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Whither Gender Parity?

By Ram Puniyani

21 July, 2004

The Muslim Personal Law board's meeting gave the hope that it will abolish triple talaq, will take a step towards justice for Muslim women. But that was not to be. While there are multiple factors coming in the way of reform in Muslim personal laws, things are not too bright for Hindu women as well. The rise of politics in the name of religion has created an atmosphere
where the social relations, the one between men and women, between upper caste and dalits are going in a reverse gear.

There are multiple glaring instances, which have happened during last few months, which force one to think as to where are we heading for as far as gender parity is concerned. We did hear about many cases of honor killing in Pakistan during last few years. Cases where the male relatives of the women killed them as they decided to choose their own life partners against
the wishes of their men folk, father, brother etc are on the rise. This abominable practice was heard of and one understands has been prevalent in Pakistani society.

While one had heard of two cases of women being burnt alive as Sati, in the recent past, what was shocking was that the family of the victims glorified it. Sati was a custom against which reformers like Ram Mohun Roy struggled in the late Nineteenth century. Cases of its occurrence in late Twentieth century did shake the conscience of most of us. While a large number of people condemned it, there were people who came up with the concept of Rani Sati temples to 'honor' this custom. Of all the condemnable reactions which took place in the wake of Roop Kanwar being burnt, the worst of course was the protest march taken out by the then Vice President of Bhartiya Janata Party, Mrs. Vijaya Raje Scindia, a widow herself. This march which was taken to the Parliament, the highest law making body in the country, had the slogan that to commit sati is not only the glorious tradition of Hindu women, its their right also. This march was meant to stall the legal measures, which were being contemplated to prevent such incidents in future.

Over one and a half decades down the line, things are no better. If at all new forms of women's oppression are coming up. The worst amongst them being the replication of honor killing, the practice which one was hearing of in Mullah dominated Pakistan. Somewhere in March 2004, a young man killed his sister and brother in law in Thane. After being arrested for the crime he gloriously proclaimed that his sister had married against the wishes of the family so he undertook this crime and that he is proud of what he did. Somewhere in June 2004, a boy killed his sister in Nagpur. The girl apparently was talking to her fiance on phone. Her decision to marry the boy of her liking was not approved of by the family, i.e. father and brother, and so in the rage of anger the boy killed his own sister.

The latest issue (July 2004) of a national Newsmagazine reports a speech by none other than the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, the firebrand Uma Bahrati. As per the report, RSS ideologue Govindacharya had proposed to her through Mr. Advani. She apparently was favorable to the proposal. She sought permission from her brother for this. Her brother, Swami Lodi, did not approve of the alliance so she rejected the proposal and took Sanyas. Why the all-powerful person of the stature of Uma Bahrati has to get the nod of her brother for marrying the person of her choice?

The rising occurrence of incidents of girl being either denied permission to marry the person of her choice or being killed because she exercises the option and goes ahead, is reflective of the deeper cultural rot which is setting in the society due to the rise of politics in the name of religion. The ideology of this politics is based on the pre-modern feudal values. Feudal society, where the nexus of landlord and priest ruled the roost in the society, was founded on the hierarchical notions of caste and gender. In this scheme of things the supremacy of Landlord is unquestionable as he had the divine power. And it was the priesthood, cutting across different religions, which propagated and upheld these values. According to this in European society the serf was bonded to the land and the feudal lord was the controller of his life.

In India, the things were parallel but different. Here there was no centralized Church, but the local alliance between the landlord and the priest served the same purpose. In Maharashtra this alliance goes by the popular name of Shetji-Bhatji (Landlord-Brahmin). In this scheme of things the peasant the Shudra was tied to the land, was himself a semi property of the
landlord, so could not own his property. As far the woman is concerned, the pattern in most of the geographical locations and in the prevalent norms in most religious communities was the same. Its that woman is the property of man. So obviously a property in turn cannot own a property herself. She needed protection and in turn control. In her childhood this control is the prerogative of father, during adult life that of husband and in old age in case of husbands death its son or another male relative who is the controlling authority. In one of the colloquial languages a word is used for women, Trimmat, the one guided by opinions of three persons, depending on the stage of her life.

Secularization process breaks the authority of landlord not only on land but also of his control over, serf, shudra, who now is an independent landowner, land to the tiller, if that takes place. At times guillotine, at times revolutions brought to endthis divine power of landlords and Kings. Bhudan (donation of land) or halfhearted land reforms could not end this hegemony totally. As far as women are concerned, the introduction of education, and their entry into social space should have abolished the concept that woman is the property of man. One hears of the word Kanyadan, donating of daughter, at the time of marriage. There is nothing like Putradan (donating of son) as an equivalent. As son is the recipienet of the property. Husbands in many traditions are addressed as Master, Dhani, and Swami etc.

The process of transition of women from property, controlled subjects, to the people in their own rights began and Savitribai Phule is the major initiator in this direction. The coming times saw the emergence of the likes of Pandita Ramabai, Anandi Gopal etc. who took extreme pains to come out of the shackles of patriarchal control. India's freedom movement also saw
a great participation of women in the struggle for freedom. As India's secularization process was not complete the remnants of it kept hierarchical values alive even after independence. The Indian Constitution did accept the total equality of caste and gender. But can any deprived section get its rights just for asking. No way. A struggle to get one's social and political goals is the only way to get it. The laws and constitution provide the ground on which such struggles can stand and march ahead.

It is likely that these tendencies became stronger in Pakistan after the Mullah influenced changes brought in by Zia Ul Haq in early eighties. In India the rise of the social power of Hinduta around the same time has given a fillip to the retrograde values as far as gender is concerned. At this point, Hindutva defends the subjugation of women as a political agenda. For that matter any politics, which goes on in the name of religion, does the same. Hindutva ideology is joined in this arena by Post modernists, the likes of Ashish Nandy's, who will come forward to defend these traditions, closing their eyes to the socialrelations, to the notions of hierarchy.

The question is not just whether Uma Bharati can marry the person of her choice or not, the question is a broader one.And it pertains to the surge of politics, which aims to suppress the human rights of weaker sections of society. The question pertains to the abuse of the emotions associated with religion for the sake of power. One hopes that the cases of honor killings reported around are the last one's. One hopes that rather than asserting that women were worshipped in Ancient India (! before they were consigned to the 'holy' flames of her husbands funeral pyre) one comes to recognize that women are equal citizens, equal in social rights and both genders have to have parity in all matters of our social and political existence.