Tokenism is the bane of all movements, being the most time-tested means of containing potential disruption within negotiable bounds. It is no surprise, therefore, that on the eve of International Women’s Day, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s passions should be exercised over the question of women’s reservation in Parliament and the assemblies. The women’s bill, very usefully the centre of earnest disagreement among political parties, is particularly suitable as an example of tokenism. It is double-edged. On the one hand women’s reservation can act as a spectacular sop and also compel more women to enter the dynamics of the established power game On the other, it would indirectly reconfirm the fact that the playing field is not level, and women as a force are dependent on other powers to pretend it is so.
All this is perfectly in keeping with the official rhetoric of successive governments with regard to women. Mr L.K. Advani’s sporadic roars threatening all rapists with capital punishment, for example, serve to dramatize his deep feelings for violated women while ensuring that his solution is controversial and woolly-headed enough not to be taken seriously. But this approach is unintelligent. Nothing can hide the fact that crimes against women in India seem to be taking still more violent and cruel forms, that Gujarat happens, that women are forced to strip and parade naked as penalty for allegations of adultery, they can be accused of being witches and be hounded and killed, that the rare few who protest against the molestation of women can die, whether in a bus or on a festive city road. Of course the state or the political parties — irrespective of ideology — are not responsible, they merely participate in and reap the advantages of the general attitude that makes such crimes possible. Crimes are merely the visible expressions of that mindset. To understand how the attitude to women actually works in Indian society at all levels, it is necessary to be aware of the numberless belittling experiences, the routine battles and retreats, the negotiations with self-respect and duty — all rooted in gender, that any woman knows as part of her ordinary day.
Yet this is not the whole story. The crucial chapter in it comprises the achievements of the women’s movement in India. Women’s empowerment is now an issue that no one can afford to ignore, even the ham-handedness of recent governments proves that. It might even be conjectured that the movement’s success in the raising and spreading of awareness, in addressing issues in law, medicine and education, in tackling inequality and violence within and outside the home could have revitalized the desire to suppress and contain. The 2001 census of India report for West Bengal seems almost symbolic. There are now more literate women in the state, while the number of girls born has touched a shocking low. Female foeticide is one of the chief reasons cited. This implies the complicity of women, however educated, with criminal social pressures. So International Women’s Day would seem to be a moment of stock-taking in an ongoing struggle, a time to assess the odds still to be tackled with a look back at the odds overcome.