Gender: How much more remains to be done?

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My cousin is married to a constructor. She routinely has to cook for a large number of people her husband employs for his business. She has no housemaid and has to do all the household chores herself, in addition to the cooking. This obviously took a toll on her health. Her son, my nephew, noticing his mother’s ill health gave her a suggestion. He asked her to employ a girl as a full-time live-in maid in order to reduce her workload. This suggestion pissed me off, for the following reasons –

  1. The girl my nephew had in mind is younger than him by a year. She stays in a government hostel and is studying in 7th grade. Somehow, my nephew felt no compunction whatsoever in suggesting a girl give up her studies in order to become a maid.
  2. It didn’t even occur to my nephew (who is in 8th standard) that child labor is illegal.
  3. My nephew could’ve helped his mother himself had he really felt any concern for her well-being. Instead, his concern stretched only so far as to suggest hiring somebody else. So, even at the young age of 12/13, he is firmly entrenched in a reality, where household duties simply weren’t his problem, sick mother be damned. 

I was angry. I wanted to give him an earful about his snobbish sense of entitlement, where he felt he could decide a girl’s career for her for the sake of his mother. I wanted to ask him why he felt his friend’s education was any less important than his. But then I stopped. He is a child. He knew no other reality. In his world, his female friends were educated not because of any belief in their capabilities to build a career, but as a stop-gap measure until they’re married or until they’re needed as a cook/cleaner in a small family run business. After realizing this, I wasn’t angry with him anymore but I became depressed. If, at the young age of 12, this socio-economic-political system has him convinced that his education is more important than a girl’s, what hope do women have for equality? 

According to the ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ (released by World Economic Reform), gender parity will not be reached in another 99.5 years, if gender equality measures are introduced and implemented at the same pace they’re being done right now. So, to put this matter in perspective, a 29-year-old woman won’t experience it in her lifetime. Her daughter won’t experience it. Her granddaughter won’t experience it. Her great-granddaughter will be in her 40s in 2120, on the off chance it might actually happen. This is grim indeed. 

I dread having a daughter because then I’ll have to tell her, “No matter how much you excel at whatever field you choose, the training you’ll be given will always be considered a ‘gift’, not your right. Your ambition will give you a bad name. You’ll be seen as deviating from your ‘natural’ role if you don’t have stereotypically female instincts. You will be resented if your first priority is your own life and not your family’s. As long as you’re alive, you will never be considered as important as a man. But you can’t give up. You have to keep fighting, keep the torch burning, so that someday in the distant future that you’ll never see, another girl will experience a better, a more equal world.”

I have it better than billions of other women in this world. I have an education, the belief that my life is as important as a man’s. But my heart sinks when I think about other girls who live in an entirely different world. Their education is never taken for granted – it is always conditional on the family’s income and the patriarch’s indulgence. I wonder about these girls sometimes. Do they believe in their intrinsic worth? Do they feel that they have the right to be given the same opportunities as their male cohorts? Or do they accept the status quo? Whenever, it occurs to me that there might still be girls in this country who accept it as a fact that their lives don’t matter as much as their brothers or their husbands, my heart breaks for them. 

All these apprehensions about inequality keep me awake at night. Sometimes, I even resent feminism for giving me this insight into structural inequalities. My ignorance would’ve kept me happy. My ambition would’ve been limited or entirely different. I would’ve had different expectations for my life. I wouldn’t be constantly agonizing over how I can’t really have it all – for women, it still comes down to a choice between their career and family. Career women with children don’t really reach the meteoric heights of their male colleagues. It is a tragedy indeed that I am in a position where I resent the theory that highlights my inequality and exhorts me to fight it. It’s tough going but the guilt that if I drop the baton, it will take even more than the current 99.5 years estimate for women to attain equality, makes me cling to feminism even harder – even if it’s a constant source of disappointment and heartburn.

On rare occasions, I get complacent about women’s rights and equality, I get a rude awakening due to incidents, both at home and the external society. These incidents range from a pastor’s blessing that my first off-spring be a son to a woman’s exclusion from citizenship because she had no way of tracing her lineage. The pastor’s blessing was a momentary prick – centuries of ingrained male preference will obviously be on full display in a religious person. But the story of the woman kept me restless for many days. 

 Just the thought that this woman had nothing to prove her identity and her existence in this country had me shattered. Her name changed after marriage. Her father’s family had no records of her – no birth certificate, no education certificate because she wasn’t schooled. Her name was misspelled in the family (husband’s) ration card and apart from that there really is no proof that she belongs anywhere. Her father’s family is not claiming kinship because they’re afraid that if they identify her as belonging to the family, she’ll claim property rights. There’s no proof that she belongs to her husband’s family and her father’s family doesn’t want her. What is she to do? 

People don’t expect justice from religion – they don’t expect it to be fair. Its existence itself depends on faith in an imaginary entity. All the rituals and practices flow from that. So technically a religious argument would be something like, “You have to accept so and so practice because this is what God has dictated for our well-being” etc. Over many centuries reformers have challenged the above argument with arguments about rationality, inherent human worth, equality, logic, etc. and toned down some of the harshest practices of religion. 

Nation-states, on the other hand, was built on the very principles that were used to challenge religions. So it is distressing indeed that even in a political system that was developed to give everyone a fair chance, a woman had her most basic identity so easily effaced. Would this have happened if she hadn’t changed her name? Would this have happened had there been more robust property laws? Would this have happened if patrilineal lineage hadn’t been the norm? 

Every day I learn new ways in which this system is rigged for men. Every day women have to fight battles. Some are deceptively tiny like lack of sanitary public toilets for women. Others are overwhelmingly difficult like convincing a traditional family to let them stay one more year in school. We can’t take anything for granted. Everything is either negotiation or an outright fight. Nothing is our right. It’s tough, living in such a world. I keep telling myself, “Hey, we’re no longer burned when our husbands die. We’ve come this far. This will take time. Remember the gardener who planted an orchard even though she knew she wouldn’t be alive to taste the fruits.” My orchard is 99.5 years away from fruition. Hopefully, for a woman living in 2120, feminism will just be an obscure topic in a history book and not an ideology to live and fight by. 

Featured Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons

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