People often tell me, especially on days like today which is International Women’s Day, that things are different now, and the modern woman in India in free. While many exceptional women have achieved extraordinary things in our country, they have done so against the odds. In reality women, modern or otherwise continue to be suppressed by bastardised versions of good ol’ sexism, and letting women believe things have changed is yet another ploy to discourage feminism and the fight for equality.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
A few weeks ago I attended a really stuffy overly-coordinated event, as part of the proceedings, a middle-aged man did a bit of a comedy routine. The subject of his jokes was marriage and how women make it a miserable state of affairs for men to be in them; every joke was about how husbands are whipped, unhappy and subject to so much control, and how being “stuck” with their wives through the lockdown had been terrible for all of them. None of the jokes were even remotely funny. Fortunately for my outrage, the comedian ended up seated next to me at dinner, and I asked him about whether this sexist brand of humour was really appropriate.
“Not everything is meant to be taken so seriously,” he said genuinely surprised that he had been confronted, “It’s all in good fun.”
Good fun. The battle cry of the eternally inappropriate.
“Don’t you think though that creating this alternate reality where women have so much control in marriages they become the abusers is dangerous to the women’s movement?” I asked him, because I am nothing if not persistent, “Don’t you think it creates the falsity that women have it great out in the world?”
“What are you talking about?” He said, “These things you are talking about are old news, things are different for women now, things have changed.”
I’ve never wanted to drown myself in a bowl of soup more, but we’ve all heard this before right? Whether it is from a professor teaching the poetry of Mamta Kalia saying none of it applies anymore because times are different now. Or in conversation with a South-Delhi dwelling socialite sipping cocktails in honour of Women’s Day. Or from your own family who touts the freedom to work and leave the house (in daylight) as the monumental successes of modern India. We’ve all been taught the same things: Times are different, things have changed, modern women are free.
Are we, though? Are modern women free? Have times really changed?
Well, it’s 2021, and apparently the advancement of years is enough to indicate progress but let’s take a moment to think about the facts of our times. Women in India report 88-cases of rape a day, of which 30% lead to conviction. We had a high-court judge rule recently that touching a child through clothing does not amount to sexual assault. We had a Supreme Court Justice offer a rape-victim up for marriage as a means to commute the punishment of a government employee. Multiple women have been killed in the last few months alone for spurring the advances of men. The employment rate for women has been lower than 35% for my entire lifetime. The head of the National Council of Women (NCW) hates the term “feminist”. Female representation in government has been at a plateau for years. It hasn’t even been five-years since period-products were deemed essential in our country, and every year millions of girls drop-out of school due to lack of facilities to manage periods. We’ve had an officer of the police deem that beating his wife is a “personal matter”. We’ve seen a bunch of private-school boys use social media for revenge porn and to parade young women as trophies. We’ve seen a prominent and respectable journalist taken to court for defamation for alleging sexual harassment. We’ve seen a woman detained for her own alleged kidnapping because she didn’t want to marry the man her parents had chosen. There’s been a dowry related suicide this week. All of this is just news from the past few months and it’s nowhere near exhaustive.
Moreover, all of this is just facts and figures, there is a lot more to women’s existence. I am as modern a woman as one can be – I work, I vote, I wear skirts, I travel alone, I pay taxes, I date – and in a modern world a woman like me should have the option to be the norm, and based on the whole “awareness of rights and education” fix, a woman like me should never have to go through the archaic practises of the patriarchy that are such “old news” but that’s not true. I’ve been sexually assaulted, abused by a live-in partner, slut-shamed, harassed in the street and humiliated for not being the “right kind of woman”. I am just one of many examples, even as i was growing up, my peers and I were not taught freedom of choice, we were taught that women must learn to do everything: Work, keep a house, be financially independent, marry, bear children, keep her husband’s family happy and be overall quite agreeable. The test of tolerance is to demand respect and rights even when you refuse to embrace those roles, and as a country we have woefully failed that test.
When we say that it’s the 21-century and women are free, what we are really doing is pretending to a reality that doesn’t exist. Women ought to be free, I wouldn’t dream to disagree, but we aren’t. In my very privileged experience, I know women who had to beg permission to work and are actively shamed for shunning their family as a result. I know women who cannot leave their house without permission. I know women who have been asked to ignore their husbands’ infidelity and abuse. I know women, and have been the woman, passed up for promotions because my bosses were worried I would have a baby and ruin their company. I’ve known women who have been assaulted for their choices and been forced to marry. I don’t know a single woman who is free, not even me, and every woman I know who has made choices in the interest of their freedom, including me, has suffered for them. Whether that is in the form of shaming, loss of family, loss of income, loss of respectability, loss of rights, outright violence or social shunning, we have suffered and we continue to suffer. That is why I refuse to buy into the notion that times are different. There are more buildings now, we have the internet, life expectancy has risen, but if I agree that things have changed, I give credit where none is due.
Yes, some women have achieved extraordinary things and others have found extraordinary happiness in everyday life, but as a whole the war is not over until women can stop fighting. Things aren’t different until success is had against the odds. We have not achieved freedom until we still have to grovel and modify our behaviour to be deemed worth of it. It’s dangerous to say “times are different” because it creates an alternate reality where women no longer need to fight for freedom, and that discourages feminism. That enables men to tell women to “lighten up” and leads to movements like #notallmen. It leads to men saying things like we should fight for “humanism” not feminism. It’s a tactic to make women believe things are better than they are and I refuse to participate. I refuse to say we have won, when the war is far from over. I refuse to celebrate battles because the celebrations are designed to distract us from the war.