Scene 1 – In a school, all the students are attending the morning assembly in the school ground. The Head-Boy, along with his prefects, is given the task of searching the bags of the students in case some prohibited objects are found. This is a routine check and the Head-boy is trying to finish off the work as soon as possible. Suddenly, a female teacher enters the class and starts questioning him. After getting satisfactory answers, she asks him not to touch girls’ bags. He is stunned. How can he complete the work effectively if he leaves half of the bags untouched? Anyway, what is the problem if a boy checks a girl’s bag under his official duty? Why do we make such a distinction?
Scene 2 – Lakshya is the last speaker from his team in the inter-house debate competition. It is evident that his team is trailing. He now goes on the stage and delivers a memorable speech. Pulling off the impossible, his team wins. The scenes of celebrations and jubilations are hard to believe. Lakshya rushes towards his House-coordinator and congratulates her. She is very happy and praises him. Though she is enjoying to the brim with the female students around, it seems she is holding herself back while celebrating with the boys. Lakshya is disturbed by her behaviour. Isn’t she supposed to treat students equally? How can gender be an obstructing factor in the divine relationship of a teacher and her students?
The problem of gender inequality is not restricted to India. It is now being discussed all over the globe. Gender inequality is all pervasive in a multi-layered structure. These layers are so complex and old that we have become habituated to them. We no longer even classify some of them under gender inequality. Although a lot of people believe that things are gradually improving, my opinions differ. I maintain that the situation is worse than ever before and is deteriorating every day. Even if we turn our back to this issue, it will continue to affect us in every sphere of life. When I ask people why this problem refuses to fade away, they tell me that God designed the world with weaker or inferior women. They argue that our God and His religion tell us that women are not meant to be treated equally to men. Let me tell you what I found out when I explored some of our major religions-
- Hinduism – Hindus worship goddesses and their religious texts clearly regard women very highly. They even advise contraception for women’s good health. I have already discussed how all the religions, including Hinduism, consider menstruation perfectly normal and refuse to ill-treat women in one of my earlier articles. The last line of any aarti in Hinduism (“…….. ki aarti joh koi nar gaawe…..”) will tell you that women are so pure and powerful that they needn’t even worship God to be in His good books. Men are asked to worship God, so as to receive wealth and happiness in return. We address Lord Shiva as “ardhnarishwar”. If we can understand what it means, all of our problems would vanish. “Ardh” means half and Lord Shiva is portrayed to be half-man and half-woman in the corresponding picture. The obvious message is that the two genders are not opposite or contradictory to each other. They are not even actually complete in themselves (individually). They are complementary. They are two parts which form one unit, i.e. the universe. How can a part compete against another? How can a part be superior or more important than another? They both are useless without each other. They complete each other.
- Islam – The founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, fought for equal rights for women. He even made circumcision a law for men to preserve honour of women. The Quran clearly states that women need not be housewives and calls polygamy immoral and sinful. Under Islam, marriage is not a status but a contract needing consent of both the parties. So, how can Islam call women inferior? 8 of 9 schools of Islam actually permit contraception. While modern religious leaders do not allow a woman to become Imam (religious leader), Prophet Muhammad himself allowed women to be made Imams during his time. So, whose religion are we actually following?
- Christianity – The Bible is filled with instances advocating gender equality. To mention a few, Jesus supported equal rights for women and even asked Mary Magdalene to give his testimony (women were not allowed to give testimonies back then). He even saved a woman involved in adultery. Christianity does not allow women to become priests but has many female saints (which is actually similar to Hinduism). The message is clear. God treats women very highly and considers them too important to be engaged in the menial tasks. Women are better leaders and guides and God wants to utilise their skills in the right way.
- Judaism and Jainism – While Judaism remains the strongest advocate of sex, women rights and empowerment, it also preaches modesty for both men and women. Reconstructionist Judaism has many reforms centred on women empowerment and gender equality. Similarly, Jainism also follows equality and has no separate laws, guidelines and principles for women.
