Dialogue  January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3

Changing Image of Women in India

 Ramesh Chandra Shah

(Notes Towards An Indian Philosophy-cum-Politics of the Better Half) 

The guiding principles of all human civilizations may have been discovered and set into motion by men. But their maintenance and preservation in day-to-day life has been the time-honoured role and responsibility of women. Could we say that this tacit agreement is no longer effective; that it has outlived its utility; that women today all over world have acquired a brand new self-consciousness, a brand new awareness of their ‘active’ as well as ‘passive’ potentialities which they see reason to assert irrespective of the traditional images imposed on them? What is the positive and civilization-enhancing content of this feminine rebellion against the so called male domination or over-masculine ideologies? How do the Women’s Lib movements in India relate to or compare with the Women’s Lib movements in the western world, where they actually originated? How much of it is derivative or shadowy or second-hand and how much of it is generated by a genuine native urge to correct the imbalances inherent in Indian civilization itself or in its historically determined forms?

India is an ancient country and its ancientness is radically different from the ancient originations of other world civilizations. Here the most ancient and the most modern mentalities and customs can be seen to co-exist side by side; and this co-existence is no mere historic accident: it’s a function of the very essence of the Indian way of walking upon the earth. It is Jeevan-Vidya (Life-making and life-enhancing wisdom) and no mere curiosity shop or happy hunting ground for imperialist theologies or ideologies or even for anthropology. The Greeks, it is said, for all their apotheosis of Reason (or, perhaps because of it) lived in perpetual dread of Women – that is, the feminine principle of existence; and it was that deep-seated dread which accounts for the low and very inferior status of women in the social order envisaged by them. Was it a fear of the Irrational itself which assumed this form? But, isn’t the way you deal with the Irrational in human existence also a measure of your success as a civilization? How did the Indian civilization or culture confront and come to terms with this problem? This is not the place to indulge in comparative religion or comparative mythology and we just cannot afford to strike self-complacent postures in our endeavour to understand and come to terms with the ugly realities of contemporary Indian life. But, facing ugly realities certainly does not mean blinding ourselves to the good and the redemptive within the same field of vision. Reality is multi-faceted and has to be seen in the round – as a whole.

The emancipation of Indian women is much more conspicuous, much more productive and faster than anywhere else in the world – inspite of poor governance, omnipresent corruption and inefficiency. Within my own living memory, only fifty years ago, it was very unusual for parents to let their daughters go beyond elementary schooling. Look at the scenario now: it’s almost a sea-change. The boys are being left behind by girls in school and collegiate education and not only that; even in the far more exacting competitions for technical, managerial and administrative posts, women are coming forward as formidable rivals to their male counterparts. In the political arena too, they are making their presence felt everywhere. We have had a women prime minister for the longest duration perhaps; and now our Rashtrapati too is a women. A Sarojini Naidu or a Sucheta Kripalani becoming the chief minister of the biggest state in the Indian Union may not have sprung too big a surprise upon us during the early days of post-independence India owing to their undisputed achievements and public stature; but what about the very recent phenomenon called Mayawati? By no stretch of imagination could anyone have foretold such a spectacular elevation of someone who belongs to the most depressed and disadvantaged segment of society. How did it come about? Vote-bank politics and Kanshiram arithmetic are quite plausible explanations; but they alone cannot account for the confidence generated in and the popular mandate issuing from all sections of society.

So, even in the political space, dominated so far by men, a willingness to accommodate, a readiness for change in favour of women is clearly discernible. This is not a sudden emergence: there is recent history behind it and also inevitably late flowering of possibilities which were inherent but long suppressed in our culture itself. This latent energy was released and manifested during our struggle for freedom by our spiritual and political leaders. One recalls the reaction of Karve, the great reformer, to the unprecedented response of Indian women to the Salt Satyagraha launched by Gandhi. Thus, witnessing a huge procession of female Satyagrahis, he was amazed and overwhelmed: “I have dedicated a whole lifetime to the upliflmant of Indian women” he exclaimed; “but never before in my life have seen such a miracle. It would not have been possible if Gandhiji had not reached and touched the psyche of Indian women at its most sensitive and deepest point”. Even now, one can feel and share the wonder Karve felt on that historic moment; for even in our cynical and chaotic times bereft of the idealism evinced during our freedom struggle, there is no dearth of examples which reveal the in-built strength of the hidden reserves of resourcefulness and courage in Indian womanhood. Gandhi was speaking out of his own experience of such feminine potential, when he expressed his conviction in the following memorable and justly famous words:

“For building a human society based on non-violence women are intrinsically more gifted than men. In such a society inhuman elements of mutual malice and violence tend to disappear gradually. If the United Nations Organisation has envisaged a world without wars, who is more capable of bringing such an ideal within the realm of possibility except women, who are naturally more endowed with qualities which are required to form a humane and peaceful social life.”

