A few days back Germaine Greer was India for the Tata Literature Live festival in Mumbai, talking about women. Author of the largely controversial book ‘The female Eunuch’ which, with Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘Second Sex’ can be considered as a cornerstone of Feminist movement in the Seventies. Reportedly Ms.Greer has mellowed with age – she was criticized widely, and especially by Indian women who attended the seminar, for eulogizing the role women played in the Indian society and how India is ‘misunderstood’ by the world at large as having a culture of violence against women. Her observations were challenged by women of all ages during the question answer session – men were not allowed to ask questions.

It is interesting to note that one of the icons of feminism was challenged and criticized by Indian women, alleging that Ms.Greer painted too rosy a picture of India as far as women were concerned, that her observations did not correspond to reality. The reality of women, either in India or anywhere else in the world is quite different from the stereotypes – that women in India are venerated like the different goddesses of the Indian pantheon, that ‘western’ women are much more independent and liberated than their sisters in the East, that Asian women are more submissive than women from other continents, that women are the nurturers and homemakers…. the list goes on forever and ever.

So what, in truth, is the reality of women? Can there be any generalizations at all? Do the status and role of women vary in different societies and cultures? Or is there a common platform that is shared by women whatever their origins, religions and cultural backgrounds? I think there is, and the objective of this article is to identify this commonality and hopefully provoke an exchange of ideas and experiences in my readers.

Let us start with the most fundamental attribute of woman – that of a life giver - a biological fact that can’t be altered or challenged – only women can actually give birth. Things become more complicated when the act of giving birth becomes associated with ‘motherhood’ where the mother is seen as the natural nurturer and caretaker of the baby. It is primarily her responsibility to take care of the newborn child – the umbilical cord severed at birth remains symbolic – the newborn is but an extension of the mother. And then as the child grows up, its needs grow, and it is assumed in most societies, by men but mostly by women, that it is their duty to cater to them. However, does motherhood come naturally to women, to all women? Do they, over mere nine months, undergo such a drastic change in their psyches that they practically shed their old identities to become the ‘mother’? Or is it a role they play, more or less perfectly, to conform to the notions of a patriarchal society? Or do mothers prefer to have undisputed rights over their children – ‘owning’ them to a certain extent?

I think that this idea and ideology of motherhood is the biggest shackle for women, at all stages of life. A girl child in almost all societies is ultimately groomed for motherhood and she learns to absorb, consciously or unconsciously, all the ‘virtues’ associated with this hallowed state. Given the influence of mothers or mother figures in the growing up process of children, there is nothing surprising about it. The idea of ‘nurturing’ makes the girl child assimilate a wide range of skills from very childhood – cooking, cleaning, sewing, nursing … they play with dolls, they play houses, they play at being little mothers as soon as they are old enough to play. These ideas are deeply ingrained in their brains, probably in their genes themselves. With the process of growing up come other thoughts, ideas and ideals that do not always correspond to the basic tenets of motherhood. These inner conflicts of women often have a direct impact on their well-being, their successes and failures, their pride and prejudices.

The other roles played by women – wives, daughters, sisters – directly derive from the qualities required of mothers. They are the caregivers in all these roles as well, providers of love, succor and comfort. I don’t think that boys are brought up to be husbands or fathers from a young age. No special training is required to be a brother – sibling love does not need any special support to develop. But very often the sisters become surrogate mothers, especially in Asia and Africa. The growing girl child is made to share the duties and burdens of the mothers at a very early age. The majority of girls fall into these roles naturally and without much problem. It is only when they grow up and starts developing their own personalities that questions are asked, but such challengers remain a minority even today.

Now the question arises – are girls brought up like this in all societies across the world, or does it differ depending on the structure of the society, religion, social mores and morals? Volumes have been written about the differential treatment meted out to the girl child in patriarchal countries like India. The discrimination starts in the mother’s womb – the female feticide practiced in India over the last few decades have resulted in a totally skewed sex ration in India. The death of girls due to malnutrition, poor health care, lack or pre and post natal care is a well-established statistical fact. In a society where women are still considered as chattel, violence is ubiquitous. Women are killed for dowries, for preserving ‘honor’, for revenge, for disobedience, for religion, even for challenging social customs. Education is not considered a priority for girls not only in rural India but also in the urban slums. Easy preys to male predators, young girls are under constant threat, even from their own family. Girls are sold to child traffickers, kidnapped by them, sexually assaulted, raped and killed. Incapable of providing the protection, fathers and brothers often marry off young girls at an early age, basically to get rid of the financial and other responsibilities. Even though child marriage is legally banned in India, it is a widespread practice. The fate of these young brides merits a whole article in itself. Suffice to say that they are often subject to all sorts of torture, discrimination and suppression – not only by the husbands but their husband’s families.

Are things much better for women in the so-called ‘developed’ countries? To a certain extent, yes. They are not discriminated against as far as basic needs are concerned – nutrition and education mainly. As they grow up, they are probably better armed than their sisters in less fortunate countries to face life. Except that motherhood remains an important concept here as well. There is greater gender equality in societies in Europe, for instance. So women have to fend for themselves as they come of age, and there, the competition is fierce. Competition with men to get jobs or hold down jobs or climb the social and hierarchical ladders; competition with women to get into a stable relationship – and all this before the biological clock starts ticking. In these relatively permissive societies, this particular battle can be fierce, resulting in damaged persona and reduced self-confidence. I have seen this happen over and over again. Working women walk the tightrope of keeping the perfect balance between home and the outside world. Whatever their talents and nature of the jobs they hold, they do have split loyalties. And that becomes a constant struggle. Add to that the stress of performance – both at home and at the workplace, and you have the standard portrait of a working woman in the western world. The modern society does not provide more security to women either at home or at work – from husbands, partners or male bosses. Sexual harassment and domestic violence figures are proof enough of the fragility of women in the West. Women in powerful positions are no exceptions either. Recent articles written by women CEOs or Chiefs of Staff that sparked off widespread debates in Europe and US seem to validate this hypothesis.

Why, in spite of feminist movements, awareness campaigns, legislations about gender equality and neutrality in a large number of countries, women are still the ‘Second Sex’ wherever they are? I sincerely think that women themselves are responsible. Till we stop bringing up our daughters differently from our sons, from the day they are born, there will be little progress. Sharing tasks with men does not give us equality. A few women in positions of power are not a sign of neutrality. Financial and economic independence, though crucial, is not real independence. They day women accept that they are individuals and can attain fulfillment by being individuals and not mothers shall we be able to break the glass ceiling.



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