Thursday, October 27, 2011

How far can I go?

The role of women in an ever changing world.

The strength of a woman can carry the weight of the world.

These famous lines by Sarah Pezdek Smith has helped me believe that every woman has the potent to ignite the candle of enlightenment and prove to the world her insignia of Faith, Honesty, Selflessness and Integrity.


A few decades ago the inclusion and participation of women in various fields was under terrible scrutiny. To put an end to this misery, feminist movements were undertaken the world over. They were questioned and met with rigorous opposition. In the last few centuries women around the world have gone on a war footing to empower themselves to match the needs of modern day society.

An old political tactic that many liberals employ when talking of such issues could kindle a very strong debate. However, a debate is not the one stop solution for all problems. In order to understand the need for women’s emancipation it is essential to rewind a few centuries in the past.

The mentality of the people around the world at the time can be described aptly in terms of Early Roman law which described women as children, forever inferior to men.

If I must begin with the past I find it necessary to start with my own homeland India. In the 16th century India, Gender discrimination was at its peak. Prior to the foreign invasions the worth of women was described in the words of Manu, the great Law- giver who said, 'where women are honored there reside the gods'. No religious rites could be performed without the participation of women. Men were considered incomplete without their better halves accompanying them. Slowly however this phase climaxed and the condition of women took a 360 degree turn when the country was taken over by an alien rule. The Islamic rule began in the country and the status of women was in a ‘see- saw’ state. During this period women were reduced to mere puppets in the hands of men. They were virtually reduced to the position of slaves and compelled to stay within the four walls of their homes. They were deprived of their basic rights. They had no say in their own family matters. Sati, Child marriage, tonsure of widows, female infanticide and forbiddance of widow re- marriage were some of the Social evils existing in the society. As a matter of fact, apart from the women from the higher castes, women were literally forbidden from education. It was considered a waste. Although we cannot blame any 'One' period of history or community for the deplorable condition of women, it is a fact that the women of today enjoy greater liberty as compared to their ancestors.

The arrival of the British in India and the spread of western education among Indian thinkers slowly and steadily tried to reform the scenario. It must be noted that the Empire did not immediately do anything concrete for fear of the wrath and rebellion of the natives. Soon however, a welcome change arrived at India’s doorstep in the form of leaders like Raja Ram Mohun Roy a western educated Indian and scholars like Veershlingam Pantalu, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar etc. Thinkers like Swami Vivekananda, provided for an evolution of thoughts. The rigid mindset of the orthodox Hindus was transformed radically.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today, The Hindu Code Bill which once did not include the daughter, today asserts that a daughter is as much a ‘heir’ as is a son and she is entitled to an equal share of the property and The Marriage Act no longer regards a woman as the property of man. Indian women have made considerable progress in the fields of Arts, Science, Humanities, Law, Sports and Entertainment. Our ‘Famous Firsts’ include Dr Kiran Bedi the first lady to join the Indian Police Services in 1972, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the first lady Prime Minister and Dr Pratibha Patil, currently serving as the First Lady of the country.

Surprisingly, India was not the only country were the women led a constricted life. In fact the country that gave the world the principle of ‘Democracy’ (Greece) did not regard women as a part of society. Women were not allowed to vote nor were they accepted as an equal.

Moving on, in the American Society, women were a significantly oppressed section of the society in the 17th and 18th centuries with no voting rights for them and they were kept out of armed forces and other businesses. Running on lines parallel to the Indian society, American women also were suffering with an inferior social and economic status. During the early history of the United States, a man virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions. The status of the women in the United Kingdom can be described through 'My Last Duchess' a dramatic monologue by Robert Browning. The character of the Duke of Ferrara shows the mentality of the British aristocrats symbolizing dominance and arrogance of the men. However, today the British and American societies have accepted women and their contribution to the society with open arms. Surprisingly although the Muslim world has been accused of promoting the sub- ordination of women, it must not be forgotten that Turkey played an important role in promoting the development of women. In the 1930s, Turkey became one of the first countries in the world to give full political rights to women, including the right to elect and be elected locally (in 1930) and nation wide (in 1934). They were indeed the first to recognize that “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world!”


