Friday, February 24, 2006

the common thread

india's female population is greater than the total of the combined female populations of usa, canada and the russian federation. women are biologically the stronger sex - when living conditions are equal, women outlive men. according to the un figures, the men-women sex ratio is in favour of women in most countries – notably excluding ours. while that’s not surprising, what may be so is that is has grown steadily worse over the last 70 years.

when trying to understand social issues , many times we end up coming back to education, how the lack of it is such a problem, and how only education can emanicipate the minority segments of the population. women, especially in college years, hear so much about how they are privileged to have an education, and virtually nothing on how it may not be sufficient for the problems that they will face in real life. problems of violence and hostility, directed at them because they are female. we are also repeatedly bombarded with the differences in the lives of the educated and uneducated, and several of us start believing we really do have nothing in common, that our problems are distinct, and that ones struggles are disconnected and irrelevant to the other.

there is much in common between the educated and uneducated woman in india. it is another form of social control to fragment a group with the same interests by brainwashing the members to believe they have nothing in common, and thereby stifling communication between them.

while ive a deep respect for knowledge, and therefore the process of education, i do think that its overrated. when the educational institutions are merely pawns of patriarchal culture, the pseudo education that is churned out can be positively damaging. as a result, "educated" women today are so conditioned by institutions that they are less able to stand up for themselves or their children. we are prime examples of learned helplessness. of course, if we show signs of having deconditioned ourselves and really using our education, its unacceptable and we are attacked all the more viciously. (prime example: kerala. with the highest literacy rates in the country, its treatment of women is miserable.)

so what binds womenkind in india?

the female foetus is an unwanted thing, a liability to be gotten rid of if possible. in the last 20 years, at least 10 million female foetuses have been killed in India. and no, that isn’t a predominantly rural phenomenon: illegal screening for sex determination is much more common in urban areas, where educated people are also more in number. so a woman may own a diploma certificate - but she still doesnt own her womb or what grows in it.

if the girl child is allowed to be born, she may well go “missing” – around 500,000 girls “vanish” (a euphemism for “are murdered”) every year. if she does manage to stick around, there’s malnutrition to face. the boy child is given higher priority over the girl, so especially when resources are meagre, the girl ends up starving. thousands of children also die of starvation and malnutrition every year. even in perfectly well-to-do highly educated families we see the women being the last to eat – literally the lowest in the pecking order. its not surprising then that every 2 of 3 indian women are anaemic.

there is a constant threat of sexual violence. our culture not only condones all these, but also treats them as normal. domestic violence is a serious problem, the extent of which is very difficult to gauge because of the social baggage attached to it. according to the UN
  • every 26 minutes a woman in India is molested,
  • raped every 34 minutes,
  • harassed every 42 minutes,
  • kidnapped every 43 minutes,
  • killed every 93.
(of course, in nearly every report you read you will see the fine print bewailing the fact that most crimes against women are under-reported, and what is shown is a conservative estimate.)

increasingly, caste panchayats, or caste-based village councils, extrajudicially punish inter-caste marriages with public lynching of couples or their relatives, murder of the bride or the groom, rape, public beatings, and other sanctions. This is particularly common if either bride or bridegroom is a Dalit.

what sexual or reproductive rights? an educated woman may be able to discuss simone de beauvoir’s ideas, may be able to write poetry and prose about her sexuality, but it isnt going to ensure that she is treated with respect by society. the maid servant and college girl alike get felt up on busses, and have men leering at them. they may both also die in some of these street encounters.

in fact, the educated woman's environment includes more unacknowledged violence, greater fear and consequences of stigma (especially where diseases like hiv infection are concerned), a weaker social support network, and increased conditioning by the additional media sources we are able to access. but yes, we have the dubious distinction of at least being recognised by mass media. its an eloquent commentary that even in tv soaps, men struggle with professional setbacks to their careers and relationships gone awry, while women deal with more complicated issues like personal relationships, estrangement from their children, coping with blackmail and personal assault etc. (UN report, 2001), problems that are not any less difficult to deal with or eliminated by schooling.

education hasnt made our lives safer or happier - it may at best have helped us be more aware of our rights and of their constant violation, giving our anger a clearer direction. but for the most part, we lead surprisingly similar lives. plus theres a more valuable and genuine education to be had than primary schooling when women put their heads together and share ideas to come up with solutions to help themselves. in this process, when we are able to speak to each other so freely, we will also be able to pick out the best benefits of our education and filter those to place at the use of the community of women. so its important that we keep reaching out to each other and not let society drive a wedge between us and other women, telling us how little we have in common because one is "Educated" and the other isnt.

patriarchy doesnt make the distinction of education - it merely hates all things female.

also posted on sthreeling.

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