Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Here's the essay I wrote that won the First Prize at the Essay Competition for Lecturers by Hinduja College. It's rather long (they had a word limit of 1500) and rather dry and pontificating at places (academics are notorious for their incomprehensibility and verbosity), so feel free to skip as much or all of it if you want.


Miles to Go

The race must be saved, and it can only be saved through the emancipation of women.”

(Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette, in her Freedom or Death speech at Connecticut, USA, 1913. Source: Wikipedia)

‘Empowerment’ means ‘to vest with authority, to authorize’. As men have been the ‘authors’ of most texts since time immemorial, it’s not surprising that women have always got a bad deal in the division of power.

Look at The Holy Bible. Naomi Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth (1991, Vintage, London, pp.93), “Though God made Adam from clay, in his own image, Eve is an expendable rib.”

Look at the etymology of the word ‘woman’. This Old English word is a compound of wif + man. A part of man, and not much apart from man – that was the woman’s lot. Till the first glimmers of change in the 18th century, notwithstanding a few Cleopatras and Catherine the Greats and Joans of Arc dotting the intervening centuries.

And then there came the three waves of the Women’s Liberation Movement, from the 18th century to the present day. The movement varied in its aims and achievements in different nations and distinct cultures, from opposing female genital mutilation in Sudan to breaking the glass-ceiling in Western countries to abolishing the practice of Satidaha (burning of widows) in pre-Independence India.

And, no, female empowerment is not a mythical struggle like the symbolically-laden fight between Judith and Holofernes (where Judith cut off her assailant’s head). The achievements are very much real and hard-won – one of the most noteworthy being women’s suffrage. From New Zealand in 1893, Great Britain in 1918, the USA in 1920, and India since its tryst with destiny in 1947, women today have the right to vote. Such a long journey from the ideal state of Aristotle’s Politics, where women, infants and lunatics were denied citizenship rights.

Beyond politics, other struggles have been played out across the globe, on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, equal pay, sexual violence and gendered language. The manifestations of male power are so insidious and entrenched, that we have a long way to go before women’s empowerment becomes as much of a ‘given’ as men’s empowerment has always been.

Protest through Silence

“Silence can be a plan

rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life

It is a presence

it has a history a form

do not confuse it

with any kind of absence”

(from Adrienne Rich, Cartographies of Silence, 1975)

To know the real status of women’s empowerment in India, we can do a number of things.

We can look at the figures. India has always performed poorly in gender-related indices. www.nasscomm.in informs us that The Human development report of the UNDP ranks India 98 in its Gender related Development Index. While 85% of the total girl children attend primary school, less than 12% still carry on to the tertiary level. These women who drop out, as well as those who go on to have a job, do not sit idle at home. Indian women typically spend 35 hours per week on household tasks and caring for family-members, as against 4 hours per week for men.

We can look at the faces. Women in India have had their poster-girls and role models. From Indira Gandhi (“the only man in her Cabinet”) to today’s Mayawati-Mamata-Jayalalitha in politics, from Indra Nooyi abroad to Naina Lal Kidwai and Chandra Kochhar here in the corporate jungle, from Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar in the jungles of injustice, from Sonia Gandhi, the de facto leader of the nation, to Pratibha Patil, the de jure head of the state, famous Indian women achievers make a long list.

Or we can look at the total picture. In a country of 496.4 million women (2001 census figures, source: www.merinews.com), pulling out a few hundred names from the conjuror’s hat is mere tokenism. Remember, India is also the land of Roop Kanwar, the 18-year old who committed sati on 4 September 1987 at Deorala in Rajasthan. We shall never know her real story, forever silenced on her husband’s pyre.

We can listen to the many silences around us – the silences of the women away from the limelight, away from our own educated, privileged world. Let me share with you my maid’s ‘herstory’. She is seventh-standard pass, abandoned by her husband even though she has two children, and she works from dawn to dusk washing-cleaning-sweeping-mopping to bring up her two children and to look after her mother and sister, who share her destiny of abandonment and subsequent self-sustenance through hard labour. She does not know about any charter of women’s rights, but her gut-instinct makes her refuse to take back her husband when he comes inebriated and wheedling to her door.

This is the power of silence, the real story of those who cannot voice their protest.

Power and Violence

“Girls never mean it when they say stop…

Was it rape, then?”

(from Rape, Joan Larkin, 1986)

Many a times, though, silence is at a disadvantage. Especially since violence is an inescapable ingredient in any struggle for power.