One need not be a believer in Gandhian ideology of non-violence to see the commonsensical point in the statement quoted above. I recall a short story here, written by Isaac Dinesan – the world famous Dutch authoress of ‘Out of Africa’. The protagonist of that story is made to express a funny sounding idea, which, at the moment I encountered it within that story, struck me as something strange and yet very familiar. It sounded like an echo of some ancestral voice arising from the deep recesses of my own being. “Why are we so disappointed with the world as it is?” – the protagonist of that story asks and then proceeds to answer his own question thus:-

“We are disappointed because the chaotic nature of this universe does not fit in with our own concept of the God who has created it. But who asked us to conceive god in our own masculine image? Why is it necessary for the Creator of this universe to correspond to our own male notions of order? Why can’t we imagine the power which creates and preserves this universe as a woman. I’m sure, if we are able to do so, we will comprehend the laws of the universe as it is; much better than before and, then, this world too will no longer appear to be so absurd and chaotic.” 

By a strange coincidence, as it were, I came across an article by Ila Bhatt – the great social worker and globally acclaimed founder of SEWA, Ahmedabad. The article was entitled ‘At last Mother Kali began to dance’ It so happened that while touring the drought-stricken areas of Bihar and witnessing the plight of the people, a question had suddenly arisen in her mind: ‘What is it in the mentality of the Indian males which motivates them to worship Kali, the goddess of Time and Death as Mother?’ At that time, a spinning centre had been started in a village visited by Ila Ben, and she came across a woman there called Pranapati Devi, whose husband was the priest of the Kali temple in that village. Because he found it impossible to feed his family on the scant income from the temple, this husband felt compelled to send his wife to that spinning centre to earn some money so that to be saved from starvation. Upon her second visit, a year later, Ilabehn found that more than half of the population of that village was being fed solely through the labour of the womenfolk in that centre.

Not only this: the wave of change started in this way assumed such a proportion within the next three years, that the women of Nehatta village transformed themselves into full-time spinners as well as carpenters and their males too had to cooperate with them and become their willing partners in the new-found ventures initiated by themselves. The Centre soon developed into such a focal point of progress that Ila Ben came to perceive it literally as the ‘Dance of Kali’. Soon afterwards an occasion arose in Delhi to exhibit the products of these rural crafts women and it proved to be such a successful event, that Gambhira Devi, one of those women workers exclaimed, “…It was beyond imagination that the gentry of Delhi could appreciate our work so much. What a blessing, what a boon from the gracious Ma Kali’ …This was the spontaneous outburst of a women who had learnt the brand new lesson of self-reliance and parity with men. Ila Bhatt’s article, while confronting and realising a brand new meaning in the traditional image on concept of goddess Kali, had concluded itself thus: ‘I see Mother Kali dancing right here in the courtyard of Delhi – the capital of my country’. Apparently, she had found the answer to the question which she had asked four years ago.

There is yet another inspiring example of the initiative taken by women of rural India. Some years ago I chanced upon this real life story presented by Doordarshan. It was related to Madok – an arid zone of Andhra Pradesh – where the land is mostly barren. An agriculturist called Satish had been engaged in research on the possibilities of growing coarse grain in that area. The Govt. departments turned a deaf ear to his suggestions: they were quite skeptical about the success of his experiments. The male population of the area too, didn’t show any interest. But the women not only saw his point, but came forward in large numbers to act upon his advice. Their efforts were fruitful beyond all expectations. The barren land yielded more grain than they needed and the women took the management of the surplus as well in their own hands. It was so thrilling to listen to those women relating their experience of overcoming obstacles and of making the barren land respond so well bountifully to their toiling. After all, food grains and water constitute the very basis of life and even to-day there are several arid zones in our country where the women have to trudge miles and miles to fetch drinking water. It’s the women who have to bear the brunt of all life-sustaining struggles. The recent efforts to revive the traditional methods of harvesting and storing water too have received full cooperation from women.

I have had the opportunity to observe the activities of SEWA founded by Ila Bhatt. This Self-Employed Women’s Association is a miraculous achievement in itself. It’s a living object lesson in self-reliance, organising women from the lowest strata of society (vegetable vendors, Biri-workers etc.) and enabling them to earn and save better and fight all sorts of injustice by the most peaceful methods. These illiterate women run a bank of their own; they can handle modern equipments like video cameras and solve all sorts of problems unitedly, relying on their own in-built resources. This transformation in their condition has been wrought through the persistent faith and efforts of Ila Bhatt, who believes that “Even when a woman is trying to solve women’s problem through her woman’s point of view, her thinking and action includes and comprehends the whole of society and is bound to prove beneficial for the whole of society.” It was this faith; this realisation, that sustained her through a lifetime of dedication to her work among women and it was this faith that spread like a contagion among those whom she served. Not at all unsympathetic to the feminist movements in the west – and, in fact, possessing first-hand knowledge of them, she, nevertheless evolved a uniquely Indian method of her own to inspire and empower the poorest sections of women (unorganised labour) to realise their potentialities and solve their various problems independently. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the active participation of Indian women in the cultural sphere has steadily increased not only quantitatively, but qualitatively as well. In the field of music in particular, even in pre-independence days, the contribution of women was by no means insignificant. In the post-independence period, there has emerged an astounding crop of talented musicians – vocal as well as instrumental among women, which is at par with male musicians. Dance is, of course their special prerogative: there are not only excellent performers, but innovative geniuses as well. This applies to the field of vocal music also. In literature, initially there were very few women of extraordinary talent during the pre-independence era. Now, every Indian language is teeming with writers with well-established reputations.

