From times immemorial, women have been at the receiving end of both joy as well as misery. In mythology, we idolize them and in our temples, some of us, worship them. At home, we love and respect them as mothers and sisters. In our youth, we dream about them. We admire them for their beauty and grace. The list goes on. However, the reality says, despite all these nicest feelings from our side, women are still oppressed! Our collective love, respect, and admiration fail to give them a place in the society they truly deserve! Is not it ironic? Individually, all of us seem to be or at least, pose to be, nice guys: quite benevolent to our female counterparts. Where is the mismatch, then?
Well, however, we pose ourselves but the truth is that the society has, by and large, been patriarchal. Over history of time, across the geography of the world, as I am not sure about the rest of the universe, policies have favored male supremacy. Encompassing all the frameworks of religious, social, and political spheres, we have devised policies that give us a greater pleasure, better position, more power, higher degree of freedom, and better share of opportunities. The consequences of our policies now we can see in our vicinity. I am not endeavoring to go for analysis of communities or scriptures, as it is none of my objective here to describe who did what, which religion suppressed women more and which gave them more rights.
However, we are making some small progress, at least. Now women have voting rights almost everywhere in the democratic world. They are quite visible in the streets, universities, and offices which was not the case in past. The progress is slow, though, as the age old menace can’t be solved in a day. So the process will take its time. Meanwhile, we should ensure that the progress is being made in the right direction.
Theoretically, we have moved upward from participation of women to empowerment via emancipation. But practically, can we say a lot has changed? The practical indicators such as domestic violence, eve-teasing, female feticide or infanticide, or dowry death do not reflect much of improvement in this regard.
Let’s analyze why and how these measures fail to empower a woman. Education is supposed to address majority of these issues. However, an educated woman is also a woman, right! Can’t she be married with someone by everyone else’s choice regardless of whether she likes it or not? Yes, it can be. On the pretext of caste, religion, status or tribe, she can be sacrificed. Can’t she be confined within the four walls of her household? Yes, pretty much. Does education give her financial freedom? Only to a certain extent. She might get a job, but her salary may not be commensurate with her qualification. Studies have found that women, on an average, earn ten to fifty percent less than their male counterparts. Further, does she have the autonomy to spend from her earnings? Well, the in-laws might not like it! The financial freedom of women is not even welcome in many societies. The conservatives in Bangladesh grumble over their declining grip on the womenfolk because of the latters’ financial independence with the help of Grameen Bank.
Freedom of choice
Last but not the least, freedom of choice remains yet another void in the social space for women. From the choice of school to the choice of subject, from the choice of dress code to the choice of life partner, nearly everything is decided by others. If the choice of others reflects the preference of the lady under consideration then it’s well and good but the problem is when the choice of others goes against her will and she is bound to accept that too. Unfortunately, the latter happens quite often regardless of the girls’ educational and financial status.
This is something so deeply ingrained in our societies that we hardly can notice it. In some cases, women are forced to cover themselves up, while in other cases, the man made, established norms make them reveal, ensuring enough access into their body parts to the male eyes, what they would not have revealed otherwise. Flashing in sleeveless and shorts during cold winter is a part of the norm for women when men are cozying wrapped in warm cloths. Is it liberating? Quite often the reverse also happens. When women chose not to reveal themselves, we force them to reveal. We go even to the extent of making it illegal for them to pursue their choice. So we end up curbing the very freedom we claim to ensure. Both these enforcements hinder the freedom of choice. And hence, both deserve equal condemnation. However much is achieved, if the basic freedom of choice is not provided, women will remain far from being empowered.
The concomitant byproduct of this policy is that the male members of the women’s family become leaders de facto irrespective of their fitness. These ‘leaders by chance’ pay little heed to the public sentiment or to the actual elected representatives’. A glaring example of such an outcome has been successfully portrayed in the Shyam Benegal movie “Well Done Abba”, where the elected lady representative “Bal Amma” only signs the papers, and the result is “bawdi chori”, stealing of the well on a massive scale! Thus, a measure to empower the women may result in the community getting poorer leadership. Empowerment of women yet remains a distant dream, in many such cases.
In order for the women to lead a good life, I suppose this is the ultimate goal of all status equality and empowerment; we must change our attitude towards them. And that alone has the potential to make their life easier, sufferings smoother, contributions significant, efforts worth and their existence meaningful. Without this fundamental component of respect for women, no religious scriptures can ensure their rights, no volume of feminist activism would bring them security and peace in life, no job can compensate them enough, no amount of education can actually liberate them. Through the measures of liberation we can end up increasing their miseries, through legislations of freedom we can actually bind them to our frames of references. A true freedom of choice can only follow from a profound sense of respect towards women.
This respect towards women must be inculcated both in letters as well practice. We have it in letters for ages, but now it is high time that we show it in practice. For the younger generations, and the generations to come, we need to show and make them feel that girls are individuals just as boys are, they are free to chose from the available options about their lives, that they have an equally important say in the family matters and in communal affairs, and that women are respectable members of the society. It starts from our families. If we are respectful to our wives, mothers and sisters, our children will also be respectful to their mothers, sisters, and wives. And ultimately, a meaningful transition – from oppression to empowerment will be possible.