The Indian Constitution no doubt provides for equality of men and women in Articles 14, 15 and 16. But what do we see in actual practice? In practice there is often denial of equality for women in large parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, which is due to the disgusting survival of remnants of feudalism and medievalism in our society.
Feudal, agricultural society was based predominantly on physical labour, because tilling and cultivating the agricultural field required hard physical labour, which men could do better than women. Men are usually physically stronger than women.
Also, women were physically incapacitated for certain periods during pregnacy and for some time thereafter. In fact in feudal society most women had 15-20 children ( most of whom died since medical science was not then advanced ), because there were no contraceptives ( Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to her 14th child ). Hence, feudal society was a male dominated society, and women were largely confined to household work, which is work of drudgery giving little scope for development of the mind.
In feudal society, small scale and middle peasant farming shackled women, tied them to their individual households, and narrowed their outlook. They were practically slaves of their husbands, who often beat them cruelly. On marriage their property often passed to their husbands, as we note in Emile Bronte’s novel `Wuthering Heights’. The lives of women in feudal society were full of continual, unending labour, a kind of labour that was looked down upon and bore the imprint of bondage. She had to do cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the home and other household chores, apart from bearing and rearing children. She was deprived of education and cultural development. Petty household work crushed, strangled, stultified and degraded her, chained her to the kitchen and nursery, and she wasted her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking and stultifying work of crushing drudgery. The oppression of women in feudal society was clearly expressed in the novels and stories of the great Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya (see `Shrikant’, `Brahman ki beti’, `Gramin Samaj’, etc.).
On the other hand, in industrial society brains are more important than physical strength, and much of the physical work is done by machines, which can often be operated by the touch of a button. Wars in modern times are not fought with swords and spears, which require physical strength, but with sophisticated aircraft, mechanized weapons and computers, which even women can operate. Hence in industrial society intellectual skills e.g. knowledge of science, mathematics, engineering, medicine, computers etc are more important than physical strength.
No doubt even in industrial society it is women who have to give birth to children. However, since much of the work in industrial society is mental work e.g. teaching or operating a computer, and does not involve hard physical labour, women can continue working till almost the end of their pregnancy, and industrial society provides them maternity benefits e.g. leave with full pay for two or three months. Also, women can leave their small children in crèches, nurseries and kindergartens while they go off to work. Household work is often done by gadgets, e.g. washing machines, vacuum cleaners, pressure cookers, microwave ovens, etc., and this work is often shared by the men folk.
Intelligence quotient (I.Q.) tests in psychology have established that the I.Q. of an average woman is the same as that of an average man. In fact whenever women got opportunity they showed that they could perform as well as men in almost all activities e.g. science, art, political leadership, medicine, engineering, teaching, etc. Elizabeth-I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia were great leaders, and Madam Curie was the first person in the world to win two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics and the other in Chemistry. The Bronte sisters, Margaret Mitchell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Meerabai, Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Andal, etc were great writers. The Rani of Jhansi was a great warrior. Many more such examples can be given.
Hence, it is not due to any inherent inferiority but only due to the fact that women were not given education and other opportunities that they could not come up to the level of men in the past.
While in feudal, agricultural society there was division of labour between men and women, the men doing outdoor work involving harder physical labour, and the women doing household chores, in industrial society this division of labour has almost entirely vanished, and women are often doing the same work as men and have become economically independent.
Since in industrial society brain is more important than brawn, and since the I.Q. of an average woman is the same as that of an average man, it logically follows that women should have complete equality with men in such a society.
However, the truth is that in practice that is often not so, despite the legal provisions for equality, many of which remain on paper only. Equality before the law is not necessarily equality in fact. Thus, in Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina’ and Gustave Flaubert’s novel ‘Madam Bovary’ we see how women were driven to suicide for not accepting an unhappy marriage.
In India we still have a largely male dominated society, and women are often looked down up and not given equal treatment. The birth of a female child is often regarded as disaster, and female foeticide is common in many parts of the country (despite the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994). When a male child is born everyone rejoices and sweets are distributed, but when a female child is born everyone’s face is dejected and crest-fallen, as if a great tragedy has occurred.(see Sharat Chandra’s novel ‘Parineeta’)
I may also mention the disgusting practice of dowry. It is said that in many communities ( though not in all ) an I.A.S. Officer’s dowry price is several crores, and that of an engineer or doctor is also high. Is this not disgusting, this practice of treating women as sheep or cattle and that too by giving money to the purchaser instead of paying money to him?
The law courts in India are flooded with cases of crimes against women e.g. dowry deaths, often caused by pouring kerosene on a young wife and setting her on fire, or by hanging her (and calling it suicide). Wife beating and cruelty to women is rampant in our society, and in fact seems to have increased by leaps and bounds of late (though it must be added that very often provisions in the law to protect women like S.498A I.P.C. are grossly misused).
