Being an ardent believer of woman power, I find it rather difficult to obliviously laud the “grand success” of women empowerment campaigns that supposedly ushered in a sea of change for the Keralite women. If we go by the popular talks, it has revolutionarised the way woman perceive themselves and also how the society perceives them. Where are these signs of progress, I ask. Sure, crimes against women like female infanticide, gender determination, rape, molestation, eve teasing, domestic violence and dowry abuse, among other heinous acts are vehemently discussed out on the public platforms including the media more than ever before. But then again, are women only news worthy when victimized, or rendered helpless or when associated with crimes? Women have crawled their way into a few reservation lists, alongside other so called “weaker sections” of the society. Are we to hope such a paper experiment, a mere number filling exercise, will truly benefit ordinary women to a fair extent to better their lives?
Every public address on women issue strikes a chord on “woman empowerment”; it has become such a mundane concept. Initiatives like ‘Janashree’ and ‘Kudumbashree’ have encouraged hundreds of ordinary women to spark off their own entrepreneurial ventures through micro financial aids with much success. Meanwhile, through ‘National Rural Employment Assurance Scheme’ hundreds more work on daily wages in the sanitation and agricultural drives of the Panchayat. On the surface, these figures sound remarkable. However, the true indicator of development depends on the number of women holding authoritative and influential positions within the government and private sectors to initiate the much needed policy changes. In this sense, the fifty percent representation of women in local bodies like Panchayati Raj and Municipal Corporation has failed to achieve the goal even after a whole year. For reasons including weak political awareness, inability to play the political game and negotiations, women remain as mere “backseat drivers” operated by their husbands and male colleagues.
More girl children go to schools, more women are employed, more women now vote, more women get divorced, more women travel alone; all these and more are attributed to women empowerment. We as a society are so caught up in making the statistics work, I feel, we are missing out on the core element of what it means to be truly empowered: Being in charge of one’s own live. This means having the liberty to make crucial life changing decisions on one’s own terms while being fully aware of its consequences. Now, how many women can honestly say they are in command of their lives? Unfortunately, the numbers will fall short of our expectations. There is almost always a family, a husband and extended relatives who silently dictate the dos and don’ts of most of our lives. And more often than not, we women are conditioned to believe it is our obligation to obey.
Yes, I am going to say it out loud: Patriarchal norms perpetuated equally by both men and women are still remains at large in modern day Kerala, viciously choking her daughters. The gravity of the situation lies in the underlying fact that it is not just a problem haunting the lower socio-economic and educationally backward sections. Every woman irrespective of her social standing needs rescuing, rescuing initiated at her own hands that is.
The harsh reality in Kerala is that a single young lady in her early 20’s is seen as a walking, talking time bomb that will inevitably detonate without a man. Every tide in the marriage market rock the lives of even the most educated of women. As matrimonial sites tune our thinking, telling us what to study, where to work, when to marry and even whom to marry, anyone different from the crowd is quickly branded as a “faulty commodity”. So when young girls study professional degrees like MBBS, engineering, nursing, MBA and end up being home makers before they land their first jobs, we don’t need the assistance of Sherlock Holmes to solve this mystery. It’s common knowledge! The truth is some do it willingly, while others are forced to compromise on their dreams. Either way, it is such a waste of talents and skills. Please don’t misconstrue that I am looking down upon the many wonderfully hardworking and selfless stay-at-home-moms. But on the contrary, I contend that mediocrity is excused and often encouraged among women. It is time to give equal importance to a woman’s career and education as much as any man’s.
Kerala state, with its cent percent literacy rates, churns out only a fraction of its female population as graduates and post graduates every year. Research which is literally the backbone of a nation is mostly neglected and discouraged among women as it interrupts with ‘the early wedding plan’. In my personal experience, enrolling for a research programme was one of the toughest decisions I had to take and luckily my parents and my brother were in full support of my choice. I count my blessings every day for I know many have been denied this very opportunity.
“It’s good to marry young” is the new strategy of most matrimonial sites and agencies. After countless renditions, their logic seems almost undeniable to unsuspecting ears: ‘Guys with good jobs in the community want to settle down early. The longer you wait to tie the knot you get only the hand-me downs.’ Besides posing an ethical dilemma of comparing people to commodities with expiry date, it creates two problems. Firstly, it leaves little space for interested women to pursue higher studies and take up job opportunities. Secondly, they reinforce religious fundamentalism, casteism and regionalism. Love and inter-caste marriages are frowned upon. Women don’t even have the right to choice their own life partner, let alone choose to remain single.
The deal is pretty plain; we cannot choose to live in a false sense of complacency anymore. Being empowered is something cultivated and we should work towards it. We cannot afford to be ‘damsels in distress’ and expect to be rescued every time. Instead, I would like to believe we are “knights in shiny armour” in our own right and our battle lies in breaking free from disempowering factors in society. It is easy to brand all men as “the obstructers of our liberation”, but it would be a far cry from the reality. We women are equally guilty with our silent compliance and resistance to change. Women need to be equal part takers in the democratic machinery, including the politics. The only hope now is to make conscious and proactive steps to tackle each of these issues one at a time: Both men and women are welcome to help!