The noted feminist Germaine Greer once said that cows and women in India were given the same treatment. However difficult one finds to accept this statement one has to agree it is to a certain extent true. In India cows are worshipped and traditionally Hindus abstain from eating beef, but cows are also left to wander freely and openly on the streets. With vehicles and trucks driving by, it is nothing but inhuman to allow them to roam so on the streets. Similarly women too are worshipped as 'Shakti', 'Durga' but speaking in more practical terms men find it difficult to respect women. Of course Greer's feminism differed from her counterpart Gloria Steinem's feminism who was very much inspired by India. So Greer may have made this statement just to differ with Steinem.
I have often come across eldest daughters in Indian families who are named after the goddess Shakti and have names like 'Amba', 'Gauri', 'Sreedevi' etc but when a second girl is born, she has somewhat a plain sounding name like 'Usha', 'Rupa', 'Shushila' etc. I have often wondered why. Is the second girl any less of a goddess or is it because by the time a second girl is born, the parents lose much of their idealism?. Thankfully the kind of oppression that women in India had to undergo in the past like widowhood, child marriage, sati etc is to a large extent done away with though every once in a while we hear a news report about a sati or a child marriage taking place that makes us think whether this is really so but forgetting all that for a moment, I would like to focus on other issues.
Earlier many people did not have a good attitude towards modeling but in recent years with Indian beauty queens winning the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns, more and more middle class Indian girls are taking to modeling. Modeling, which earlier was not considered a good career option is now being considered a career option along with other careers. Whether this is a healthy or unhealthy trend remains to be seen. The film industry too has a seen an increase in number of actresses and starlets. Madhuri Dixit who until recently was the reigning Bollywood no 1 actress came from a middle class Maharastrian family. Girls who had a film industry background, and who had an advantage, were also dissuaded from joining films, but are now taking to joining films. Both girls from the Kapoor family Karishma and Kareena have joined films.
Apart from strides in modeling and film industries women in India have also made advances in the fields of medicine, law, science and technology, computers, aviation etc. A number of schemes have been implemented by the government to provide self-employment to rural women. Cottage industries like 'Khadi Gram Udyog Bhandar' help rural and lower middle class women in using their skills in making pickles and papads and selling them for a profit. There are more women lawyers and doctors in India today as compared to 70 years back. There is also an increase in number of women pilots. 'Kali' for women press was started in India with the help of the Gloria Steinem foundation to promote and encourage women writers in India. The government of India has made 18 years the legal age for marrying for girls in India thus encouraging them to educate themselves. Illiterate rural women are encouraged to learn to read and write and are also given education in family planning measures.
But statistically speaking, India still remains a very traditional country. Statistics show that there is still a very high preference for a male child in states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab etc. The male to female ratio in these states, shows that the percentage of males to females is higher. The behavior of political leaders of the Akal Takt was recently pointed out in an article wherein it was stated that by omitting to print messages of congratulations on the birth of the Chief Minister's granddaughters, they were sending out wrong messages to the public.
Advances in medical technology has made Indians find ingenuous ways in using it to their advantage. People aspiring for a male child are using ultrasound scanning to determine the sex of the unborn child. If the child is a female then the mother is forced to abort the female child. All this is now made illegal. When I was in India one of my neighbors delivered a baby boy. Immediately the family members had a celebration where they invited all neighbors, friends and relatives. Two years later the neighbor delivered again and she had a baby girl. I was surprised when this time there was no celebration. On inquiry I learned that they didn't have the custom of celebrating the birth of a girl. Was this always so or was it a acquired custom over the years I wondered since we have a culture that worships women as Devis. Ultimately where will all this lead to? In future will there be a dramatic decline in female population in India? Considering there will be a simultaneous increase in male population. Will men in future find it difficult to find marital partners?
There is also the problem of bride burning. Many married women commit suicide by burning themselves because they cannot not bear the tension and the strain that they and their parents are put through by their in-laws and sometimes by their husbands demanding dowry in the form of a flat, car or cash in return for marrying them. Sometimes the in-laws themselves proceeded to burn the woman. During the 80s dowry and its inevitable consequence like bride burning reached very high proportions but the trend has quietened down in the 90s. The government had made the acts of receiving and giving dowry criminal acts but still dowry as a social evil exits. The incidence of rape also remains high. One hears frequent newspaper accounts of rape of a lower caste woman by upper caste men in some rural area. In 1992, the rape of Bhanwari Devi a social worker from Rajasthan hit national headlines.
There is also the problem of eve-teasing especially in big cities like Bombay, Delhi. Everyday thousands of women who go to work, colleges and to other areas have to contend with this problem. As someone who has firsthand experience of the problem, I know this can be most degrading and humiliating experience. This problem is not restricted to some women but transcends women of all ages and class. Even older married women have been subjected to this kind of treatment. It is heartwarming to note that women are hitting back against such people with all they have. There is also a need for stricter laws in dealing with the problem.
To conclude one can say that women in India have made much progress in the past century but there still a need for a proper solution to the many problems. After all who can deny that one our prime ministers Indira Gandhi was a women. At least we are ahead of America in that respect where to date there has been no women president.