Women, role models of Indian society, can be counted on the fingers. Most of them are Muslims such as Razia Sultana and Sania Mirza. Not that women having Hindu beliefs are not there. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Sarojini Naidu and Indira Gandhi are also held in great esteem along with Nur Jehan, Mumtaz Mahal and Jehan Ara Begum. But that is the story of yesteryears. In modern times, scarcely would one come across icons from divergent fields like the first woman (super) cop of the Indian police Kiran Bedi, Roopa Mishra, the first Oriya lady to top the All Indian Civil Service Examination of India at the same time being the first married lady in India to attain this feat in 2004, and Sania Mirza, the professional female tennis player from India who has made a place in the international rankings.
The prospects are there but these opportunities are achieved after hopping through hurdles like discrimination, harassment and chauvinism. Women in India are still facing discrimination, at least in the rural parts of the country and in some cultures. The number of women getting their rights has shown very faint change for the better after a steady amble of 100 years. If women have been given the right to vote, to stand for government or allowed to tiptoe into the armed forces, it doesn’t mean that all is accomplished. The truth is that much work still needs to be done for women to achieve complete equality.
If on the one hand we had Indira Gandhi becoming the first woman leader of the country, Sonia Gandhi winning the elections, Justice M. Fathima Beevi being made the first Indian woman judge of the Supreme Court and Kiran Bedi bagging the honour to be the first Indian Woman Police Officer, on the other hand we had Phoolan Devi humiliated and ridiculed ruthlessly and flying cadets Anshu Singh, Sarbjit Jag and Preeti Bhal of the Indian Airforce Academy Hyderabad sexually harassed by a senior instructor who demanded sexual advantages from the three cadets. In return, they were to be declared fit for the commission, which unfortunately they could not pull off.
Although Pakistan is blamed every now and then for crimes against womenfolk, the reality remains that the state of women in India is quite pathetic. In fact, women in India are exposed to various heinous criminal acts and atrocities like rape, torture and suppression. Some grievances females in Pakistan had, have recently been addressed in the Women’s Protection Bill (WPB) passed an year ago The hostilities against the fair sex in the neighbouring country are quite obvious.
According to the 1997 UN report, based on the evaluation of gender ratios in India with those of the developed countries, up to 50 million girls and women are assumed missing from India’s population. Though this ratio dropped to 10 million in 2005-2006, reportedly this is unfortunately the result of a systematic discrimination, including the abortion of female foetuses, which is officially banned in India. According to a survey report published earlier this year in the Indian journal News Age on January 9, 2006, the surveyors conservatively estimated that the reasons for at least 0.5 million of the missing were identified as prenatal sex determination and selective abortion.
This is found to be the main cause for the dropping of the sex ratio also, which slipped from 97 women for every 100 men in 1921 to 92.7 in 1991 and about 89 women for every hundred men now in 2006. It is termed as the most ironic example of slanting the female to male ratio. Just a day back I was going through a report published by the United Nations Fund for Preventing Abortion which was released a year back in October 2005. Only some heartless person would just read this report and toss it away casually. It quotes one Ranu from Northern India who married at the age of 18 and was forced to asphyxiate her first two baby girls merely because her husband, one Muktar, didn’t want the girls and threatened to divorce her. The tragedy didn’t end here because she was forced to terminate two later pregnancies as the foetuses were again females.
This is not the only malpractice to show harassment and discrimination against women. Rape, acid throwing, burning, making sexual advances towards colleagues are a few of the other common aberrations. While the urban legends are diminishing gradually, the rural legends are still there. In rural areas, the upper class Hindus make the lives of the lower caste women miserable. The women belonging to lower castes are often maltreated in the form of medieval barbarity at the hands of the upper class Hindus. It happens in India that the poor Dalit girls are forced to run naked on full moon nights and are forced into the Devdasi system of prostitution. Sarita Bai of Kotpuli village was raped by a custodian of the law and in other incidents females are gang-raped at religious places like a temple of Jodhpur.
The Chief Justice of the Madras High Court Justice A P Shah inaugurated a Mahila Court (women’s court) in Cuddalore just a couple of days back, which in fact is the eighth in a row. The worthy judge reminded the audience that India had endorsed the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993 and also that the constitution not only grants equality for women but also empowers the state to prevent discrimination against women. A P Shah was courageous enough to confess that female sex slavery and forced prostitution, forced marriage and bride burning were still in prevalence. The question is, would it be sufficient just to admit all this and then close one’s eyes?
Merely offering ‘equal opportunity’ is not sufficient. The most important thing is to provide the fair sex, a discrimination- and prejudice-free environment with immense amount of respect and cooperation by their male colleagues, otherwise bosses would keep making sexual advances against girls like fearful Flying Officer Anjali Gupta, who would remain on the run from pillar to post to save their honour.