‘A long walk to freedom’
The quest for freedom in various forms, I believe, is an ideal held dearly by every individual under any given circumstance. Yet, gender inequality in access to freedom is all pervasive. In a patriarchal society, which has existed over centuries in different manifestations, not only are women and other gender minorities restricted from enjoying their freedom as much as men are allowed to but there is also a systematic suppression and marginalisation of these groups from access to equal opportunities.
History has also witnessed efforts of individual women and men as well the waves and strands of women’s liberation movements to battle patriarchal structures. In addition, they have endeavoured to bring about a more just order and achieved feats in the struggle.
However, much like the Hegelian concept of dialectics, every representation of a patriarchal society synthesizes a new way of suppression of women as appropriate for the context.
Post the conclusion of the Cold War, a definite change has been observed in the nature of conflicts. Moving away from the grand narratives of a liberal democratic capitalist <g data-gr-id="93">polity</g> versus a socialist, welfare state championed by USA and its allies and erstwhile Soviet Union and its allies respectively, we see a rise in multiple armed conflicts clustered predominantly around the questions of ethnic, sub-national and communal identities. In connecting this particular development with the concerns of women, two dimensions need to be contemplated upon.
Firstly, in the heart of war and conflict lies the horrific perception that women of the ‘rival or opposing’ community are ‘territory to be conquered’ in order to ‘display might and power’, Such perceptions consequently lead to the brutal rape and slaughter of women. Moreover, as there are increasing examples of governments ordering counter militancy and martial law and the subsequent protection provided to these military forces to tackle such warfare, there are multiple instances of women facing atrocities on their bodies and minds from these counter militant forces as well.
Second, with this alteration in the character of conflict, it is essential to acknowledge and understand the ‘intersectionalities’ of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, race and gender based identities in order to address the problems of inequality and discrimination. For example, an uneducated Dalit woman in India living in acute poverty and in the periphery of a village will face more hurdles while filing a sexual assault complaint against men from a higher caste group than an educated woman living in the heart of an urban city. Hence, measures to ameliorate such differential concerns are <g data-gr-id="90">crucial,</g> when legislating.
The major portion of the dominant discourse and structure operating within society follows the historical trend of being patriarchal. The norms and ideas emanated from the patriarchal discourse are dispersed and reinforced throughout society, through a complex set of institutions, both public and formal as well as private and informal which reward compliance and persecute and ostracise those who dare to disobey. The valorisation of masculinity and masculine traits and degradation of femininity and feminine traits have as a consequence done the following-
i. A power hierarchy has been created in perceiving these two gender groups, wherein ‘womanly qualities’ are considered to be inferior to the ‘manly qualities’. Moreover these ‘manly qualities’ are the ones rendered universal. For example, men are considered to be ‘rational’ and ‘impartial’ whereas women are seen to be ‘partial’ and ‘thinking with their hearts’. Central to the idea of the universally promoted ‘liberal democratic polity’ is the rational and impartial individual.
ii. However, the power hierarchy isn’t as simple as stated. Certain qualities of the feminine are given a somewhat superlative status, such as motherhood, nurture, sacrifice and caregiving. This notion has its own set of problems. For one, a woman who does not conform to these desirable qualities is often persecuted and if not so constantly queried and ridiculed by the society at large. Apart from this, these ‘desirable traits’, which have essentially emerged from women’s biological role of childbearing, have led to the sexual division of labour, wherein women are expected to perform all household chores, rear children and take care of her husband’s needs. This division also extends to the arena of a workplace and pay, wherein certain occupations such as nursing are considered to be ‘women’s work’ and are often less valued and lower paying.
iii. There is a creation of binaries with definitive boundaries when such gendered distinctions are formed. Under all circumstances, the men are expected to remain within the boundaries of masculinity and women within the boundary of femininity. Any distortion in this norm is highly disparaged.
iv. Creation of such binaries also renders other genders (eg. trans-genders) as invisible, pushing them out of any kind of discourse of citizenship or rights and looking at them with a certain sense of suspicion and apprehension.
v. Lastly, a very a dangerous trend that emerges is when all of these perceptions are given a religious sanction. When seen as something divinely ordained, these perceptions become traditions that are to be graciously inherited and followed unquestionably.
While one must acknowledge the proliferating efforts of international and national organisations as well as the civil society to address concerns of women, the success these have seen is certainly not satisfactory as certain key matters remain underemphasized or unaddressed.
First, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the general perception of the state and society, while we address women’s issues. Providing security and a safe environment cannot be considered to be the end goal. Security is only a means to reach the larger objective of freedom. What should be seen as an ultimate aim is to see to it that women feel unencumbered and free, physically, sexually, psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. This would require engaging not only in providing physical security but also working on patriarchal thought processes and breaking of the more subtle manifestations of such patriarchal structures.
Second, representation of women in positions of leadership still remains less than 25% world over. There is an urgent need to recognise the fact that women are doubly insecure in the realms of society. While men can and must play a vital role in the struggle against patriarchy, women are indispensible in providing a personal and experiential perspective. It is high time that the ‘glass ceiling’ is effectively broken and a substantive and respectful space is created to provide a gendered lens to policy making. Similarly, there is a need for extensive efforts to ensure the participation of women in international dialogue, peace keeping and conflict resolution.
Third, the introduction of gender in education, in order to create awareness about the inequalities and the need to overcome them as well as to eradicate prejudices is fundamental from the elementary level itself.
Fourth, effective implementation of drives and programmes to ensure economic self sufficiency as well as political empowerment of women, especially in the rural areas and urban periphery, will go a long way in giving an independent and stronger voice to women.
Fifth, the relentless pursuit of members of civil society such as various feminist and interest groups and NGOs, to fight for a more equal and just society, must continue as well as proliferate. The expansion of media in terms of technology and global reach can be a valuable medium for dialogue and awareness in this regard.
In conclusion, while duly acknowledging the need to identify ‘intersectionalities’, a certain sense of solidarity amongst women in congruence with genuine initiative and cooperation by men to understand and help create conducive environments, though seemingly utopian, facilitate tremendously a sense of empowerment in women to influence change. As in the words of Maya Angelou, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
The author is a student in the Department of Political Science, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University