Sunday, August 12, 2007

Women’s Liberty: Is it how we think about it? - I

Poets, writers and various other artists have presented the condition of women in their creations. Women have been oppressed in many walks of the society. The renowned poet Maithili Sharan Gupt wrote

अबला जीवन तुम्हारी यही कहानी
आंचल में है दूध आंखों में पानी

(O Women, your story of life is all the same, there's milk in your breasts and tears in your eyes). However, in contrast, the women of today believe that they are liberal-minded; they have the right to do what men do and of course move shoulder to shoulder with men. However, it is important to see whether they are moving together or aspire to take away the reins from men and rule the world. The men today have many boyish questions: What is the practical representation or interpretation of women’s liberty: partying, smoking, boozing, drugs or indiscriminate sexual behavior or is it just the liberty of mind or a philosophy that is being talked about?

On the 60th day of Independence of India, and after many stalwarts like Mrs Indira Gandhi, Kiran Bedi and most recently Ms Mayawati and Mrs Pratibha Patil, it is time to look back and see whether women in India have understood the true meaning of freedom or otherwise. This article is not targeted to demean the status of the woman in any sense, however, it is definitely targeted to show how the sense of freedom has been interpreted in today’s context.

Feminism what we know today has undergone major changes in its philosophy, since it began in the early 20th century. The first wave of feminism dealt with the voting rights of women, the second wave with the inequalities of laws and culture, and the third wave was the continuation of the second wave and also deals with the perceived failures of the second wave. Feminists often differ in opinion over the sources of inequality, how to attain equality, and the extent to which gender and gender-based identities should be questioned and critiqued. Modern feminist political activists commonly campaign for a woman's right to bodily integrity and autonomy on matters such as reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, access to contraception and quality prenatal care; for protection from domestic violence; against sexual harassment and rape; for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; and against other forms of discrimination.

The hue and cry about sexual harassment in the workplace arose when Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahama alleged that Clarence Thomas, with whom she had worked, while he was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, has sexually harassed her with inappropriate discussions of sexual acts and pornographic acts after she refused his offer to date him (1991). An instantaneous wave of sympathy went in favour of Anita Hill in America. However, if we study the timing of the allegation, it raises our eyebrows. In 1991, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, decided to retire. The then president of America, George Bush, saw this as an opportunity to appoint a more conservative judge to the Supreme Court. He thus appointed Clarence Thomas, a forty-three year old, conservative, African-American from Pinpoint, Georgia. Thomas would maintain the racial makeup of the Court, yet would add another conservative voice on decisions involving Affirmative Action and abortion. Thomas’ nomination sent a panic wave throughout the women’s activist organizations and they were immediately worried that Thomas would rule against legal abortion as well as Affirmative Action. Thomas was then thoroughly interviewed by the Senate committee and he was specifically asked about his opinion on Affirmative Action. Thomas mentioned that he hadn’t formed an opinion till then. The voting process in the Senate committee was split seven-to-seven. His nomination was therefore forwarded to the Senate, without a clear recommendation. It was at this point of time, when Anita Hill appeared in the whole scenario. Thomas vociferously denied all the allegations and during the hearings, called the process as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Thomas, after a few deliberations, was appointed associate judge in the Supreme Court. As a follow up to this case, rigid lines on sexual harassment at the work place were drawn, as many other women started complaining of similar behavior from their male colleagues. Men were actually worried that they could face legal hassles even if they appreciated the looks of a fellow female colleague.

Another remarkable incident in the same land was that of Bill Clinton and Monika Lewinsky. The story of Bill Clinton seeking sexual gratification from Monika was brought to light just a few months after Bill Clinton assumed his second term in office as President of the United States of America. It was said that Monika had confided about her sexual exploits with Clinton to another lady named Linda Tripp who had secretly taped telephonic conversations and released it to the press. The literatures on the internet suggest that Linda’s records in the White House were against her and she played a game to set the records straight with the US government. In this case, the last words of Monika after her interrogation were “I hate Linda Tripp”.

Could we establish a pattern here? Was it that Monika was planted in the White House as an intern? Was it that Anita Hill was a pawn of some other force? It appears from these events that these efforts by women were not only to gain political mileage but also to gain some advantage in kind.

