PUCL Bulletin, February 2002

Gender inequality and development in society

By Pushkar Raj, General Secretary of Delhi State PUCL

Recently released film Bawandar, based on the true story of Bhawari Devi of Rajasthan again puts in focus the treatment of women in our society. Notwithstanding the personal trauma and public humiliation that the hapless woman went through, the law too disappointed her while she was seeking justice. The judicial pronouncement and the accompanied commentary underlining the basis of the judgement that acquitted the accused are a telling statement on the mindset of male dominated Indian society. It is surprising that instead of providing for a woman judge while hearing a rape case the state should feel it expedient to transfer the judge who had been hearing the case earlier. Bhawari Devi's case is now pending before the high court for the last five years. Who knows whether she would get justice in the high court. Or the case would not come before the Supreme Court where it might be delayed to the extent that by the time the case comes for hearing Bhawari Devi is dead! Given the fact of pending cases at all the levels of our judiciary the aphorism 'justice delayed is justice denied' has lost its meaning for us.

The irony of the rape cases is that after such a crime is committed against a woman the society, police, and judiciary all play a very negative role. The lawyers in the court behave like sadist villain in Hindi movies and women's organizations play up the issue for cheap publicity. All this puts the victim in such a situation that instead of being a person who is wronged against she is inflicted with a burden of guilt that gnaws on her for rest of her life.

Logically speaking this guilt should be the curse of the man who perpetrates the crime of rape against the woman. But paradoxically it is the other way round. Due to the social conditioning of women from the onset of their birth and deep societal perception of the woman as someone subordinate and inferior to the man society condemns a victim and in turn de-humanizes and de-empowers itself.

Much of the problem lies with the old and baseless stereotypes that are still being inculcated in the garb of religious teachings in various parts of the country. Women are presented as more like a piece of mirror. They are more likely to be impure, polluted or sullied. They only need to be more virtuous, guarded, less interactive and self-contained. If they do not they lose their womanhood. Hindi and regional popular cinema has played particularly reinforcing role in this field. Besides the widely circulated and subsidized religious literature of Hindus (as well as Muslims) sets forth a prejudiced code of conduct for women. It inspires a hackneyed image of woman in the vulnerable groups of society that runs counter to rights and individuality of women as an equal entity in the society. Gita press of Gorakhpur for example with its morality manuals upholds sati, denigrates rights of girl child and talks of purda as a sign of virtuous women.

Buttressing with a 1919 study of an American journal Hanuman Prasad Poddar in his book `Nari Shiksha' (Gita press) tries to prove that women while they menstruate are impure and even the food they touch goes impure. Hindu manual of conduct for women maintain that before marriage a woman is property of her father, after marriage she is under her husband's guardianship and she should bear the violence from her husband as her fate.

Mohammad Ibrahim Palanpuri in his book Hidiat-Nisa (gift to wome
n), that forms the part of Jamia Islamia literature series, says ` a woman should not read the Koran when she is in her menstrual cycle. If she is doing the namaz and starts bleeding, then the act of Namaz is invalid.' Similarly in Tohfa-un-Nikah, Palanpuri states 'if a woman does not listen to her husband, he can beat her a little, but not as violently as he can beat a servant.
Being a deeply religious society and in the light of a wave of revivalism in which old is less questioned and more glorified the effect of any teaching that goes with a religious label is well imagined. With mushrooming of madrasas and shishu mandirs in all parts of the country whose curriculum is not regulated, this type of indoctrination makes it difficult to secure women's rights in the society.

The impact of these teachings is in form of bruised personalities that accept marital violence as something acceptable and normal. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2) conducted between 1998-99 by the International Institute of Population Sciences, 56 per cent married Indian women think that there is nothing wrong if their husband resort to physical violence. The issues involved could be as trivial as going out of the house without informing the husband or her inability to cook properly or failure to respect her in-laws.

Due to Gender inequality the whole of society is affected, not only just the girls or women. In fact a society that is arched from the middle (due to one half put to passivity by deprivation of their rights); and a society that does not take conscious and resolute steps to bridge the gender gap through the change in the societal perception will continue to lag behind in the ladder of development. A recent in-depth report called Engendering Development released by the World Bank earlier this year suggests that the gender equality is key to effective development in any society. It states that the societies, which promote women's rights and increase their access to resources, enjoy lower poverty rates, faster economic growth and less corruption than countries that do not. On the other hand societies that discriminate on the basis of gender pay a significant price-in greater poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance, and a lower quality of life.

There is a need for de-learning drive in Indian society so far as the perception about the women is concerned. Much of the learning that a child acquires about gender status and gender relations in society is through informal interaction. It is not a part of formal education curriculum in schools. There is a greater need to incorporate material in mainstream school curriculum that focuses on the prevalent gender misconceptions and lack of women's rights in the society and stresses on the gender equality and accompanied payoff to the society as a whole.

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