For a republic where women matter
“A man’s word is no man’s word; we should quietly hear both sides. —Goethe
Ultimately, reality is not made up of laws and data, but of the actual experiences of human beings. Real-life stories of women surfacing from time to time in our republic reveal how, despite constitutional guarantees of equality, the state has rarely, if ever, systematically intervened to ensure that women are treated equally. We have a very progressive Constitution on paper. Article 14 guarantees equality before the law to all citizens of the country. Section 15 prohibits discrimination on various grounds, including religion, caste, race and sex. Article 16 provides for equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work for all in public employment. But our laws have never seriously improved the unequal conditions of men’s rights over women’s work and/or their bodies.
Some 200 years ago, the eccentric Raja Gangadhar of Jhansi understood that if there is a universally accepted symbol of powerlessness, it is the woman. When asked by the British resident why he dresses in female attire every few days, he replied that the British sarkar had effectively emasculated all the native princes depriving them of their power as regents. Only the British were men and former indigenous leaders had been forced to wear bracelets, he said. (Maaza Pravas of Vishnu Bhatt Godshe).
From Raja Gangadhar’s perspective, law combines coercion with authority. In our time, one of the sharpest legal minds in the land, Justice Leila Seth, makes the same point. In Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, she poses the following question: “What is the basis of justice?” When I talk to children about the Preamble of our Constitution, I explain that justice is just. But how to be just if the laws are not adequate and the interpreters of the law are not sensitive?
Let’s talk about concrete examples. Last year, an interim order was passed by the Supreme Court allowing eligible women to sit the National Defense Academy (NDA) and Naval Academy entrance exams conducted by the UPSC. The Indian government said implementing the court order in 2021 could be difficult. A year later, on January 18, the court returned to the subject and asked the state to explain why of the 1,002 women who had passed the entrance test in 2021, only 19 women had been admitted to the prestigious NDA in 2022?
The usual approach taken by Indian men in positions of authority towards working women remains protectionist at best and harshly critical at worst. A cringe-worthy example of sexism is a recent comment by Karnataka’s health minister, who lamented that too many women in India are westernized and wish to remain celibate. Even if they marry, they refuse “to give birth”, preferring surrogacy, he said.
This mindset surfaces repeatedly in electoral politics as well. When it comes to ticket distribution, women – even those who have won elections – must remain at the mercy of party leaders, mostly men. This is justified by emphasizing biological factors – family responsibilities, procreation, etc. In UP, for example, a sitting female MP is challenged in her own constituency by her husband, a party office holder, for a ticket. An MP’s daughter, who had married against her father’s wishes, applied to the High Court for police protection for her husband and herself, and later released a video asking her father to recall his henchmen who brutalized them in court.
As party workers, men have a clearly articulated agency for change and decision-making when tickets are distributed or wallets are assigned. Women, on the whole, remain abstractions with abstract rights and are seen as fitting primarily to reserved categories that men cannot fill. Even state intervention on behalf of women is done without seeking the opinion of women, although measures such as Ujjwala Yojana, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Jan Dhan Yojana are all casually framed as a compassionate means of empowerment of women. When it comes to the actual degradation of women through rape, pornography, and gender discrimination, factors that eat away at their sociopolitical status, the state remains schizoid.
Since the Justice Verma Committee amended the old rape laws, our justice system has begun to accept a supposed distinction between sex and gender. But when the issue of female sexuality is discussed and judged, women are rarely seen as having their own agency. If a menstruating woman enters a temple or if a married woman refuses her husband to consent to sex, their challenge becomes not a matter for debate under equality laws but as social issues, and is ultimately judged not as a matter of fundamental rights of a citizen, but as part of a certain social structure.
The Indian state has so far not fully addressed the relationship between state and society. The NDA echoes its bitter rival, the UPA, when it comes to keeping the bedroom outside the confines of India’s rape laws. He said (in an affidavit to the Delhi High Court): “What may appear as marital rape” to one woman “may not appear to others”. And that the criminalization of marital rape can “destabilize the institution of marriage in addition to being an easy tool to harass husbands”.
The point to note is that whether in a room or in a cave, in a woman’s experience, rape is rape. What married men expect from their wives is not always automatically what wives also expect from their husbands. Why should the state, instead of protecting a woman’s sexuality from forced violation and expropriation, continue to present or treat it simply as family property when a crime is committed against it?
If we really want to rethink the republic as one where women really matter, we need to go beyond thoughts about family relationships. The state must take the first step towards examining the reality experienced by women in contexts of unequal pay, inferior work allocation (compare the number of men in the formal sector with that of women) and denial of rights over their minds and bodies.
Have we women given consent to be ruled by a toxic brand of masculinity that simply treats us as vote banks and/or second-class citizens? We may occasionally receive crumbs of progressive or revised legislation, but what does it matter? Like the native princes of the era of Raja Gangadhar, in the name of loyalty to the queen or the Hindu Rashtra, we are still largely deprived of our essential status as independent and equal citizens. A feminist theory of the state has barely been shaped, let alone articulated. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, every reform was once an opinion.
This column first appeared in the print edition of January 26, 2022 under the title “We, the women”. The writer is former president, Prasar Bharati