We have no doubt made same progress in women’s education since 1947, and now many women are educated, which was not the position earlier. Women have also now entered many professions e.g. law, medicine, teaching, journalism, etc., which is due to the partial industrialization of India after 1947. However in many other respects the position of women is as bad, if not worse, than earlier, and probably this is due to the large scale commercialization of society, in which everything, including human relations, has been reduced to exchange value.
I remember that when I joined the legal profession in 1971 there was only one lady lawyer coming regularly to the Allahabad High Court. Today there would be about 400-500. Of course the number of lawyers in the Allahabad High Court is today about 8000, so this amounts to only 5% of the total number of lawyers, but 5% is better than almost 0%. The same is the situation in most High Courts, and in the Supreme Court.
We in India are living in a transitional age, the transition being from feudal, agricultural society to modern, industrial society. We are neither totally backward, nor totally modern, but somewhere in between. Hence remnants of feudal culture e.g. casteism and communalism are persisting in our society. It is for this reason that our society is still largely male dominated, and most women do not have real freedom. For instance we often hear of `honour killings’ of young men and women of different castes or religions being killed, harassed or threatened merely because they wanted to marry with a person of a different caste or religion. This is really barbaric, and shows how backward we still are, and it has been condemned by a bench of the Supreme Court of which of I was a member in Lata Singh vs. State of U.P. and another (2006) 5 SCC 475.
In Bhagwan Das vs. State ( NCT ) of Delhi, 2011, a bench of the Supreme Court consisting of myself and Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra observed :
" In our opinion honour killings, for whatever reason, come within the category of rarest of rare cases deserving death punishment. It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation. This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilized behaviour. All persons who are planning to perpetrate `honour' killings should know that the gallows await them ".
How is the situation to be remedied? In my opinion for this we have to get over the transitional period and become a modern, industrial state. We must spread scientific thinking in our country on a massive scale, and encourage people to give up superstitions and backward, feudal ideas, e.g. casteism and communalism. This is only possible by a complete revolution in our thinking and attitude towards women, a massive cultural struggle involving hundreds of millions of our people which will sweep away all remnants of the disgusting feudal and medieval practices and mentality which persist even today, particularly towards women, and replace them with scientific thinking and genuine and complete equality between men and women. When and how this will come about I cannot say. But come it will, and all patriotic people in India, including the men, must strive and contribute to this goal.
I will conclude by quoting verses from the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati who wrote (around 1908-1910) powerful verses in favour of women’s emancipation. In fact he wrote all this at a time when probably no one in India, or even in foreign countries, even thought of women's emancipation, and thus he was far ahead of his times :
“Gummiyadi Gummiyadi Nadumughudum
Kulungida thaikotti Gummiyadi
Nammai pidiththa pisasugal poyina
Nanmai kandomendru Gummiyadi
Ettaiyum pengal thoduvadhu teemaiyendru
Veettunkulley pennai pootivaipomenra
Vindhai manidhar thalai kavinghhar”
(Dandiya-dance to celebrate women’s emancipation) :
“Dance oh friend dance, playing dandiya let it be with such
force that as you dance it shakes up and wakes up this entire Nation.
Let us dance to celebrate our emancipation from the ghosts
which were holding on to us for centuries. Let us celebrate our achievement.
Those who thought that if education was given to women it
would harm the society, are all dead today !
Those strange fellows who wanted women to be kept locked
inside their homes have now tasted their downfall !
So, oh friends ! Let us celebrate the emancipation of women
and dance playing dandiya”.
“Pudhumaip Penn” (The New Woman)
“Aanum Pennum Nigar Enakkollvathaal
Arivil O’ngi Ivvaiyagam Thazhaikkumaam”
(This world will achieve excellence in knowledge
and wisdom by holding men and women equal)
“Vilagi Veettilo’r Pondhil Valarvadhal
Veerap-Pengal Viraivil Ozshippaaram”
(Valiant women will soon eradicate the custom
of growing in seclusion in homes)
“Pengal Viduthalaik Kummi” (Women Liberation Song)
“Yettaiyum Pengal Thoduvathu Theemai
Endrenni Irundhavar Maaindhu Vittaar,
Veettukkulle Pennai Pootti Vaippom Endra
Vindhai Manithar Thalai Kavizhndhaar”
(Those who thought that it was a sin for women to
touch books are dead; the incredible men who
wanted to lock the women inside their homes now
hang their heads in shame)
“Kangal Irandinil ordrai kuththi
Pengal arivai valarthal, vaiyyam
Pedamai attridum kaaneer
(from a poem titled “Murasu”)
(Out of the two eyes, if you pierce and destroy
one, are you not spoiling your own vision? In fact,
if you educate the women, the backwardness
which grips this world will vanish automatically.”)
“Pattankkal Aazhvadum Sattankkal Seivathum
Paarinil Penkal Nadatha Vanthom
(Women have come up now to get degrees,
to legislate and rule in the world)