Words Have Consequences

Magazine Political

By promoting reactionary ideas about gender and society, conservative politicians are inciting violence against women, says Kritika Agrawal

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath recently posted an encyclical on his website where the sage of Gorakhpur opined, “Considering the importance and honor of women, our scriptures have always spoken about giving her protection. As energy can go waste and cause damage if left free and uncontrolled, women power also does not require freedom, but protection.” In support, he cited a Sanskrit shloka, “Father protects women power in childhood; husband does so during her youth; and her son protects her when she gets old. Therefore, women do not deserve independence.”

His logic is both revealing and predictable. Not only does it reflect the deeply misogynistic mindset of our leaders, it helps propagate and reinforce the patriarchal value system that lies at the core of the BJP’s imagined Hindu rashtra. Women have long suffered India’s patriarchal ethos and comments like these from people in power only helps legitimize that prejudice.

There are numerous instances where women have been deliberately or unintentionally maligned by our politicians. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as to be expected of a loh purush, leads from the front. On 15 April 2017 at the University of Dhaka, Modi was condescension personified. “I am happy to say that the prime minister of Bangladesh, despite being a woman, is boldly saying that she has zero tolerance toward terrorism.” His “despite being a woman” caveat provoked much outrage and invited censure in that country and ours.

In 2014 Modi explained to voters in Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency, why the declining sex ratio was a cause for concern. “If we kill a girl child in the mother’s womb, then what will happen to the world?” he asked. “If only 800 girls are born against 1,000 boys, then 200 boys will remain unmarried.” His concern for bachelors was touching but what about the girls who were never born? What he thinks of women is no mystery. One has only to remember his crass description of Shashi Tharoor’s wife, Sunanda Pushkar in 2012, as a “50 crore ki girlfriend”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly belittled women in his speeches                      (The Indian Express)

If we’re looking to measure how low politics in our country has sunk, we couldn’t do better than to contrast the words of India’s first prime minister with those of the incumbent. Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “I have long been convinced that a nation’s progress is intimately connected with the status of its women.” With political leaders of the moral stature of Modi and Adityanath, is it any wonder that despite living in the 21st century we are swamped with daily reports of gang rape, honor killings, child marriage, dowry deaths and female feticide?

There is a direct connection between the disrespect shown to women by those in power and the unceasing violence against women that we witness on a daily basis.

Award-winning Hollywood actor Meryl Streep in her speech at the Golden Globes Awards talking about US president Donald Trump said, “This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone on the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it (sort of) gives permission for other people to do the same thing.” With power comes responsibility and people like Trump, Modi and his saffron-clad acolyte singularly fail to understand or acknowledge this simple truth.

The Ipsos Global Trends Survey 2017 revealed that “64% of Indians believe that the primary role of a woman is to be a good mother and take care of her Picture credit: Yahoo Lifestyle Singaporehousehold chores.” The survey, which gauged the attitudes towards women’s role in the society across 22 states based on interviews with 18,180 adults, gives us an idea how many young girls in our country are being raised.

It is still a challenge for a woman to break out of these stereotypes enforced on her. A working woman might achieve great success in her career but her true worth is still being measured by how good a mother or wife she is. Any success outside the home is considered secondary.

“Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
– Meryl Streep      (Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

It’s little wonder then that female participation in the workforce has been declining in India for decades. Although the enrollment of girls in higher education has increased from 39% to 46% between 200 and 2014, female participation in the labour force has come down to just 27% in 2017.

Despite receiving a higher education, women are unable to join the workforce. The task of balancing life and work, family circumstances, relocation after marriage and bearing primary responsibility for looking after children are the main reasons that have been cited. But there is still a stigma attached to the working woman in Indian society, stemming from the misplaced belief that a woman who belongs to a ‘good family’wouldn’t stoop to take up a job.

In reality, however, earning a living makes a woman independent and with independence comes the power to take educated decisions. And that is precisely what a patriarchal society fears most and would do anything to prevent, to maintain control over women.

There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between education and careers for women. Gaining an academic degree to secure a good match is a terrible waste not just of educational resources but of human potential. Not giving a woman a chance to practice those learnt skills is an unconscionable waste of half the country’s human resources.

Women are struggling to make their presence felt in every sphere but it’s the Women Reservation Bill that has our political leaders running scared. The bill seeks to ensure a degree of proportional representation for women in parliament and male politicians across the spectrum are bitterly opposed to it.

Yogi Adityanath, the self-appointed champion of family values, advises caution: “(Women) are becoming active in all fields and it is happening naturally. So, there is no need to speed it up as such a step can have an impact on the family structure.”

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