M D Nalapat | Geopolitical Notes From India
THE more backward a particular society, the worse it treats its women. It is no accident that those parts of India where women are treated particularly badly are places that are economically and socially backward. The southern state of Kerala has a 100% literacy rate and an average expectancy of life that matches European standards, despite its relatively low levels of per capita income. Healthcare and housing for the underprivileged are far better in Kerala than is the case in most of the rest of India. THE more backward a particular society, the worse it treats its women. It is no accident that those parts of India where women are treated particularly badly are places that are economically and socially backward. The southern state of Kerala has a 100% literacy rate and an average expectancy of life that matches European standards, despite its relatively low levels of per capita income. Healthcare and housing for the underprivileged are far better in Kerala than is the case in most of the rest of India. A substantial part of the reason for such progress vests in the fact that women in Kerala overall match men closely in education and employment. As has been pointed out by Malala Yousefzai, an illiterate mother is less able to provide care to her children than those who are better educated and understand the needs of a child and how to meet them. Although both men and women are equal in intellect and potential, yet there are hundreds of thousands of fathers who refuse to fully educate their daughters, condemn them to a life of servitude in the kitchen rather than enjoy the freedom which comes from having a career. Each parent who refuses to give the same education to a daughter as to a son should be named and shamed by being exposed in online lists of those who are so socially backward that they refuse to recognise that a daughter has the same potential as a son. Indeed, in several families, it is the daughter who cares for aged parents far more effectively than the sons do, despite often being sent off to another family without getting the same share of family wealth as her brothers. In India, even in the much more societally advanced state of Kerala, anomalies persisted, such as the fact that in some Christian sects, girls were not given a share of family property, that right going only to the male. A courageous woman, Mary Roy, went to the courts against such a practice . Her quest for gender justice was ignored by almost all the media in Kerala when it came to the attention of this columnist, who at the time was the editor of a large daily newspaper in the state. A decision was taken to give a high degree of coverage to the Mary Roy case in the “Mathrubhumi” newspaper (edited by this columnist). This resulted in several angry letters and statements, mainly from males in Mary Roy’s community who were not willing to share their family’s inherited wealth with their sisters. Accusations of bias and worse were made, but the coverage of the case continued until Mary Roy won her point and the courts ruled that women should also have the right to inherit property in the section of the Christian community to which Mary Roy belonged. Incidentally, Mary Roy’s daughter is a talented writer, Arundhati Roy. Men who suffer from the delusion that they are superior to women would like the latter to accept a secondary position and not seek equality. Hence the vituperation directed against women such as Mary Roy who refuse to accept such the nonsensical view that women are somehow inferior to men. The good news is that more and more women are finding the courage to speak out and to act against discrimination. These days, television channels in India have been filled with images of Varnika Kundu, a young woman of exceptional courage. While driving a car in Chandigarh at a little after midnight, youths in other vehicles sought to block her car. When she was forced to stop, they tried to enter the vehicle to abduct her. Fortunately, Ms Kundu had had the good sense to call the police as soon as she realised that she was being stalked, and they reached the spot almost as soon as the youths surrounded her stationary vehicle, thereby saving her from a terrible fate. Most women would have quietly gone home and may not even have mentioned this attempted abduction to their family members. Varnika Kundu refused to follow such a cowed example. Instead, she made public what had happened. Because of the fact that among the stalkers was the son of the BJP State President of Haryana, the police sought to dilute the case by refusing to file charges of attempted kidnapping. Instead, they simply mentioned an attempt at stalking, ignoring the way in which Ms Kundu’s life had been placed at risk because of the crazed impulses of youths who had been brought up in the worst possible way, presumably by their parents giving them money and refusing to hold them to account. She boldly faced the television cameras and said that she was not ashamed to do so, as she was after all the victim. Expectedly, some politicians disgraced themselves by casting doubts on her character because she had been out of her home even past midnight. Varnika correctly pointed out that the same people who sought to condemn her had nothing to say about men who were out late. She pointed out that women had the same right as men to go out late. The father of Varnika Kundu gave his daughter support, standing by her and refusing to be intimidated by the fact that those who sought to do her harm were VIP children used to getting their own way. There was also support from society at large, with the few voices who were critical of her having to give way to the many who backed her determination to bring to justice those who acted in a fashion that was despicable. More and more women in India are finding the courage to demand equality of treatment with men. They are no longer afraid to come out into the open against those who have done them harm or who intended to. As Mao Zedong said, “Women hold up half the sky”. In an increasing number of families, women are being given the same access to education as men, and are proving themselves in profession after profession. Certainly the road ahead is still hard, as there are pockets of paternalism all over. However, the example is multiplying of not just Varnika Kundu but so many other women in India who have fought against patriarchy. A woman belongs to herself and has full rights over herself. The more this is understood and acted upon in practice, the faster will a country grow towards maturity. Equality of the sexes is at the core of justice and democracy, and fighters for that right such as Varnika Kundu merit our support.