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How few age-old biases and taboos women faced have changed in India

The country has 63 million “missing women” (due to female foeticide) and 21 million “unwanted girls” (who are not treated well).

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Mar 03, 2018, 11.38 PM IST
ThinkStock Photos
Even as national literacy rates have risen, women in India’s workforce have declined from 36% to 24% between 2005-06 and 2015-16.
This is not a kind place for women. Every day, India sees 21 dowry deaths, 108 cases of rape and at least two acid attacks. Over 30% of India’s women were married underage.

The country has 63 million “missing women” (due to female foeticide) and 21 million “unwanted girls” (who are not treated well). While social evils like honour killings have not abated, new ones are emerging. Last year, Madora village in Uttar Pradesh joined a few others in banning women from using mobile phones and imposed a penalty of Rs 21,000 on violators.

Even as national literacy rates have risen, women in India’s workforce have declined from 36% to 24% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Not surprisingly, many studies, polls and reports, including one by Reuters, put India among the world’s worst places for women to live in.

Statistically, India has progressed. The country’s GDP, per capita income, literacy rate, poverty levels and even digital era indicators like internet penetration have been improving. But looking at grim headlines and ground realities, it seems progress is bypassing women.

Yet, this March 8, there are reasons why women in India might want to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. A combination of factors — social pressure, firebrand activists, political backing and judicial decisions, even Bollywood’s soft power — has managed to shift the needle on some of the regressive traditions and beliefs that women have lived with even as India has progressed.

If tokenism is an important signal, this year’s Economic Survey is a good place to start. The pink theme — from its cover to the website banner and hyperlinks — drew attention to the country’s women even as it devoted a chapter on gender and missing girls and made a mention of the #MeToo movement. It called for a “collective self-reflection by Indian society” on its “meta preference” for sons while reminding everyone that there are millions of unwanted girls and missing women.

Earlier, the government had made changes in official documents, giving women equal status as a parent. In most official documents, father’s name was mandatory, making it difficult for children of single or divorced women.

These rules have been eased now and father’s name is no longer mandatory in documents like passport. The NDA government has rolled out campaigns to tackle India’s bias for sons and rampant female foeticide. Its campaigns and policy push with Beti Padhao Beti Bachao and #SelfieWithDaughter were
fresh stabs at changing the status quo.

India’s judiciary gave a slew of progressive rulings that helped tackle a range of biases and challenges that women face in India. Last year, the Supreme Court declared that the Muslim practice of instant triple talaq was unconstitutional and struck it down.

The judiciary’s progressive rulings have also reached places of worship. Many of them restrict women’s entry to the sanctum sanctorum. As activist Trupti Desai led the fight for women, courts ruled that women have equal rights, thus opening doors for them at Haji Ali and Shani Shingnapur temple.

In pic: Women won the right to enter Haji Ali’s inner sanctum

In February, the Supreme Court made it clear that all Hindu daughters, even those born before the enactment of the Hindu Succession Act 1956, will have equal right to ancestral property. This reaffirmed the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act.

Social media and Bollywood added to the progressive moves made by the government and judiciary. The global campaign #MeToo against sexual harassment at work found wide resonance in India and many women made public their experiences. The film Padman, meanwhile, tackled the social taboo around menstruation. Indian women face a range of cultural and religious restrictions during their period, and Akshay Kumar’s movie forced people to have a conversation about it and possibly a rethink.

In pic: Women entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple

There are two reasons why these incremental changes are important. India is a patriarchal and feudal society where women’s secondary status is endorsed by its cultural traditions and religious norms. Rules on paper change more easily than century-old, socially sanctioned practices. For example, child marriage, outlawed in 1929, remains rampant. Dowry, illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, still exists.

Further, khap panchayats and family patriarchs have had an iron grip on the society, often acting as extra-constitutional authorities dictating what women can and cannot do.

Any change in longheld practices — like allowing entry to temples — is a big step forward. Two, when in conflict with social norms, politicians often prefer an evasive silence. Any change in this is welcome.

In pic: The film Padman started an open conversation on period

This time, a confluence of factors — social activism, political will and court judgement — have moved the needle in favour of women in India. The glass is, indeed, filling up.

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