Let us leave the stories which have happened in America and come to India. I was chatting with a female in the Yahoo Chat rooms and mentioned to her that I was doing intensive research on female behavior as a personal hobby. She expressed a genuine interest in the same. I mentioned to her that as a result of my research, males would stop teasing females. She was very happy. I further mentioned that boys would even stop looking at females. She quipped “Nahi yaar tab to mushkil ho jaayegi (No dear, that would be a great problem)”.

The Indian female population of today uses the address “Bhaiya (Elder Brother)” for just anybody, whether it is the gardener, the sweeper, the street urchin or a classmate. Although looked at in a very positive attitude by the elder population, does this have very good effects on the society? I illustrate this with the following examples:

a. One of my friends, who was working in a central government organization had a female colleague who had had a major accident leading to a compound fracture. While she was recuperating from the accident, he was responsible for helping the colleague with the academics, getting regular fruits and medicines and even washing clothes. During this period the girl started calling him “Bhaiya”. At every small break after work, the boy would find some time to visit the girl in the room and talk to her; sometimes even lending her his shoulder while she cried occasionally in her loneliness remembering her boyfriend and parents. When the girl substantially recovered, and put her first step on the ground without her crutches, he was very happy that day. Surprisingly within the next few days he came to know, that the girl had complained of sexual harassment against the boy to the administration. The boy was subsequently devastated emotionally and professionally.

b. Another instance, of one of my friends who was working in a university in Bhopal about 7 years back is very interesting. A female colleague often called him “Bhaiya”. One day, when some joke session was going on, the boy put his arms around the girls shoulders. The girl reacted sharply. “Haath hataao! Yeh koi tarikaa hai? (Remove it! Do you know what you are doing?)” The boy was stunned. He replied, “Arey tum to mujhe bhaiya bolti ho. Usi rishte se to maine aisa kiya thaa! (But I thought you think about me as an elder brother. It is therefore I do it)”. “Accha behan samajh ke kiya thaa. Tab theek hai! (Oh! It's OK if you thought of me as your sister” replied the girl!

Can we say that a common Indian woman uses the word “Bhaiya” as a cosmetic? Is it self defense? Or is it that she calls somebody Bhaiya to tell him that you are not the Mr. Right for her?

A female student of a popular engineering college (unfortunately she belongs to my home town) once suggested to her junior that if there was any problem in her thesis, and she was not able to write some of the codes in MATLAB and C, she should indulge in some sweet talking with boys and her problems would be solved. In another scenario, senior girl students of a college advised their female juniors not to wear a bra for their viva-voce examinations, so that their nipples protruding from their dresses could earn them some good marks. In a country, where bridges are falling down every now and then, roads lose their load bearing capacities and potholes appear, students graduating with no problem solving ability would further aggravate the issue.

I was reading a recent copy of a popular computer magazine, which actually highlights technology and developments in the IT industry. In the “LETTERS” section, one of the readers had complained that the magazine had no business designing a cover with a young girl showing ample cleavage and sitting with a laptop. Although the editor dismissed the complaint of the reader with ease saying that the cover related technology with casual nature, it is apparent what the motto of the design was; to get more males to buy a copy of the magazine whether they read it or not. It appears like the motto of adult magazines like Fun and Fantasy, only the girl is wearing some dress. Can we establish a pattern here? Can we say that the women are still allowing themselves to be used and that they are happy doing so, till they are paid?

I have been intensely doing some studies on women and have been interacting with and interviewing many women relating this topic. An interesting response came from one of ladies travelling along with me from Delhi. I asked what “women’s liberty” meant to her. She responded “Equality with males and the freedom to choose my own partner”. “Hmmmm...” I thought and asked myself, “Do I have that freedom?” I have talked to many males in IIT Kanpur, and they said that they did not have the freedom to choose their own partner, and that their parents would kick them out of the household if they did so. I asked one my research colleagues to pose this question to his wife. Her response was “This question is irrelevant in the Indian context. Indian women are not clear about it”. I could not help but agree. Indian women who claim to be liberal, show equally “girlish” qualities as their other friends do. They use the same techniques and tools when they need to get their work done, get a free ride or get a bus pass without sufficient documents. I am reminded of a very famous film ‘Erin Brockovich’ starring Julia Roberts. I place a quote here:

Ed Masry: What makes you think you can just walk in there and take whatever you want?
Erin Brockovich: They're called boobs, Ed.

Note by the author: Women’s Liberty is a very big concept. It has not been understood properly by the Indians. I would appreciate if readers bring more positive issues to this concept. Please send your brickbats and feedback