to live and so on. Our battles were similar, yet different. I remember that we fought long and hard for buses in Delhi to have women’s seats and with the university for a special bus for women. Most of the time it was impossible for us to travel on buses, not because we were sexually harassed — that was another campaign, to make the city safe for women, though in this we had very little success — but also because young Lotharios would grab whole seats and sit on them with their legs spread wide and to engage with them always meant a battle and continual harassment. It was better to keep away.
Just as we took for granted many of the things our mothers fought for, so also for your generation, some of the things that formed the subject of our battles, have been givens. You have studied in institutions where, until a decade ago, few girls went. You’ve lived — and you continue to live — on your own. And it’s not only you, for this is not just a class thing but wider (although it is true that those who belong to the more privileged classes do have a greater degree of the luxury of choice). I wonder if you remember the story of young Priyanka, the daughter of our presswalas across the road. Inderpal and Ramvati, Priyanka’s parents, have been fully supportive of her desire to delay marriage and to make a career for herself, and they have helped her to first train and then work as a beautician. Today, young Priyanka earns a decent income and is saving money for her marriage, contributing to the home and enjoying her career.
So things have changed, there is no doubt about that. The women’s movement hasn’t been entirely ineffective. And yet, we have to be careful of becoming complacent: there’s so much that remains to be done. You live in a world where choice is a given and where your parents and your peers recognise you as human beings, but the moment you start interacting with the world in earnest, you realise how precious this faith in your humanity is because there is so much that militates against it. Living in a loving atmosphere at home, it is almost too easy to forget what things are like outside. In our country, it is a sad fact that while women themselves have changed, and changed radically, men, institutions, male thinking has not kept pace with this change. This is why, for example, only recently a judge was able to acquit two rapists after they had served a short sentence, because he felt that they were young and had their lives ahead of them! But the woman simply did not exist, no matter that her life may have been ruined. For the powers that be, she did not count. What is a woman’s life after all?
You may recall that some years ago, after the rape of Bhanwri Devi from Rajasthan, a group of women (I was among them) sat together to appeal to the government to bring in legislation on sexual harassment. The Vishakha petition, as it was called, resulted in the Supreme Court issuing a set of guidelines on sexual harassment that women have found very empowering. This doesn’t mean that all women who have been harassed have come forward to complain, but the fact that the guidelines exist, give women the reassurance that the law is on their side. And yet, for how long? For even as I write, the Sexual Harassment Bill awaits parliamentary discussion to be turned into an act. But between the guidelines and the draft bill, things have crept in that are so totally insulting to women that they make you wonder if we’ve made any progress at all. One of these is the provision that punishes the woman if a complaint is found to be false. The lawmakers justify this on the grounds that many false complaints are filed and the law is misused. Yet no one has bothered to ask which law is not misused in India, and say a man accuses another man of murder or theft and the accusation is found to be false, will the complainant then be fined? Or jailed? Not so, these punitive measures are meant only for women. The battle of changing mindsets is far from being won.
I write this to you on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day — an anniversary that will arrive and go with much fanfare (including some advertisements for fairness creams!). This is our day, a day which carries our history. It’s a good day to take stock of our lives, to celebrate our successes, but also to remind ourselves of how much further we need to go.
Happy women’s day, my dears
Urvashi Butalia is a writer, publisher and co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women. She is now director of Zubaan, an imprint of Kali