A film on a Rajput woman, who is supposed to have married a Moghul emperor, is the issue that is stirring up passions in several parts of the country. The woman at the centre is, of course, incidental. Indeed, the 'Jodha Akbar' controversy illustrates well the story of the Indian woman. How she is represented is a political issue; yet how present day Indian women live and die is not. Why are we so fixated on the image of women from our past? What about the present and the future?
If you look at contemporary Indian media, women inhabit every page and a great deal of visual space. The images, however, oscillate between the celebratory - applauding the handful of successful and glamorous women - and the violent: vivid details about violent sexual crimes, usually occurring in cities and affecting the upper classes. Between these two extremes lies the real story of Indian women, rarely addressed by the media and therefore rendered virtually invisible.
Taking a reality check does not mean we undermine the progress that has been made. And most striking is the strides made in women's literacy where today, over half the women in this country have literacy skills. It is also encouraging that the gap between the literacy levels of men and women is declining. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2006, an estimated 88.6 per cent of girls between the ages of 6-14 years in rural India go to school. (But they also drop out; and in some states, between 10-20 per cent of girls between the ages of 11-14 are not in school.) This progress has happened not by chance but as a result of concerted efforts. If left to chance, the progress would have been much slower given the continuing bias against women.
Women's health has also improved, but much more slowly. In fact, this is the one area for worry. It is also one that indicates that at root, little has changed in terms of attitudes towards women and their rights.
If we believe that women are getting empowered and things are improving, then why is one in every two pregnant women in India suffering from anemia? This is a consequence of neglect, of inadequate food and rest during pregnancy and the absence of health care. The majority of women continue to eat less and eat last. They under-report health problems. And as a result, they give birth to low weight babies who often don't survive the first year. Anemia accounts for 19 per cent of maternal deaths in rural India and 24 per cent die due to excessive bleeding during childbirth. Even in a prosperous state like Haryana, 70 per cent of pregnant women are anemic.
Surveys of primary health centers have revealed that only around one-third of them have supplies of anti-hemorrhage medicines, essential when women bleed during delivery. In any case, the percentage of institutional delivery remains unacceptably low in India -under 40 per cent. This partly explains the high maternal mortality rate of 407 deaths for every 100,000 live births. This is far too high for a country that boasts of an accelerating rate of growth and is positioning itself on the global stage.
Another serious concern is the increase in crimes against women. According to the latest data from the National Crimes Research Bureau, the incidence of rape has increased by 5.4 per cent, of dowry deaths by 12.2 per cent and of complaints under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 by a whopping 40.6 per cent.
The most damning indictment of Indian society's attitude towards its women remains its declining sex ratio. Much has been written about this. There is a law. There are campaigns to bring home the importance of the "girl child". But despite this, sex-selective abortions continue with impunity. The most prosperous parts of the country exhibit the lowest sex ratios. And even where genuine efforts are made to implement the law, people find ever more ingenious methods to circumvent it. At root lies a determination to avoid having daughters. Patriarchy continues to thrive and flourish. Women continue to remain unwanted.
For a young woman in the India of today, times are particularly confusing. On one hand, the opportunities that open up with education, professional training and careers suggest greater freedom of choice. At the same time, the hard edge of tradition that remains unmoved demands that girls conform, restrict themselves to places that are "safe", accept that others know best who they should marry, where they should live, what they should do. Those who seriously take to heart the first message - of freedom of choice - end up paying a terrible price. Priyanka Todi's story remains a vivid example of that. We see yet again that even education or paid employment does not change the essential structures of patriarchy that determine women's status. Even as some things change, much remains the same.
One wishes the story of Indian women were one of the glass half full or half empty. Unfortunately, it is not even one-third full.
(Kalpana Sharma is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and columnist.)