Today the fairer sex has not only succeeded but in some cases superseded their male counterpart. The role of women has shown phenomenal progress in the field of Education. It is surprising, that the role of women has changed drastically in this field. In a recent study, it was observed that 4,587 of the 17,357 primary schools in England do not have a single male teacher. However at the University level men outnumber the women. It holds true the words of a famous man who once said, ‘Educate a man, educate only a man, Educate a woman and you will educate a family.’

Sadly, much is left to be done in the field of Education.The educational system especially in many middle east countries have not developed fully and are still reluctant to give in to the fact that women can be effective instruments in the field of education.


Cleopatra may well be branded as a woman who enticed two great rulers, but none can deny the fact that she was a capable ruler, perhaps one of the finest of her time. Her political progeny has only increased down the years in the garb of women who have taken up the political reins in different countries. In a poll conducted Hilary Clinton is said to have outbeaten President Barack Obama at one point. Indian History cannot be complete without the mention of Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was titled (and rightly so) as the ‘Only Man in the Cabinet.’ She once stated, ‘You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.’ She lived up to her words when she took the courageous decision of declaring a National Emergency in the country, a decision not many of her fellow politicians were comfortable with. However, this remark is not meant to demean the consistent efforts of her fellow – members. It is a subtle reminder that a woman’s determination can if need be change the face of the political system. Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany proved her mettle in the political field becoming only the second after another important lady politician Margaret Thatcher (former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) to chair the G8 summit in 2007. Christine Lagarde too made her mark becoming the first woman to head the IMF. No description of International politics is complete without the mention of one of the longest surviving female rulers the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth who has effectively ruled her country for the past few decades. COuntless others have left an impression in different fields.


Another outstanding contribution from the now ‘stronger’ sex is seen in the world of business. Women Entrepreneurs are fast picking up pace. Although women face a lot of constraints in terms of lack of family support or at times battling the male ego, a sense of awareness has led them to make the right decisions. A lot of women today are taking over the businesses of their families in India especially. Roshni Nadar, the daughter of the leading business tycoon and the current director of HCL Corporation in India is probably the best example of young women taking over the business world. Many have begun small scale industries. Being the more fashionable of the sexes, the leading ladies today find it easier to attract a lot of potential customers with their knowledge of style thus benefiting the World of Fashion. In fact it is even said that introduction of more women in the world of business could lead to a rapid growth in the economic health of the country. V. Cheryl Womack heads ‘Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World’ a non profit organization established to identify and encourage talented women entrepreneurs in the world. Till now they have successfully aided many such entrepreneurs to start their individual businesses.


The social domain can never be complete without the presence of the fairer sex. Diane Mariechild described a woman’s presence in just one sentence, ‘A woman is the full circle, within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.’

Society has agonized women and healed injured hearts. Society has been responsible for the downfall and the upliftment of women. The reason is, that this Society is made of people who have been oppressed and people who bear this oppression. In the past women were toyed around with. Their status was designated as one of child bearing and child rearing. It was quite effectively forgotten that the same woman who nurtured the child was ultimately reduced to a footstool. What is shocking is that, inspite of being the first teachers to their children the very same mothers were treated as mere unpaid baby- sitters. Women were considered too dumb to write and were forced to assume pen- names that were pre-dominantly male; George Eliot being the most famous of them all. Although these harsh realities may seem unpleasant to the readers, truth is always a bitter pill. Does a woman do nothing but submit, then?

We must be grateful that despite the grievous errors committed, it was this very society which gave a chance for women to get a fair chance to prove their mettle.

