Women's empowerment is still wrapped up in many paradoxes, subject as it is to many contradictory, economic, social and religious pulls…

The Kingfisher calendar ad aptly sums up the paradox of women's empowerment in India. Women, in this context, are free to express themselves and flaunt their sexy bodies, but that liberty is being exploited in the age-old way — commodifying and cheapening them. And there are enough men drooling at the sight and begging for copies of the calendar. Some of the women displaying their assets are also asking for it.

Usha Vohra, First Lady of Jammu and Kashmir, is quoted in The Tribune as referring to various international conventions having been passed, like the Beijing Declaration, the Declaration of Millennium Goals and the objectives of the Commission on Women and observed that no country in the world has yet achieved true gender equality, as measured by decision making power, equal opportunities for advancement and equal participation in all walks of human endeavour.

In a report entitled “Sops For Women”, Jupinderjit Singh says in the same day's paper that “Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather today sent confusing signals on the issue of women empowerment in the state. At a time when the government is drawing flak for allowing the tabling of the Jammu and Kashmir Women Permanent Resident Disqualification Bill, the Finance Minister announced special sops for women owning property.”

Mixed signals

These are just two of many instances that give mixed signals on the subject of women's empowerment from the government, media, patriarchy and women themselves. This was brought home powerfully to the audience at a debate organised by the Membership Department of the YWCA, Chennai, to celebrate Independence Day. The motion was “Has Independence Reached Women?” with Prema Kumar, Corresponent, Lady Andal School for Women speaking for and Prof. Bennite Marian, Co-ordinator for Women's Studies, Social Welfare Department, Stella Maris College, speaking against the motion. Both took very balanced views and presented their views convincingly but, sadly, it was preaching to the choir once more — the listeners were the already-converted and there was not a single male present. Education and financial independence alone are not enough to liberate women and it is important to include men in the feminist discourse because the patriarchy that flourishes despite all moves to the contrary, exercises a dominant role in all partnerships from marriage and school to government, hospital, and office.

I will tell a true story here to illustrate the points without taking up too much space. My friend Letitia now lives in a Senior Citizen's Home. She was born into a wealthy family with a dominant but kind father and a totally submissive mother, a trophy wife. They had four daughters. A son passed away and that left three daughters and a daughter-in-law widowed. According to inclination and the children's own predilections, each one has a different lifestyle.

Double lives

Letitia, a post-graduate with a government job, was not allowed to go out of the house by her father or husband except for her education or health matters. Her job responsibilities involved quick decision-making, communication and leadership skills, which she exercised to the highest capacity and earned a good name at work. But whenever she returned home, she had to adopt a false persona — docile and obedient and pander to husband Simon's wishes silently. At home too she had to take over when children or husband fell ill and juggle her time desperately to manage the roles of home-maker and job-holder.

Letitia's father was an orthodox Nambudiri convert to Christianity, eager to retain both Nambudiri and Jacobite customs and traditions and these were imposed on Letitia too. The husband had no steady income and the fond father would keep sending her cheques from time to time or a sari now and then to cheer her up. This caused some bad feeling between the siblings. She says with a laugh in heavily Malayalam-accented Tamil, I had to be an eli at home and a puli outside every day of my life, it was not easy!

After marriage, differences between the in-laws and Letitia caused insult and injury in equal measure; when she started bleeding heavily just before her first delivery at the advanced age of 34, she told her husband she needed to go to her doctor. He agreed to let her go but the mother-in-law said it was rahu kalam and she ought not to go. She added that bleeding was a common problem and she was merely fussing for sympathy. Finally, fearing for her child, she just took an auto and went alone to the hospital only to be greeted by medical people asking how an educated person could be so stupid as to delay after noticing heavy bleeding. But they were fond of her, helped her as much as they could and before the doctor-in-charge could come back from her rounds, Letitia was mother to a seven-pound baby boy. After celebrating the birth and wrangling about naming the boy with no reference to the mother, Letitia herself was kept in a dark room which she could not leave till 40 days had passed. Diet and meal plans could not be decided by her.


She had cataract surgery last week and returned to her room. There is no provision for another person to stay with her, so fellow-residents have been going five times a day to put drops in her eye, to remove the bandage, give her medication and so on. She does not want help from her pregnant, working daughter or Bangalore-based son who said “Come here Mummy and get it done but don't forget your ATM card!

Look at how many influences, religious, social, economic and others can bind the 21st century women just from this one example and the many that fill your own repertoire.

Has Independence reached us? Jai ho!

Email the writer: visa.ravindran@gmail.com


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012