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


SuddhasattwaGhosh said...

Dear Dada
Well first of all I appreciate to whatever you have said on feminism. And I also appreciate your analysis on women. But I feel that they are somewhere prejudiced. Let me elaborate on this issue of women's liberty which has amused men for so long on this occasion of independance day. I would however restrain myself of analysing any incident in the Western society.
The word "bhaiya" is used almost universally used by every individual independant of age and not necessarily by the younger public. We have to understand that there is a sense of insecurity associated with women howsoever independant they may be. There have been examples in the past and may be in the present that boys have not respected the relationship of a brother and a sister on most of the occasions. I have even heard from my friends that people approach girls assuming as a big brother but then the relationship changes to no more than or no less than love. Why is it so?
Are boys so incapable? Are they so intolerant?
And if boys are very much clear as to how they should approach girls, this concept of "bhaiya" would not arise at all. I do not remember any instant when girls have greeted me saying "bhaiya".
So why does it happen at all?
It is not the woman who is responsible but men. Men are sometimes not clear as to how they will continue the relationship.
The second example which you quote of whatever happened in the Yahoo chat room, the statement is but obvious. Should we think that we would never ever talk of beauty even though it dances in front of our eyes all the time. There will come a time when we would either say it is good or it is bad. But not commenting at all would be a big achievement. When we find girls saying "tab to bahut mushkil ho jayegii" , it only means that they want boys to roam around them and praise them all the time. And therefore this statement should not be taken as a benchmark or to conclude that women are taking their liberty in their own way. Even boys have said that and I am very well a proof of this.
Well we have never spoken about men's liberty. It would be wrong to say that men are more liberal. It is not very much clear in the Indian context what do we actually mean by liberty?
What I understand is that we should be free in doing whatever we want to do subject to the culture and our upbringing into consideration.
If we find a village girl who some centuries back never used to come out without a veil is dancing to the tunes of "Oh Chamma Chamma" , would we call it as women's liberty? I do not think so.
But the reality is that we find women doing these things every now and then.
And we feel that they are probably redefining liberty.
The final example which you quote "Equality with males and the freedom to choose my own partner" is another example of an expectation rather than liberty.
How many times have we seen girls coming to the bridegroom's house and analysing every credentials of the boy. I guess it was a same issue on which one advertisement came on television channels where the boy tries to impress the girl by making tea and singing a song.
So, this expectation is wrongly interpreted as liberty.
If boys can reject girls by seeing a mere photograph, why girls can't? And if they can , then boys should be ready to accept this as a decision rather than questioning themselves "Do I have that freedom?"

SuddhasattwaGhosh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Suddhasheel Bharatiya GHOSH said...

Points to be understood:

(1) The western influence on the Indian culture cannot be ignored. Anything which does not change rots away, so the change is desirable. What is undesirable, is that instead of adapting, we intend to copy.

(2) The Bhaiya concept is amazing. Women who have claimed to be liberal, have been found to use the word when taking the advantage of men regarding facilities which I have talked here. The point is clear, either say that you are conventional and continue with the Bhaiya syndrome, or accept that you are liberal and bear the same problems as the men do while travelling in a bus. Do not ask for separate sitting places, do not ask men to stand up.

(3) Men being unclear about women is due to the fact that our families and society establish a taboo on talking to girls who are not related to you. Stories are made out, illicit relations and what not. In fact, I remember that even the boys from co-ed schools have very different and incorrect information abt women in many factors. I agree with you regarding the concept of men approaching women as big brothers.

(4) Women want men to look at them is a fact well known in the society. The aim was to expose the fact by giving an example. Some women who claim they are liberal, do not accept this.

(5) Your comments reemphasise the fact that the concept of liberty has not been well understood, and we keep on dwelling on that duality and being happy about it.

(6) Being prejudiced was expected and therefore I have invited comments from people as well.

(7) Maithili Sharan Gupt's lines on "Abala Naari .." do not seem true anymore in the modern society.

Shweta said...

Hey, You might wanna read this poem written by one of my very good friends, Nuked Fussion on my friends list. The poem is called "The Evolution of Man." This is the link to his blogspot:
Do read the poem. Its on second page! :) TC

Anonymous said...

hi shudh,

good post. In your efforts to delve deep into women's liberation and related issues, I would suggest you should talk to Dr. Suchitra Mathur.

She'll give you a different perspective, and her following of this subject is quite deep.

heena said...

This is as our great sages quoted is "naari triyacharitra". This exploitation of men is not a result of new tides coming in this century or the century before that. From the likes of cleopatra, mata hari, chanakya's vishkanyas to many more...women sits on top of the finger which constructs or ultimately destroys everything.
Without being preposterous, I would like to further comment that men always seem to be in a haze when either the women is in chains or is having a ballet on their heads (is it possible to overlook the apple-bearer?). Ancient clocks saw her play the role of cupid conspirator behind the veil and now it is just that the veil has risen by a few inches (credits to education and western WAVES). I have seen instances when husbands shun their wives if she is too much stuck to her roots, doesn't like to mingle with his friends, isn't fashion-concious or in a single DEHATI in their restricted vocabulary. Boys (not this young and unsettled generation is solely responsible for some grey hairs like us to draw conclusions about society in general)feel proud in hanging out with girls who easily become the cynosure of everyone's eye. Then why would not she.....who is not having any dreams of being a Kiran bedi or a kalpana chawla (who gained attention by simply realizing who they were) try to weild attention by doing something which she CAN really DO? This society has monumental ideas because it basically thrives on the concept of 'symbiosis'. take out all girls or all boys and POOF!! what i was thinking?. Girls hang in balance in the same manner as boys do when they delve deep in some imaginative blabber about the other's interests and activities. Cest la'vie...this is world what we make of it. Cheers!!