But these one problems also arising out of this new found freedom itself which call for urgent attention. Several families in the urban sector now-a-days are nuclear families where husband and wife both have full-time jobs. It is here that there is a cause for real concern. Joint family system which used to be a normal and very healthy institution earlier is disappearing fast. In itself, it may not be a deplorably negative development, because it does not suit to the conditions of modern life. One can’t afford to be nostalgic or sentimental about it; and one need not be. But one thing which is a real cause of concern is the inevitable neglect and lack of parental engagement that the new generation of children have to face and suffer from. And, not only the children. The woman, who is an earning member has to bear burdens instead of one. Even those of them, who can afford domestic servants cannot be free from this additional anxiety and strain. Emotional education, which is by far, more important in life than mere mental education, and which can only be imparted by parental care and intimacy is no longer available to our children and this has irremediable long-range consequences. But, nobody seems to realise this fact and do something about it. The over-busy parents have hardly any time to play their role in the emotional as well as intellectual development of children. Worse still, even teachers have made themselves redundant in modern education. The whole emphasis is now on private tuitions; and most of the teachers have reduced themselves to earning automatons. Young working mothers in such a situation are thus doubly deprived and disadvantaged. Their in-built sense  of responsibility impels them to fill in the gaps, and this is bound to affect their health – mental as well as physical.

The Indian family has been the greatest preserver as well as transmitter of traditional culture and values. Nothing can take its place. The collapse or deterioration of this institution spells disaster for Indian civilisation itself. Already, disturbing symptoms have come to the surface and we just cannot afford to ignore them. This is an area which calls for immediate attention and remedial measures.

But even here, the necessary corrective will have to come from the better half of mankind. After all, it is the feminine principle of existence itself, and not just the woman torn apart from the whole as a separate or rival entity, which is needed to preserve or restore the balance. This principle has always worked and will always continue to work through the male as well as the female of the species – because it is the creative principle besides being the preservative-cum-conservative principle. Creative geniuses, as well as spiritual geniuses, like Ramakrishna Paramhamsa for example, even when they happen to be born with a male body have more or less manifestly feminine qualities. In fact, it’s the overly masculine and doctrinaire males who have done more harm than good to humanity; for they are lacking in that commonsense of the soul which preserves life as well as the economy of the universe. Our ancestral voices audible through the Vedas, Upanishads and the great epics and Puranas point that way. Our cosmology and our psychological discoveries through meditation – past as well as present, also point that way. Not only that; our modern exemplars like Ila Bhatt, who have devoted all their life to the cause of the emancipation and upliftmant of Indian Woman are by no means oblivious of the ‘concern’ which we have tried to voice above. Let me quote from a comment she has made on this very issue of ‘Self-reliant woman’. ‘Is the feminist answer the only possible solution?’ – She asks, and then goes on to make the following statement:-

“Independent individuality on the one hand, and harmonised unity of being on the other hand – are these two quite separate configurations or complementary things to each other – this is the question we have to consider in all seriousness. For the first time, in the history of India, women have come forward to organise themselves as women. For the first time, they are expressing their long-suppressed feelings of suffering, disappointment and rage. For the first time, they are protesting publicly against the wrongs of society. But, so far no clear vision of the future direction has emerged out of all this anger and struggle. But the relevance of the feminine point of view in the context of such non-feminist problems as poverty, unemployment, social injustice, violence in all its forms, wastefulness of military expenditures, globalisation and marketisation of everything etc. has become all too obvious now.”

     Well, once again, we find ourselves wondering at that funny statement in the story of Isaac Dinesan. It is funny, but at the same time quite startling – isn’t it? But why should it startle us Indians who have been accustomed since our childhood days to hear about so many goddesses, who at times appeared to be more important, more dominant and decisive on urgent issues than their male counterparts. If the cosmology as well as the spiritual commonsense of India insists on conceiving the creative and sustaining power behind our universe as a woman, that is, as Jagdamba, Kali or Durga, is it fair to link this insistence to the masculine prejudices of a discriminative society or to what is often called male chauvinism? Time to stop now with this very open question, which involves philosophy as well as politics on a very large scale.   

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati