Three decades after 1975 - the UN International Year of Women - women are still demanding equality and freedom, both goals having proved elusive! But they are asserting something else as well, even more passionately - the right to save humanity from destroying our world and ourselves.
If 1975 stirred action for achieving gender balance on many fronts, the year 2005 will go down in history as one in which women made determined moves to bring peace on earth. In the midst of escalating international, national and domestic violence, large sections of women are acting to end war and brutality wherever it may exist. As partial acknowledgement, a thousand women - all active at the grassroots - from across the globe were collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as representative of the thousands more who are struggling to change the world and make a difference.
An ordinary American housewife, Cindy Sheehan, has mobilized enormous public opinion against the genocidal, empire-building war her country is waging in Iraq. A mother who lost her son to the war machine, she insisted on meeting Bush to demand that such perverted sacrifice of human lives be stopped forthwith. Closer home, women in Kashmir have raised their voices against unremitting low-intensity warfare, women in the Northeast continue to demand lifting of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and thousands work strategically for peace in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi of Myanmar continues to be the conscience-keeper of the world, as she stands undaunted in the face of a brutal, despotic regime.
Her fearless civil disobedience provides inspiration to millions of people, even as the government announced she would be kept under house arrest for yet another year.
Despite the groundswell of women's actions for peace, they still lack power and authority when it comes to peace negotiations. Those sitting around the peace table are almost exclusively men (and often the war-loving kind). The same, unfortunately, is true for those holding power as heads of State, business and international agencies. Even the United Nations is culpable, having failed to implement the Platform of Action it adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), promising "overall gender equality, particularly at the professional level and above, by the year 2000". Ten years on, women are still grossly under-represented in the ranks, middle and higher rungs. Elections for a new Secretary-General will take place in 2006 - and campaigners under the rubric 'Equality Now!' are pointing out that there is no dearth of qualified women candidates from all regions of the world.
In India, women are better represented in local governance structures than was the case as little as 15 years ago. The experiment in democratic decentralization set in motion a little over 10 years ago, with a minimum one-third percentage of seats reserved for women, is bearing fruit. Women in Panchayati Raj (local governance bodies) are battling corrupt forces at the grassroots to gain access to water, livelihood and educational rights for their village constituencies. But there is still strong opposition to women's representation at higher levels of governance. Most political parties have successfully blocked legislation that would ensure significant political participation by women in Parliament and state legislatures. Nor do any parties have gender parity within their own rank and file, or at the higher echelons.
And yet women's leadership has emerged, and won respect for its unswerving commitment to people's movement goals. Aruna Roy has become a national icon as she battles relentlessly for the Right to Information - a tool people's groups across the country now use to carry out social audits, expose corruption and get rights to food, land, schools, roads and other developmental goals. Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan continues to lead, with her incisive arguments questioning the logic and ethics of displacing millions of tribal and other village people in the name of 'development'. In November this year, thousands gathered in the Narmada valley, protesting against the injustices of a State that denies basic human rights to its own people. Despite being thrown out of their homes, browbeaten and harassed, threatened and lathi-charged, resistance to big dams has refused to die out.
Environmentalists - including Vandana Shiva, Sunita Narain and millions of ordinary village women continue to be oracles, predicting that the rape of the earth will lead to absolute destruction, and urging the human race to act now to save our planet. In 2005, all hell broke loose as Mother Nature openly reacted to the damage being heaped upon her. Heralded by the tsunami in late-2004, 2005 experienced an unprecedented avalanche of disasters, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita hitting the east coast of the US, and the earthquake in Himalayan Pakistan and India. What the Chipko women (a deforestation movement in India's Himalayan state of Uttaranchal) spoke of in the early 1970s has not yet been heeded - that the earth is our mother and we must protect her, if she is to protect us.
Most women in the world are grappling with basic food, water and survival issues. Globalization is resulting in intensified poverty, dispossession and inequalities. Women's groups have aligned with tribal, Dalit (oppressed
caste) and other groups to raise these issues.
Health services are being privatized at a hectic pace, and women at the bottom of the economic rung receive incrementally less quality care. Millions of girls are being denied effective schooling, that might help them break out of vicious cycles of poverty, and structural and domestic violence. Rape, child abuse and sex-selective abortion are rampant, the figures growing year after year.
Scores of women like Flavia D'Souza, Ela Bhatt, Neelam Chaturvedi, Ruth Manorama, Syeda Hameed, Shashi Sail, Varsha Kale and organizations like Awaaz-e-Niswaan, Vimochana and Forum Against Oppression of Women carry on the good fight against multiple patriarchies. Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The Domestic Violence Bill is a signal victory, as is the new law enhancing women's right to property inheritance. Today LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) movements are flowering in India, challenging normative gender roles, sexuality and lifestyles.
Women are stepping out of stereotypical roles and becoming pilots, entrepreneurs, taxi drivers and tourist guides. Extraordinary talents like tennis player Sania Mirza, dramatist Zohra Sehgal, social activist Viji Srinivas and writer Amrita Pritam provide endless inspiration to the young and old.
Despite all this, the patriarchies seem fairly solid, male dominance being re-established under different guises. 'Male-stream' media and academia persist in promoting stereotypes, projecting men as 'experts', while paying lip service to 'women's empowerment'. Feminist theory has been partly co-opted, with the focus today shifting to men and 'masculinities' - forgetful of the fact that 'masculinity', 'femininity' and 'gender' were first conceptualized by feminist women scholars seeking to break stereotypical moulds as well as dismantle patriarchies.
Despite the many challenges to sexual and lifestyle norms, (heterosexual) marriage continues to be our foremost national pastime. Thousands take place all the time and babies (preferably male) continue to be born overtime. And although women today perform all kinds of jobs, most men still refuse to sweep the floor, or wash their baby's bottoms. They really ought to learn to do so, releasing women to share skills with a wider circle, helping build the power to clean and wash, heal and nurture - at a global level.