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.
WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT: MYTH OR REALITY?
Miles to Go
“The race must be saved
Look at The Holy Bible. Naomi Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth (1991, Vintage,
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
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
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
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
We can look at the figures.
We can look at the faces. Women in
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,
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
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
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.