One of the most disturbing obstacles to women’s empowerment is the growing trend of violence against women. This violence takes many forms – dowry harassment, bride-burning, eve-teasing, sexual harassment at the workplace, honour-killing, marital violence and rape.

The Times of India, 27 November, 2010, reports that statistics on rapes in the country shows how more than two women are raped every hour….The number of rapes across the country has increased manifold from only 2,487 in 1971 to 21,176 in 2008. To each of these victims, women’s empowerment may just be an empty, broken promise.

Violence can take other forms, too. It can be self-inflicted, brought upon oneself by peer pressure and social expectations. The notion of ‘beauty’ can be fiercely competitive and mercilessly cruel. Isabelle Caro, the French actress and model who died on 1st January, 2011, aged 28 and weighing under 30 kilograms, exemplifies the violence of beauty.

Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth (1990) analyses the ‘Walking Wounded’ – women who undergo cosmetic surgery, who become victims of anorexia and bulimia, to attain or maintain the ideal of ‘beauty’- beauty which always lies in the eyes of the observer, usually male.

The Bondage to Stereotypes

“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.”

(D H Lawrence, quoted in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, 1973)

Down centuries and across cultures, one of the most debilitating bondage that women have had to face is the bondage to stereotypes.

As Eve the eternal temptress, or as Mary, the selfless nurturer, as Durga, the ten-armed super-force, or as Savitri, the unquestioningly devoted wife, men have created the image of their perfect woman. In religion and literature, from the epics to the romantics, women have always been the ‘object’ – of possession (Draupadi and the game of dice in The Mahabharata), of adoration (read any romantic poem by Shelley), of suspicion (Sita in The Ramayana). Women have always been expected to conform to this straitjacketed stereotype constructed by men.

And they still do. Look at the popular television serials, with their docile/domineering saas-bahu (daughters and mothers in law) in aspirational finery and patriarchal set-ups. Most advertisements sell cars and deodorants through Eve-like femme fatales, or peddle noodles and spice powders with the help of supermoms and yummy mummies. Feminine cosmetic products glorify the most fantastic stereotype of them all – the ‘fair and lovely’ lady, impossibly beautiful, unattainably fair-skinned, dangerously slender centre of male attention.

As long as popular culture continues to endorse these stereotypes, women will continue to be enslaved by them. And women will liberate themselves financially and politically, only to be disempowered by subtler socio-psychological forces.

Break Free, Fly, Choose

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”

(from Hope, Emily Dickinson, 1861)However, there are encouraging signs. According to the Registrar General of India, the proportion of women in the workforce rose from 19.7% in 1981 to 25.7 % in 2001. Currently, in the Indian IT industry, women form 45% of the toal workforce. (source: www.nasscomm.in). More women are stepping out and speaking up, demanding and getting education and employment and some semblance of equality. Women earn outside and also slog inside their homes. But it is a choice many of us willingly make.

So, women’s empowerment is neither a myth, nor a fully-achieved reality, but a work in progress. A process that started long ago and far away, but carried forward each time any woman asserts her rights. My mother had to quit her job to bring up her children. I am managing to balance work and home. Maybe my daughters will have an easier choice, a smoother flight, a safer freedom, and a more equal empowerment. For the betterment of the entire human race – man, woman, transgender – we can all hope.


Anonymous said...

Happy Woman's Day. :)

Deepa said...


Since you started with a quote that spoke of something the author thought was written in the Bible, I thought I'd post a verse from the Bible (with reference - because this is actually a verse from the Bible unlike the quote from Naomi Wolf)that speaks on the position of women

Galatians 3:28 - There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Happy Womens Day!

lopamudra said...

Happy Women's day to you too! Congratulations, for the 1st prize!Only ,you can write an essay packed with quotes and statistics and yet make so captivating to non-academic folks like us.Time to write a book now my dear friend....or have you already written one?

Anonymous said...

What a superb essay, Sucharita! Congratulations on winning 1st prize!

I like your conclusion- women's empowerment is a work in progress. Each generation getting closer to the goal!

Deepanjali B Sarkar said...

Hi Sumi! Enjoyed reading your essay! Needless to say, very well written - concise and comprehensive! I really liked the quotes! :)
Sending you a link which you might find relevant. http://www.boloji.com/hinduism/panchkanya/pk01.htm

Onkar said...

I agree, women's empowerment is an evolutionary process, but the evolution seems to be too slow

Pradip Biswas said...

In our country the women are much better of. Even in US the women are still to struggle more to become Pratibha Patil or Indira Gandhi

Steve Ballmer said...

Nice work my friend