How free is our freedom?

Vinaya Patil
Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Even after 70 years of Independence, women in India tussle between pride and shame. Though some have progressed, there are still many others who are struggling for their so-called ‘freedom’

The Indian women’s cricket team recently reached the World Cup finals. Four women made India proud at the last Olympics. A young Indian woman became the sarpanch of a village in Rajasthan and changed the face of it for good. In the past, Indian women have reached the space, made it to the Forbes list and what not! We are immensely proud of these, and thousands of other women who keep fighting the odds to make it big.

But a quick Google search on ‘Indian women’, and you will still be greeted with news of women being stalked, sexually harassed, or dropping out of school. You still come across black days like December 16, 2012, and marches demanding punishments for perpetrators of crimes against women. We still need a #AintNoCindrella, pepper sprays, campaigns for gender equality, Beti Bachao, and the list goes on.
You still have to Google for ‘Indian women achievement’ for the search engine to throw up some positive results on our women.

While the country is celebrating its 71st Independence Day, we are talking of how independent our women are. Isn’t that an irony in itself? From farmers to scientists, from the local government bodies to being the President of India, they are everywhere. India women, a rather strong and intelligent population, is hailed by many for reaching where they have. But how many are these, really? Sadly, just a very minuscule per cent.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, we are close to 586 million women and how many have reached the Olympics or the space or even the marketplace, in some very orthodox neighbourhoods?

“If we are to look at the history of India, I think the movement for the independence of women began when Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule began the work of women’s education — that should be celebrated as the day of women’s independence,” expresses Bhagyesha Kurane, co-founder of Sau Ramai educational project.

Kurane, is a young woman who handles the project of community schooling in areas of slums and helps set up libraries with community funding and also works in slums around Pune for the upliftment of Dalit and lower caste minority women.

From struggling to get education back in the day, to struggling to dress the way they want and do what they like, their struggle for freedom continues — the struggle for women’s education in 1940-50, struggle for political liberation in the 1970s, to the struggle for just family laws of the 1980s, and the struggle to end violence against women now.

“Later, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar kept up the work of women’s empowerment. Thanks to this, men and women have equal status in Article 14 to 18 of our Constitution,” Kurane says, further adding, “Today, many important posts in the country are held by women — from the chairperson of State Bank of India to many Union Ministers. The picture looks very promising and rosy from a distance. But are we really free? Despite 70 years of Independence, the women living on the fringes, still stand in long queues for something as basic as water and knock on the doors of their governing bodies to get their basic rights in place. These women are hardly heard.”

On the other hand, 74-year-old Surekha Patil, a retired headmistress and a feminist, says that women, according to her, were in a way in a much better place some years ago. “As a young 25-year-old teacher, I never felt as insecure and scared teaching young boys, as my 29-year-old granddaughter now feels teaching a class of teenagers,” she points out. “In the young, just Independent India, we were a fierce and bold lot of women. My husband, a teacher himself, never stopped me from learning and working. Supporting and encouraging each other in every aspect of life, we passed our gender-neutral views to our students. For that matter, we didn’t even think of these as gender-neutrality. For us, it was all very normal,” she stresses.

But today, in 2017, a flag-hoisting ceremony and public recital of Vande Mataram in a remote Indian village still sees a very minimal number of women. Does this mean that only our men have got independence?

“Freedom is a concept that only caters to the powerful in today’s times. Given the current political climate and attitude towards women that our society has, women can never actually be free. For instance, from victim blaming to slut shaming, a woman has to endure it all when she faces sexual violence. Indian women are not a homogeneous category, an upper-caste upper-class woman may experience ‘freedom’ that is different from a Dalit woman, or a woman with a disability. And we cannot claim freedom for one, if not all of us are free from the shackles of hegemonic heteronormative Brahmanical patriarchy,” insists Japleen, a feminist activist based in New Delhi and editor of Feminism in India — a digital intersectional feminist platform.

Tejas Harad, a Mumbai-based professional and a feminist, too agrees. He says, “It will be foolish to say that women are free. As Ambedkar had said, political freedom does not automatically guarantee freedom in social and economic life. Caste system puts women in a hierarchical relation with each other, limits their choices and forces notions of shame, purity and honour on them. Patriarchy makes our relations gendered, creates categories of masculine/feminine and normalises sexual harassment and violence. Unless the two are destroyed, women won’t be free.”

Projecting the 10 per cent women, holding crucial posts and making big achievements, as the women of India, is then a very dangerous sign. Many women are still prohibited from attending public ceremonies, merely on the basis of them belonging to the Dalit community. “The issue of women’s independence thus needs to be looked at from a caste, class, race point of view too. These social issues have to be addressed simultaneously along with gender,” believes Kurane.

“Overall, yes, women have progressed, but most of them have been upper caste and class ones. The others are still struggling for their so-called ‘freedom’,” she says.

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