women zeitgeist

Women, Zeitgeist And Progress

In 2014, when Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft was asked a question about pay gaps in salaries of men and women during a women’s technical conference, he advised women employees to trust ‘karma’ instead of asking for pay raises and system would eventually reward their work. When his comments were widely criticized in social media, he later on apologized and mentioned that he believed that men and women should get equal pay for equal work and if women feel that they deserve a raise, they should ask for it.

As per a gender pay gap survey done in 2009, in United States female workers earn just 77% as much as male workers when pay gap ratio is calculated as ratio of female to male median yearly earning for full-time, year-round workers. It is clear that either female workers have bad ‘karma’ or system is not just in rewarding their work. (Ref: Wikipedia, Gender Pay Gap in United States)

World has come a long way since Triangle Factory fire incidence in New York on March 25, 1911 when more than hundred women were burned to death, trapped inside a factory, where exit doors were locked to prevent workers from taking any ‘unauthorized’ breaks from work. There was a time when women suffragettes had to suffer innumerable troubles for earning right to vote like men, there was a time when women were denied education and there was a time when women had to burn on pyre of their dead husband – world has indeed has come a long way. But each step on the way to progress was excruciating and had to be fought for, each basic right had to be wrenched through tight hold of male domination.

In 1818, Raja Rammohan Roy wrote a pamphlet opposing Sati practice. He poignantly criticized unfair treatment and sufferings faced by women throughout their life – a husband who treats his wife far ‘worse than inferior animals’, women who have to toil like slaves in their in-law’s house and she is beaten and abused at slightest excuse. And whereas men shudder just by thought of death, a widow had to offer herself to be burned with corpse of her dead husband.

“What I lament is, that seeing women thus dependent and exposed to every misery, you feel for them no compassion that might exempt them from being tied down and burnt to death.”   Raja Rammohan Roy, appealed to reader to consider folly of Sati practice. When the British finally banned this barbarous practice, their resolution owed a great deal to vocal opponents of Sati practice like Raja Rammohan Roy. (Ref: Makers of Modern India: Rammohan Roy by Ramachandra Guha)

Through middle and late part of nineteenth century, social reformer Jyotirao Phule worked tirelessly for cause of women education, widow upliftment along with his wife Savitribai Phule. Through late nineteenth century, feminist activist Tarabai Shinde raised voice for equality of men and women. ‘A comparison between Women and Men’, a passionate pamphlet written by Tarabai is considered to be the first modern feminist text. Points mentioned in her writings are as relevant today as they were in 1882 when it was first published.

Feminism and The Constitution

Feminism in India awes a great deal to liberal and inclusive outlook of father of our nation – Mahatma Gandhi. Right from Civil Disobedience movement in South Africa till Quit India movement, women were active participant and in the forefront of struggle for Indian Independence. All India Women’s Conference was closely affiliated with Indian National Congress. When India won independence in 1947, equal voting rights were conferred to men and women. Constitution was in favor of women rights, however there was a big stumbling block in path of women rights – religion. Religious texts were interpreted (or misinterpreted) for suppressing women’s rights and in absence of Uniform Civil Code, women’s rights were vulnerable to convenient mis-interpretation by religious texts. To mend this situation, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru pushed for reforms in the form of ‘Hindu Code Bill’.

Hindu Code Bill sought improve condition of widows and women in general by granting equal share in property of a man dying intestate. It sought of granting fair maintenance to wife in case of separation, faire law for divorce and it sought to make monogamy mandatory. Hindu Code Bill was to be applicable to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. When passed, Hindu Code Bill was empowered to elevate and protect rights of Hindu women. However, path of progress is never easy. Hindu Code Bill was vehemently opposed by patriarchal conservative groups and they formed Anti-Hindu-Code-Bill Committee.

Here is brief selected excerpt of opposition to Hindu Code Bill sketched by prominent historian Ramachandra Guha in his book ‘India After gandhi’ –

“The Anti-Hindu-Code-Bill Committee held hundreds of meetings throughout India, where sundry swamis denounced the proposed legislation. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sandh (RSS) threw its weight behind the agitation. On 11 December 1949, the RSS organized a public meeting at Ram Lila grounds in Delhi, where speaker after speaker condemned the bill.”

Opposers of Hindu-Code Bill also sought to protect practice of polygamy. Here is another excerpt from ‘India After Gandhi’ about opposition to abolition of polygamy –

“To the law minister’s [Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar] claim that the Shastras did not really favor polygamy, Swami Karpatri [leader of Anti-Hindu-Code-Bill movement]) quoted Yagnavalka: ‘If the wife is a habitual drunkard, a confirmed invalid, a cunning, a barren or a spendthrift woman, if she is bitter-tongued, if she has got only daughters and no son, if she hates husband, then the husband can marry a second wife even while the first is living.’ The swami supplied the precise citation for this injunction: the third verse of the third chapter of the third section of Yagnavalkya’s smriti (scripture) concerning marriage. He did not, however tell us whether the injunction also allowed the wife to take another husband if the existing one was a drunkard, bitter-tongued, a spendthrift etc.”

As opposition to Hindu-Code-Bill dragged on, despaired Babasaheb Ambedkar resigned from the Union Cabinet. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru however, tirelessly pushed for the reforms and through his efforts, Hindu Code Bill was passed in several installments during 1955 and 1956. It came as a great relief to Hindu women. Alas, women from other religions, particularly Muslim women, were out of the scope of these reforms. But when question of rights of Muslim women came into forefront, prime-minister of the moment and grand-son of Jawaharlal Nehru – Rajiv Gandhi failed to show courage and wisdom of his grand-father.

Shah Bano was 62 years old women when she was divorced from her husband who filed a petition in Supreme Court for alimony from her husband as she had no means to support herself and her 5 children. In 1985, Supreme Court ruled in her favor. However, as pressure from Muslim fundamentalists climbed, Shah Bano succumbed to the pressure and she disavowed Supreme Court verdict. Pressure for Muslim fundamentalists also caused Congress to introduce ‘Muslim Women’s Bill’ in 1986 which sought to take overturn Supreme Court Verdict. Muslim Women’s Bill resulted in denial of right of alimony to even most destitute Muslim women. Rajiv Gandhi failed to protect rights of Muslim sisters in a way Jawaharlal Nehru had protected rights of Hindu sisters. This was an example of how in India, religions were used a last measure to deny basic rights to women.

Our world has come a long way since widows were burned on funeral pyre of their dead husband or voting rights were denied to women, but still there is long way to go till we reach true equality.

Thousands of women are raped each year in India and the statistical graph of number of rapes is on the rise during past decade. And when women are raped, they are blamed directly or indirectly by religious fundamentalists for getting raped rather than condemnation of rapists. Sex ratio is skewed in India which is testament of vicious practice of female foeticide. Torture of married women for dowry is still a reality in many households. World today is still far behind from being safe and encouraging place for women – somewhere in world, a Muslim girl is threatened and even beaten for going to school – not each girl is fortunate enough to survive and blossom like Malala; somewhere in world, women are fighting for human rights and dignity.

Zeitgeist is improving for women but we still have long way to go. Let us all join hands in struggle for progress and struggle for just world for both men and women!

Image Courtesy: defencelover.in

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