In 1908, the women of New York demanded their ‘bread and roses’ and got them. Now, they have the diamonds, too. The women of India, on the other hand, have neither.
On March 8, 1857, women garment workers in New York struck work causing a tremor that would be felt elsewhere in the world. As the movement gathered steam, in 1908 women marched through the streets of New York and their slogan was ‘Bread and Roses’, reflecting their twin demands for better working conditions and a better life.
One hundred and fifty- six years later those demands for most women remain unfulfilled. They are increasingly finding themselves marginalised in the terms of work, unable to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling and even if Mr Chidambaram has announced an all women’s bank, it is a safe bet that women are not going to find it easy.
In India we ensure that women are not born using state of the art technology. So the question of later struggles doesn’t arise. There has been a lot of talk about women these days and their safety after the brutal Delhi gang rape which mangled the conscience of the nation, that intangible community. But almost daily women are brutalized in various parts of the India and the world. No smell of roses here.
The fight against patriarchy, for equal rights to women, for social security, for the right to say NO continues meanwhile. Poor women continue to live on the edge, deprived of education, livelihoods, basic sanitation and water. India has a space program, spends whopping amounts on some new fighters which dismally crash, and we are continuously sending rockets into space, yes we do even have women scientists mercifully.
But women and girls have a great career option to begin with. They spend a lifetime in unpaid labour, fetching water, cleaning and cooking and then looking for a secluded place for their ablutions. School is incidental just somewhere to pass the time before they get married. There are exceptions but that is not the rule despite all the fuss about girls’ education.
Rural credit is another big issue. It’s easier to buy a foreign car or even an SUV, or an iPhone. The few cooperative banks for women have come up precisely because mainstream banks don’t give poor women credit. The bulk of the women are struggling in the informal sector as vendors, domestic help, agricultural labour and it is these women who need money the most.
In Satara, for example, Chetna Gala Sinha says that her bank which now has several branches, was set up for this very reason. It is not easy to get permission for a women’s bank, specially if the promoters are illiterate. The registration was refused but the women didn’t give up, they asked the bankers if they could calculate complicated interest amounts without a calculator. And they couldn’t whereas the women could do so quite easily.
The bank was given permission and women deposit anything from Rs 3 upwards. It is not easy to run a bank like this which needs to go to the people on the street. With the new cash transfer scheme, women are running around borrowing money to fill forms, Rs 50 apiece, and borrow money to open their accounts. No fancy zero balance stuff happening here.
Schools in villages are run poorly, teachers are erratic, buildings are in shambles, toilets a recent phenomenon, and girls drop out faster because the burden of housework and looking after siblings is their responsibility. Women earn lesser than men in daily wages and have to bear an extra health burden. Women from the Korku tribe in the Melghat region in Amravati district, which has among the highest rates of infant mortality in the country, often go back to the field the next day after they deliver a child, they have no luxury of maternity leave.
They will simply starve if they don’t work. Their children are born undernourished and underweight. Some of them don’t make it beyond the first year of their lives.
The young people who came out in droves for the Delhi gang rape victim probably don’t know about Irom Sharmila or Soni Sori or the hundreds of women who are the receiving end of the security establishment. Women in Kashmir, the north eastern states and in the Red Corridor have been the targets of all kinds of abuse by security forces.
For them, bread and roses seem very far away.
But you wouldn’t know this going by the glamour struck media and the advertising industry that feasts on insecurities. The daily assault on your senses is of the need to be fair, to have white armpits for some reason, so you can tell the man in your life “ let’s go” with brazen confidence, the need to eat only three meals of cereal a day so you have an hourglass waist, of the need (yawn) to get breakfast ready for your husband, rub your son’s chest with a magical formula when he has a cold (daughters survive somehow), and of course the need to look eternally young by using dubious and expensive whitening creams.
From the top of your head for which there are a trillion hair colors (white hair or even grey is a ‘no-no’; the greys have to be hidden, silly!) to the bottom of your feet for which there are foot creams and other things, the woman must at all times looks young, sport no wrinkles, have white faces, armpits and vaginas (if an advertisement on YouTube is to be believed), and be ready to go out.
I forgot the diamonds: almost every second ad is about a diamond sale. Looks are an obsession to the exclusion of everything else.
In this glam scenario, the struggles against patriarchy, for social security, for better wages and for that elusive bread and roses, seem challenging. Even as products promise eternal youth, women’s vulnerability everywhere is on the increase: at the workplace, on the street and at home. Being fair, thin or young are not essential qualities for survival in a criminal and callous world.
There is Mace and pepper spray, of course! You can stick it into your branded handbag. The striking women in New York would despair probably at the situation now, and if anything their bold and courageous move was in a sense pioneering. For that alone we must remember March 8, even though one cringes at another blitz of platitudes eulogising women on that day, after which you can proceed to abuse them with abandon for the rest of the 364 days.