So, it is clear that we, not religions, create the differences and treat women unfairly. Our society enlists what a man and a woman should and shouldn’t do. These gender stereotypes subconsciously result in enlarging the rift between the two sexes. Sample these- a girl is supposed to put make-up, dress up for every occasion, “be girly”, vulnerable, emotional and submissive. She should not play or not be interested in any sports. Her favourite hobby must be cooking or dancing. She should not stay out of her home till late in the night and never party with her guy friends. She must marry the boy chosen by her family and take care of his kids. She is supposed to sacrifice her career, ambitions and dreams to satisfy the control-freak nature of this society. At the same time, a boy cannot play with dolls, be emotional, expressive of his feelings and vulnerable. He can never shed a tear because “only weak cry and men are not weak”. He is the tough guy who should quarrel with others on the streets to prove his masculinity. He should take a job to meet the demands of his family, quashing his own dreams and ambitions. This thought-process subconsciously makes us believe that women are weak and men are supposed to dominate them. We must demolish this psyche. Emma Watson, in her speech at the UN, said “If men don’t have to be aggressive or dominating in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” The gender-norms prevalent in our society are the biggest reason behind gender inequality. We have imbibed them so thoroughly that we no longer find them discriminatory, unfair or inhuman.
These stereotypes lead to bias, for and against both the genders. Women are paid less for the same job, compared to men. A lady is not free to make her own decisions, even regarding the very personal and important matters like pregnancy, abortion, divorce etc. Isn’t it a shame that abortion is not considered even an option for a married woman in our society, even if she is not physically, mentally, emotionally or financially ready to go through the experience of becoming a mother? She cannot choose when to get pregnant as every family needs a “good news” within the first year of marriage. The pressures she faces to deliver the “shining light” of the family are unbearable, inhuman, disgusting and in my opinion, the biggest violation of human rights. Pre-marital sex, adultery and divorce are topics never discussed in our families. In my personal opinion not supported by any scientific evidence or survey, 95% of Indian marriages would fall apart if the lady has a real choice to walk out of the marriage. As stated earlier, the bias men face is no less. A father’s role is valued less in our society compared to a mother’s. A child is considered to be very close to his/her mother but never to the father. Every boy is considered a pervert and potential sexual predator and is expected to look like Hrithik Roshan. The objectification of men in a deodorant or undergarment advertisement is appalling but never noticed. Until and unless our beliefs and thinking leading to this prejudice get eradicated, gender equality will remain a distant dream.
I believe every women issue like female infanticide, female foeticide, rapes, sexual assaults, mental harassment, gender bias and prejudice stem from a single belief: “Women are weak and incapable of taking their own decisions. They must adhere to what men say. They deserve to be dominated”. Even in the issue of honour killings, a girl’s decision to marry a boy of her choice, irrespective of the barriers of caste and religion, is seen as a violation of this belief. It remains an irony that although most of our Bollywood movies have a romantic theme and the biggest blockbusters are all romantic films, the problem of honour killings is only growing in India. A father spends a lot more than his means on his daughter’s wedding to gain social acceptance and the fact that I wrote “father” instead of “parents” show the deep-rooted bias existing in our system. All these issues deserve our special attention and I don’t want to indulge in tokenism. We need to discuss them and act.
Pseudo-feminism is making the matters worse and the divide between the two genders is now taking the form of hatred. To me, feminism means equal rights and opportunities for both, men and women. It is not synonymous with male-bashing. Calling every guy a rapist or pervert will only result in more rapes and molestations. Treating every girl as a victim and guy as an oppressor will only lead to filing of more false police complaints. It will also shake the very balance of this society which is meant run on mutual love, acceptance and trust, not tolerance. Let us be clear about one thing, gender equality is not a women-issue; it’s a human-issue. It affects everyone, man or woman. We need to come together as one unit, because we complete each other.
So, the solutions? We need to start talking openly about gender issues and discussing the wrongs happening around us. Understanding the other gender is the key to a better tomorrow. Gender sensitisation is a must in our society, especially schools. We need to teach and show our kids how to behave with the other gender. We need to explain to them how the other gender works in relation to ours. Many schools pass the buck by introducing “sex-education” but a PowerPoint presentation can never be a substitute for a warm and intimate conversation, based on mutual trust, between a teacher and student. The teachers need to be equipped in terms of attitude and training to deal with this issue. It has never ceased to amaze me how many people, especially heads of schools are firmly opposed to co-education. Is education not about preparing for adult life and is not adult life co-ed? Which job or business will allow your daughter/sister to deal exclusively with women? Is there any field in her life she will not come into contact with a male? No amount of legislation, CCTV cameras, policemen or banning cab services is going to really change things. Being friendly with people of opposite gender must no longer be a taboo. Most importantly, we need to stand up, raise our voice and act. Sitting in a corner and agreeing with me will not be enough. Dream it, but never follow it. Chase it!
Our actions and thinking created this issue of gender inequality and now, we are struggling to get rid of it. It has become a Frankenstein. While talking about a Frankenstein, my mind often drifts towards Taliban. Today, Taliban is a dreaded word. Did you know “Taliban” is the plural form of the Arabic word “talib”, which simply translated, means “student”?………….