Women wait to cast their votes at Kangan, east of Srinagar, on April 30. (Reuters)
In the run-up to the general election, the media has been ablaze with advertisements raising a wide variety of issues related to women. It started with emphasising the fact that 49 per cent of voters are women and warned of the consequences of ignoring them.
Many rooted for women’s safety to be made part of the manifesto. Rising inflation, corruption, making our cities and towns safe for women, setting up of rape crisis intervention centres at all police stations to handle rape cases sensitively, all worthy causes that are women-centric were placed before the public, asking people to demand these from their political candidates.
These are crucial issues that need to be addressed in India today but somewhere lie hidden several key elements that restrict women even today, which are missing in the charters.
What are the real challenges that a girl child, adolescent girls, young and adult women face today, apart from being unsafe in public places and living under the shadow of violence? The risks begin in the womb itself. Girls face the threat of being killed even before they are born. Of late, several cases of brutal female infanticide are being reported in some states but somehow it does not find a place in the discourse around women’s safety.
And there’s more. Domestic violence, stalking and molestation, acid attacks, farmer suicides, discrimination and sexual harassment at the work place, denial of health care and education, child marriage, once very visible in the media, seem to have either lost their momentum or simply dropped off the radar.
None of the slogans being pitched during poll campaigns addresses any of these issues, or even demand that women have the right to be independent and be treated equally when it comes to decision-making at home and outside, or question the issue of low self-esteem that has been built and imprinted in our minds for centuries.
While a significant number of women are achievers and are rapidly rising to the top in different fields and have fought through every barrier to win their space, it is not celebrated in the messaging. Unlike in the past when women like Sarojini Naidu, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Aruna Asaf Ali, Annie Besant and Vijaylakshmi Pandit who played a vital role in the political sphere like their male counterparts and were idolised and held in high esteem, today we have forgotten women who have driven change. They remain our unsung heroes.
However, despite this transformation a majority of women in India continue to struggle at all levels. No matter how empowered they are, women still have to battle a wide range of discrimination.
How do we define a woman in the Indian context today? In the world of ads, she is someone who washes clothes and ensures her child gets the right kind of food, is able to achieve their goals or runs the household efficiently.
To start with, colour bias is still strong and a big impediment to how a woman perceives herself. For instance, even today, if a woman has to be recognised, she must be fair — an important factor that can give you the success and stature within your family or in society. The media is hammered with advertisements that promote fair skin as a gateway to success. Ironically, the same media, which claims to fight the gender divide and speak for women, has never questioned this uncontrolled drive to promote fairness.
Unlike in the past, when a person’s worth was measured by intellect and capability, it appears, at least from the messaging, that in today’s world, a person is assessed by the colour of skin. The tone of your skin defines your identity and perhaps success, both in the personal and professional spheres.
So why are political parties not raising such issues of unregulated commerce and colour bias which end up dis-empowering women?
And that’s not all. Today, India remains as divided as it was prior to Independence. Young girls from the Northeast come to the capital to pursue academics and in search of careers. Instead, they face hostility on all fronts. Where is the equity and right to freedom enshrined in our Constitution?
Why is no political party addressing any of these issues, or promising to provide every kind of support to help women from across the country build self-esteem and confidence by ending of discrimination that they face daily, both personally and professionally.
One party promises to ensure “nari shakti” but how reliable is the promise? Even today, politics is dominated by men.
As a result, the voice of women is missing in every agenda, every campaign. What is heard are only those that appease the public but the reality is that women continue to be invisible in the political discourse.
Rahul Gandhi talks of woman’s empowerment and Narendra Modi promises safety for women but is that all that political parties can offer?
The political manifestos are detailed and include the provision of rights for women in general but they never break down matters that concern women. They do not clearly define what these rights should be.
Political parties should recognise that women have a bigger role to play in society, at the workplace and in politics and give them an equal opportunity.
What women really want their government to provide for them apart from security is equity and freedom to be who they are and not what society wants them to be by ending such vicious forms of discrimination.
While it is evident that women face diverse forms of violence every day, both indoor and outdoor, they also have other concerns related to livelihoods, education, health and freedom to shape their own lives independently. It is every political party’s duty to make it their mandate to address them as a whole and not in bubbles, which they think will win votes.
However, the campaigns that have been pulverising the country through every media platform haven’t quite got the whole picture so far. It isn’t enough to say that a woman is not just a “bahu”, a daughter-in-law, but she represents “bahumat”, majority vote. Simply numbers are not going to drive change. They must be empowered to take charge in the world of politics and given leadership roles.
As a beginning, the face of each party shouldn’t only be Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar or Arvind Kejriwal. While there is a Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, there are other equally capable women representatives in all political parties who can play pivotal roles in bringing about change in India.
We just have to recognise them and allow them to lead the nation. Otherwise it will be difficult to stop India that is regressing so rapidly that Manu’s law has once again begun to overshadow the gains that women have garnered so far.
(The writer is a freelance journalist)