Education and employment opportunities have transformed the
status of Indian women but still a long way to go
According to Christopher Lasch, "The family is a haven in a heartless world." When facing the worst in crises, an individual can ideally turn to his family for support, and be assured of someone to hold his hand. Perhaps realizing the tempering effect of the family in human life, the United Nations had declared May 15 as World Family Day in 1993. Of course, this was mainly influenced by the Indian idea of Vasudhaiv Kutumbam, or "The entire world is one family", a premise that assumes peace and progress can be assured if the entire world buries its differences, and the many peoples of the world consider themselves members of a single family.
However, the caring, nurturing role of the family can turn oppressive in the face of misplaced pride miffed at what is assumed to be a slight to family prestige. The recently reported honour killings in many parts of India are a case in point. Women, especially find it difficult to fight their families back, as the recent death of a young journalist who committed the mistake of falling in love with a man from a lower caste has proved.
Even when matters do not take such a gruesome turn, a lot is brushed under the carpet lest it tarnish the family name. Until dowry deaths were sought to be addressed as a national calumny, it was not uncommon to hear of young brides succumbing to exploding stoves. Very few parents had ever sought to set things right when compelled to satisfy repeated demands for dowry in cash or kind, lest fingers were pointed to them for not having bred a quiet, adaptable daughter who was satisfied with being seen and never heard.
The caring, nurturing role of the family can turn oppressive in the face of misplaced pride miffed at what is assumed to be a slight to family prestige.
Notwithstanding anti-dowry legislation, and the recent Domestic Violence Act, women generally continue to suffer in silence, making a mockery of legal safeguards provided by the state. Physical violence may not be the norm in many middle-class homes, but psychological violence bordering on absolute cruelty and exploitation can circumscribe an individual's movement, crush her spirit, and destroy her career for good.
In India, many mothers-in-law take vicarious pleasure in running down their daughters-in-law, even when the individual is adept at housework, a good mother and a good cook. When there is nothing to find fault, the daughter-in-law is criticized for being an ambitious career woman who spends a lot of time outside the home. A woman who dares to fight back and stand up for her rights is forever branded; forcing many parents to advise their daughter to give in. Even when matters take a physical turn, few want to turn to the law, and lodge a police complaint.
The reluctance to take the bull by the horns has spawned a culture of denial, and given rise to a situation where wrongdoers and perpetrators of violence go scot-free.
Where seemingly minor crimes like eve-teasing are committed, social taboos prevent young women from taking it up, and ultimately lead to heinous crimes like acid attacks, molestation and rape. Sexual harassment might often leave deep scars that can occasionally cause a young girl to commit suicide.
Realizing this, a pilot project launched some years ago by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNFPA) under its Integrated Population and Development Programme in 6 Indian states- Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala and Rajasthan- aimed to address the problem of domestic violence by placing counsellors within hospitals. Women may be averse to taking up the matter of domestic violence legally, but medical attention is what they must turn to when violently beaten. In Alwar in Rajasthan, the family counselling services have been placed within the precincts of the Zenana (women's) Hospital. Thus, the hospital has become an entry point for services to the survivors of domestic violence.
None can deny the role of the family as part of the community; and its contribution to building a strong and healthy nation. We cannot do away with an institution that has served us well and stood the test of time. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would be appropriate to follow the example of social reform movements like Brahmo Samaj and Prarthana Samaj, who advocated borrowing the best from the West and building on all that was best in the East. It is imperative to retain the best in what constitutes the family as an institution, but one needs to confront practices that oppress and infringe on the basic rights of individuals. Only then can the family fulfill the positive role it was devised for.