From the sorry and pathetic lives of unpaid house- maids, society now recognized these women for the talent that they exhibited. Society gave those willing to challenge this male- dominated world the opportunity to assert their individuality. This is the basic and most pre- dominant reason that Feminist movements sprung up in various parts of the world. Be it Literature or arts, women fiercely propagated their need to rise out of the ashes of sub- ordinance and inferiority. All those passionate about this cause began to stand up for their right forcing philosophers, thinkers, scholars and above all the common man to reason out for themselves if it was in fact the right thing to do. Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ was one of the plays that showcased a woman’s need to be independent. A woman was not to be thought of as a co- dependent but an active participant in all life’s struggles. A literary awakening not only enlightened the rich upper class but also dismissed the wanton fears regarding a woman’s integrity being at stake. The upcoming bourgeoise or the neo- rich class thought it right for their daughters and wives to share in their burdens equally. Today, we have stable families where both spouses are bread- earners and the family is running smoothly.


A common cause for concern that has always arisen is regarding working mothers. Many orthodox countries around the world believe that the essence of a woman is reflected in the upbringing of the children. The question posed is that if a lady spends the most of her day working, when will she get the time to even have a relaxed conversation with her children or for that matter will her children ever grow up to be responsible individuals? Whom then should a woman choose?

Choices are but limitations. It is not mandatory that in life we can only choose to fulfill certain tasks and in the bargain lose your identity. It does take a little soul- searching on one’s part to make the right decisions. For this purpose it is important that a woman must understand her own priorities in life before stepping out to work. Many women today take a break from work till their children attain an age of understanding. Similarly there are women today who also operate from their homes. Some mothers schedule their lives so wonderfully that their children do not feel aloof or left out. Family dinners and lunches help in family bonding. Vacations from time to time allow the parent- child relationship to further develop thus giving the entire family to understand each other and develop. Virginia Satir inspires all mothers to carry their burden with a smile with the words, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival, we need 8 hugs a day for maintenance and we need 12 hugs a day for growth!”

How wonderful to be a mother and feel complete as an individual.


If you read the book ‘Let Me Be a Woman’ by Elisabeth Eliot, one can understand exactly what it is to be a woman, to think like a sensible woman and to execute decisions in life as a smart woman. A few days ago, we were discussing about employing a young girl who is suffering with cerebral palsy at my new workplace. Despite her handicap she has successfully completed her graduation. Though her feat is commendable the fact remains that she is bright but jobless. My employer decided that she would give her the job and make her feel that her education and her hardwork are paying her. The benevolence that my boss showed while deciding to employ the girl indeed touched me and I feel proud of working at the institute.

Women have reached the zenith of success today in the fields of Science, Medicine, Space Research, Law, Defense and Civil Services and so on. Women are even given free primary education and financial aid in terms of scholarships, fellowships and easy access loans are also being provided to them.


Various institutions like the National women’s Business Council, the International Alliance for women and Centre for Women and Information technology have been set up in the United States of America for promoting business women. Self- employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is an important organization in India for the same. The motto of these institutions is, ‘Empowering women in an insecure world.’

Other institutions that champion women’s rights to be liberated from domestic violence include Stree Mukti Sanghatna, Association for women’s right in development, the MADRE, etc. These organizations have freed thousands of women from mental harassment, physical and domestic violence and have also ensured that the affected are recuperating so that they are fit for turning a new leaf in their lives. The United Nations formed its Commission on the Status of Women in 1946 in order to monitor the treatment of women and promote women’s rights on a global level.


Ensuring women’s empowerment is today a global issue. It must not be taken lightly. Gender inequality or gender bias must be actively discouraged. There are no superiors or inferiors in this world of ours. It must be considered a privilege to be able to work with different people from different caste, creed, race or sex. We must accept the fact that in many areas of life men will remain ahead , but there exist domains where women have proved that they can withstand the test of time equally well.

As I started with a quote, so will I end in the words of Washington Irving the famous American writer: “There is in every true woman's heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.


Indian Society and Social Institutions by H.R. Mukhi

Let Me Be a Woman by Elisabeth Eliot

1 comment:

  1. Hii Katie...really appreciate ur attempt to touch a broad area of interests with respct to Women studies...made a gud read...:)) keep writing...:)