India’s economy is the world’s tenth-largest by nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since 1999 when India became a part of G20 or the group of 20 major economies, its GDP grew by nearly 300%. During the same period, the Human Development Index (HDI) of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for India has seen a growth of about 18%. India ranks 134 among 187 countries in the most recent human development report (HDR).
Clearly, India’s national income has not translated into betterment of the lives of its citizens in any significant way or bridged the gender gap. In fact, in the recent HDR, India is placed at 132 among 186 countries on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) list. Additionally, India ranks as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women and is the worst among the G20 nations.
Gender equality or equal treatment or perceptions of individuals irrespective of their gender is part of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and is guaranteed in the Constitutions of most countries around the world, including India’s. However, different nations who uphold gender equality as part of their guiding principles actually practice this basic human right quite differently.
So, what are the major roadblocks to achieving gender equality in India?
The sources of inequality are rooted in the interplay of religion and society that are interwoven into the basic fabric of India’s national character. Except for a few isolated regions, such as in the southern state of Kerala and in the Northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram, the Indian society has remained patriarchal throughout its history. Patriarchy and gender relations, which are dynamic and complex, have changed over the periods of history. The nature of control and subjugation of women varies from one society to the other, however, certain characteristics such as control over women’s sexuality and her reproductive power cuts across class, caste, ethnicity, religions and regions and are common to all patriarchies.
Religion is an important part of India’s culture with over 93% of Indians associating themselves with one religion or other. Hinduism is the dominant religion, adhered to by 80% of the Indians; Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism make up the rest.
Among the ‘33 million deities’ worshiped by the Hindus, a significant percentage are females. These female deities range from subservient types, embodying female virtues, to fierce ones combining the powers of all deities. On the other hand, Hindu religious scriptures often express condescending views about women. One of the most widely known of the Dharmashastras, the Manu Smirti (or Laws of Manu), depicts women as being entirely subservient to men: a girl is governed by her father, a married woman by her husband, a widow by her sons. The trait is seen in every other religion: women are men’s belongings; they do not have any authority over men.
Sikhism was among the first major world religions to proclaim equality of women and men. Guru Nanak and his successors allowed women to take full part in all the activities of Sikh worship and practice. Sikhs have had an obligation to treat women as equals, and gender discrimination in Sikh society has not been allowed. However, gender equality has been difficult to achieve. Reformatory movements such as Jainism had also allowed women to be admitted to the religious order. By and large, women, irrespective of their faiths, have faced confinement and restrictions throughout India’s history.
Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women? As it turns out, abuses arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.
Marginalization of women is universal in nature. “Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech in December 2009 to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.
“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.” Mr. Carter sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights.”
Religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. Through these practitioners of faith, religious patriarchy works as a vehicle for coercing women to accept gender oppression through religion, in order to maintain the cohesion of the male-dominated social system in India. Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior.
Subjugation of women belonging to lower castes and other religions is even more severe. During the Partition of India, it is estimated that between 75,000 and 100,000 women were kidnapped and raped in the name of religion. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs participated in equal force in an overt assertion of their identity and a simultaneous humiliation of the other by ‘dishonoring’ their women. Each community considered women and girls to be the weakest part of the other community and continues to do so even today.
The riots of 1984 targeting the Sikh community led to rape and murder of hundreds of Sikh women. That carnage was instigated by the then-ruling Congress Party. The communal riots of Gujarat in 2002 saw the prevalence of rape and sexual torture of Muslim women, in hundreds, of grotesque nature — similar to the Delhi rape incident of December 16, 2012. Often, following the rape and torture, the women would be set on fire. The leaders of the Hindu right, the political party in power during the riots, fashioned an image of Indian masculinity as aggressive and warrior-like, and even refashioned the images of the gods to support the ideology of domination. Such became the linchpin of their program for youth education. Domination over Hindu women and violence against Muslim women are at the core of the Hindu right’s political consciousness. On average, three Dalit women are raped daily in some part of the country; while the conviction rate in rape cases is about 26%, it is virtually nil in cases involving Dalit and Muslim women.
Modern liberal democracies hold religious liberty with high esteem, and that its protection is among the most important functions of the government. These democracies also typically defend as central a wide range of other human interests, liberties, and opportunities. Sometimes, however, the religions do not support these other liberties. Sometimes, indeed, they deny such liberties to classes of people in accordance with a morally irrelevant characteristic, such as race or cast or sex. In the largest democracy, that is India, religions run large parts of the legal system and such denials are fundamental determinants of many lives. Although Hindu religion and Indian cultural practice does not strictly dictate the status of women, many conservative leaders and gurus continue to hold and espouse deeply misogynistic views publicly. This attitude prevailed in the aftermath of the Delhi rape incident.
The interference of religion creates a dilemma for the liberal state. On the one hand, to interfere with the freedom of religious expression is to deeply affect the citizens in an area of intimate self-definition and basic liberty. Not to interfere, however, permits other abridgements of self-definition and liberty. It is not surprising that like many modern democracies, India should find herself torn in this area – its Constitution enumerates equality of sexes and nondiscrimination of the basis of sex in the list of Fundamental Rights – alongside commitments to religious liberty and nondiscrimination on the basis of religion.
India has largely condescended to religious and social forces originating from the male-dominated upper strata of the Hindu society. These forces have exploited religion to divide people and to perpetuate the class structure. Consequently, everybody outside the ranks of the echelon has been marginalized and India has postponed making gender equality a reality.

Subhodev Das


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