Let's Not Forget Women's Independence

Seema Kumar

As India celebrates 73 years of independence and the dawn of a new, pandemic-ridden decade, Indian women still have a long way to go in gaining true independence from the shackles of inequality, gender bias, unpaid work, and patriarchy.

Yes, we’ve made a lot of progress, and there are silver linings that we must celebrate. There are many examples of women in leadership positions in diverse fields, including politics, medicine, art, science, and culture. The country has had women in the cabinet and as leaders of the nation. Authors, filmmakers, public health leaders, biotech CEOs, and other women in leadership positions abound. And women of the Indian diaspora are making major contributions to the economic growth of companies and organizations in their adopted countries. Just take a look at seema.com to be blown away by the multitude of independent women creating value for society!

But the dark cloud of gender bias and inequality still remains and cannot be ignored. Some of these inequalities are outright atrocious human rights violations, but other are more subtle and insidious micro-aggressions and condescensions — a faint whiff, not a stench — of patriarchy and mansplaining that unconsciously confine us.

We need freedom from the vestiges of a culture built on the subjugation of women as “patrivrata,” a role that is in the service of the man/husband, which is still glorified in ceremonies and observances of penance, sacrifice, and servitude for the man. Other micro-aggressions take the form of economic disempowerment, unequal pay, or unpaid labor. In some cases, despite the appearance of equal status, women remain the lesser half of the Indian psyche. We need to address this by working together with men who have been champions and can give space and uplift women. We must thanks the many progressive and emancipated men who have been “manbassadors.”'

But the biggest place where we need to leapfrog is in ensuring safety and security of women who face discrimination and violence. Despite laws to protect safety, security, and equal opportunity, many crimes against women and girls are not yet curbed. Most crimes against women remain underreported — including female infanticide, sex trafficking, honor killings, harassment, and violence.

This cultural psyche, like India itself, defies definition. Women are celebrated as goddesses and worshipped on the one hand and have had equal status in old traditions of India. And yet as the world’s largest democracy, where plurality, diversity, and heterogeneity rules, the status of women confounds you again.

When the British left India in 1947, declaring India an independent nation, and in the aftermath of the bloody partition, many wondered how this heterogeneous and diverse conglomerate of a state would stay united. There is no rationale for such a chaotic tossed salad of a country of 1.3 billion people, with eight different officially recognized religions — including Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Zoroastrians (Parsi) and Judaism — and many smaller faiths and tribal religions, speaking 22 different officially recognized languages (as well as 880 unofficial languages and 1,500 dialects), and maintaining diverse cultures and subcultures to stay together as a united republic.

But India has stayed united despite all the strife and unrest. And, because of that, it has emerged as the world’s largest democracy and the third biggest growing economy in the world. It has emerged as a pluralistic society, founded on diversity and inclusion and equal rights and privileges for multiple ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultures to create a secular nation.

Next week, as India turns 73, we celebrate its biggest strength and differentiating quality — its plurality and diversity — even as it continues to address problems of religious strife and equal rights for the marginalized.

As we congratulate the country on its birthday and wish it well, I remain optimistic that we will continue to make progress and that India’s next generation will lead the way in making positive change and that both the people of India and those in the diaspora will pledge to elevate the status of women in the next decade.