Author: Vivek Agnihotri
Date: September 17, 2015
Despite restrictions, regressive mindsets and hurdles, women today are flying into space, treating patients, building bridges, winning beauty pageants, excelling in sports, making laws and leading the corporate world.
We are a typical modern, urban, liberal Indian family that hates bans, loathes corruption and feels extremely concerned about women’s equality and empowerment. Which is why, when PM Narendra Modi appealed to post a #SelfieWithDaughter some time ago, I took a picture with my daughter as well. But before I could tweet it, a lot of influential people raised their doubts on the effectiveness of that campaign. They pointed out that there are larger and more pressing issues that need our attention. When women are illiterate, abused and discriminated, how can we celebrate them? Yes, we, as a society, have failed to empower women and give them equal social rights. The state has failed to educate them at par with men or make them feel safe. But it doesn’t mean our women have failed. Which is why, there is a strong case to celebrate the Indian woman.
India is a difficult country, with abject poverty, lack of basic facilities like water, electricity, sanitation and housing, corruption, inefficiency and social disparities. If you are not privileged, it is not easy to survive here. And it's worse if you are born a woman. It’s a general perception that if a son is born, he is your retirement fund, but if a girl is born, you have to worry about a dowry fund. The girl child is not preferred, women are not respected and are perceived and treated like inferiors, worthy of only compassion, pity or help.
In the run up to last year’s election, Narendra Modi spoke a lot about the Indian youth as a demographic dividend. Unfortunately, when it comes to women, nobody sees them in a similar light. It’s time that we recognise women as productive and efficient assets to our economy as well as society, and celebrate them.
From the moment she is conceived, a woman spends the rest of her life fighting against a male chauvinistic society. Inside her house, she fights for equality with her brother. Outside, in society, she battles eve-teasers, men who smirk when she drives a vehicle and several other challenges on a minute-to-minute basis. She has been fighting it for centuries. This is the reason why I think the Indian woman has emerged as an extremely strong person as compared to those in other countries. A woman who fetches water from a well, walks back several kilometres in the scorching heat despite ogling men and a latent danger of rape looming over them, and then use the water in the most economical way, cannot be an ordinary woman. Perhaps, she knows better about hard work than any man. This is why she should be celebrated.
Tragically, whenever women are discussed, we start thinking on the lines of them suffering from illiteracy, ignorance, dowry, honour killing, eve teasing, rape, abuse, financial slavery etc. Is that what the life of an Indian woman is all about? Who has made her illiterate? Who takes dowry? Who kills her for honour? Who is behind molestation, eve-teasing or rape? Why is it that all the evils of society are associated with the victim? It’s a design. The biggest trick the rich play on the poor is that they never let us see the poor without their poverty. If one inverts the pyramid and looks at it from a woman’s point of view, men will come across as abductors, exploiters, molesters and rapists. But the pyramid can’t be inverted because the narrative is in in the hands of people who want to see a woman as an "abla nari" (hapless victim). The Indian woman is "abla" because the narrative has always been with men.
Just to substantiate my point, let me illustrate a very interesting example. It came to notice that the incidence of HIV was increasing at an alarming rate of 15-20% amongst women. A lot of men started questioning the character of their women. After a sustained, pan-India research, spread over two years, by ICMR it was found out that this incidence was due to ‘condom failure’. They took a large sample size, measured their penises and discovered that over 60% of Indian men have penises too small for the condoms to fit World Health Organisation specifications for condoms. Since men control the narrative, the small size of their penises remains a well guarded secret. Indian women have managed to excel despite being surrounded by a prejudiced narrative and hence, should be celebrated.
Many Indians believe there are two worlds - the mythological world and the real world. In our mythology, there is a concept of ‘Panchkanya’ which is made of 'panchtatvas' (five elements) earth, fire, water, air and space. Like earth (Sita) she is strong, ever-giving, sacrificing and stable. She is fiery, passionate, sexy and strong-willed like fire (Draupadi). Like water (Mandodari) she is in a ‘flow’ with strong undercurrents, turbulent on the surface, yet deep in her spiritual quest. She is like wind (Ahalya) for her free-will, ethereal nature and freshness. She is likened to space (Tara) for her intelligence, emotional range and vastness of heart.
In a society where a woman’s greatness is measured by her chastity, where her patience is measured by her capacity to tolerate great injustice, one can still find many Sitas who happily sacrifice all comforts in lieu of their duty and devotion for their family. This Sita is constantly fighting Ravanas with her sacrifice and penance, yet she doesn’t compromise on her dignity and righteousness, she instills values in her children and protects her family’s honour. There are Draupadis all around us with storms of anguish and anger. In every house there are Mandodaris, trying to create a balance between the injustice of society and the stability of her family with her wisdom. Whenever her family faces turbulence, she is the one who chooses the right path. We meet Ahalyas in colleges, at home, at work who are subjected to unforgivable wrongs, yet they forgive and spread their compassion.
The Indian woman displays some or all of these qualities, despite her financial status or social reality. She is suppressed, yet liberated. Discriminated, yet strong. Deprived yet rich in emotions. She is the unpaid labour of the household, yet she controls the intricate economy of the house. She follows everyone’s wishes, yet she is the moral leader of the house. She is bound by the dogmas of the society, yet she designs the life-graph of a new generation. She is the hope in a hopeless situation. This is why she should be celebrated.
Despite restrictions, regressive mindsets and hurdles, women today are flying into space, treating patients, building bridges, winning beauty pageants, excelling in sports, making laws and leading the corporate world. Alongside, she plays the role of a house maker like a champion.
A woman who can survive and thrive despite a constant struggle to assert her space in a misogynistic society, cannot be a Sati, but is predominantly and fundamentally a Shakti. I think it’s time to change the negative narrative and celebrate Shakti. It’s time to post a #SelfieWithTheIndianWoman.
- The author is a film-maker, writer and motivational speaker.