Facts and figures are constantly telling women that they’ve won the fight. Geeta Padmanabhan asks if this is really true

A woman President, a woman Lok Sabha Speaker, a woman Foreign Secretary. Two women environment experts. Corporate daughters with business degrees, managing everything from textiles to tractors. Confident women who chair meetings in the boardrooms of banks. Women head hotels, cosmetic empires and hospitals, and HR.

Bring out the laddoos (we will work it off in the gym), isn’t it celebration time? We could party all night, but for that ominous knock on the door: The World Economic Forum, in its Global Gender Gap Index 2009, has dumped India to the 114th position among 134 countries in terms of gender equality — in distribution of resources and opportunities for women.

Politically, we’re better, the report said, but fare poorly in economic, education and health sub-indexes. All this joy about women getting empowered, and designing their own destiny, is spectacularly misleading.

Can we say dowry deaths don’t happen anymore? That women earn the same as men do for the same job? That men won’t lock up wife and daughters to “keep them from harm”? Just how many women rose on their merit to run Fortune 500 companies? Sex-selective abortions, discrimination in the workplace, domestic violence, abandonment by NRI husbands, rape and murder … our situation has not improved. If anything, it has become worse.

The real picture

For a true picture of what we are, we need to look outside the metros. What is wrong is the way we’ve measured women’s success.

We’ve taken the narrow, easy way out. But, what stops us in our tracks is society’s attitude, and we’ve not factored this in our estimates at all. Yes, our activism has fetched us some progressive laws — the right to work at night, to buy property and inherit family wealth.

Self-help groups have given women financial freedom — more girls probably go to school. But, facts and figures are useless as long as perceptions don’t change.

How is it progress when we are not seen as equals? When our choice of marriage partner is not ours alone? Why has sexual harassment taken serious proportions? And, why are we told again and again: “Want to be safe? Stay away!”

We have become complacent in our fight. We are in danger of taking a leap backwards. We can start by cementing our own confidence. We need to stop being passive, wearing the ‘good girl’ tag, forever doing the balancing act.

“Once an intelligent girl, in correspondence with a man abroad, came to meet me,” says Mohana Narayanan, a counsellor. “She came after realising that she was being moulded into what that man wanted her to be. She felt she was losing her self-worth.” If abuse is bad, allowing yourself to be abused is worse — be assertive, she says.

Be alert to anyone who stops you from growing. “Be who you are. Don’t be afraid to be a girl. You are worthy of the space you occupy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Let’s break out of this culture that demands perfection from us. Let’s believe it is okay to be ourselves — in looks or in running a household.