On Human Relations
New generations are growing up,
Devoid of pretence, sin and shame.
With shackle-free thoughts and pleasures to choose,
It’s to them I will one day proclaim.
Heinrich Heine, German poet (1797 – 1856)
Amongst the assorted word-shells hitting the headlines are two which give me the creeps, as they represent nothing but euphemisms, covering up and perpetuating an attitude, which assigns a status of inherent inferiority to women. They are ‘women’s upliftment’ and ‘women’s empowerment’. There is, however, a third one, which I hope, will crack wide open and release new dimensions to many a life of whatever gender. This is ‘human resource development’.
Upliftment and empowerment are expressions, which denote the bestowing of a higher status to inferior beings by a superior outside force, and in this case to women by men. A bestowing from above resembles the distribution of alms, a kind but often condescending gesture on one hand, and an alleviation-cum-perpetuation of an existing power order, on the other.
I regard gender equality as a natural right, inherent and perpetual. For me, the question is, therefore, not one of granting but of actively living equality, which can only be achieved by re-educating both sexes with an aim to change their attitude towards each other. This might turn out to be long and tedious process as it has to start right after a child is born. For parents should no longer receive boys into this world with a joyous ‘Ah!’ and girls with a disappointed ‘Bah!’ They should greet both with a happy ‘Hah!’
Over the last decades it has become common, even fashionable, to speak of women’s issues. I doubt there are any women’s issues other than those faced by a gynaecologist, and even those are often related to men. A child produced is the product of a male and female fusion. A child reared is the product of male and female contributions. If a boy turns into a macho, it is not only because his macho father served as his natural role model, but because his mother uncritically accepted her husband’s domineering demeanor and, thereby, helped to pass it on to their child.
According to a statistic, 80% to 90% of Indian women are estimated to be anemic and that mainly due to the fact that they eat only after the male members of the family have satisfied their appetite, or differently expressed: the women feed on leftovers. This is a particularly odd phenomenon as in most cases the women of the house cook the food and, thus, get plenty of opportunities to taste it in the process. Has one ever heard of an anemic male cook? Here again, it is the accepting attitude of women which has contributed to the perpetuation of the pecking order.
Why do women accept it? One of the major reasons might be that they just lack the strength to shake and change it. As I know from personal experience, anemia is a very devious and debilitating decease, as it does not manifest itself in obvious wounds, but bleeds away enthusiasm and energy and with it the vigor to strive for change.
Another big issue is the demand of dowry for a marriageable girl. If her family accepts the demand, it is a man, namely her father, who has to beg, borrow or steal to provide the monetary and material assets. If a woman is raped it is not only she who has been raped, but also the honor of her family, including the men. And so on.
There is no gender-specific issue. All gender issues are ‘bisexual’, for both sexes are in one or the other way interlinked. Consequently, a forward movement is only possible if both, men and women, are prepared to move in the same direction and do not hamper each other, directly or indirectly.
Lived out equality is a daily process of assertion which in practical terms means, women have to be prepared to think independently, draw their own conclusions, set priorities of their own choice and summon the courage to implement them. No state authority or charitable organization can do this for them. Each individual woman has to carry it out herself in accordance with her specific circumstances, aspirations and means.
Thus, the theatres for lived out equality will ultimately not be conference halls or other production units of learned papers, but home and working places. It requires a lot of mental and physical strength to play this vital act of life’s drama. For it could mean a lengthy uphill struggle converting a peaceful home into a battleground. Here, there is not magic wand in the form of reservation or similar proposals. If ever implemented, they can only provide a legal frame. The picture within the frame, however, each woman has to create herself, even if it means changing the existing one and infringing on male territory.
Women, however, are brought up – again mostly by their mothers – to be ‘nice’ girls and being nice means to conform in a self-effacing or self-denying manner to the prevailing social norms. Being nice (‘n’ like ‘nincompoop’) is projected as accomplishment and verbally honored as worthy female sacrifice. I personally experienced this phenomenon when a male relative, comfortably reclining on a sofa opposite me, pontificated on the subject of how women in India are worshipped and put on a pedestal, while his wife was crawling around, wiping the floor. I am not particularly proud of the fact that the divine beauty of the picture he painted with words impressed me so much that I failed to see the demeaning one, moving right before my eyes!
Even if a woman is well educated, well placed, earning well and, thus, outwardly successful, those attributes might not enhance her status within the family. I know quite a number of ladies, who, after a full day’s work at their office, do a second shift at home, which is not, like in the case of housewives, spread over the day but compressed and, therefore, far more stressing. Complaints about the double-burden are more likely to elicit comments like “Who told you to work outside the home anyway?” from the husband than a helping hand or a pat on the shoulder. It is comments like this, which rob women of a sense of achievement and pleasure and saddle them instead with feelings of guilt, futility and a broken spirit, only held together by a deeply ingrained sense of duty.
Therefore, if a woman wants to lead a life beyond home and family, she has to face the fact that the quality of her life will improve only if the man in her life shares not just theoretically her outlook but the consequences of the same as well. This means that he does not only play his part in child production but in child rearing and housekeeping as well. Even today, very few men are prepared to do that on a regular basis. More often, they act like volunteers of a charitable organization, who shell out a piece of chocolate to a needy child.
Many a times, Indian male friends have told me with a benign smile that I am “just like an Indian wife”, which, for years, I took as a compliment for I assumed it to mean that I looked in a pleasantly competent manner after the homestead and its inmates. One fine day, however, I could not resist fishing for further compliments and asked, “Why?” Pat, came the reply, “You are so submissive.” And it is this glorified submissiveness which pulls women down, because it represents a surrender of their own personality and aspirations to men, whose arrogance might manifest itself at best, in a benignly patronizing attitude and at worst, in crude macho behavior.
Male arrogance and female submissiveness are attitudes almost taken for granted as they have been perpetuated over generations. Before they do not go, one cannot even think about a meaningful, lived-out equality for all, and not just symbolically bestowed tokens of benevolence to accommodate or shut up selected groups of eloquent ‘power-women’.
To change an entire population’s attitude towards each other might take generations and can be made possible only if there is a political will, strong enough to create a desire for renewal in everybody’s mind and soul. Charismatic role models of both sexes, educational programs, films that depict love and courage instead of melodramatic outbursts are some of the means, which might contribute towards this aim. A special role will thereby fall on primary teachers, who, in the spirit of ‘you have to catch the young’, will have to spearhead an educational movement, aiming at the resource development of human beings irrespective of their gender. Only a humanistic evolution like this carries the potential to create a basis, on which men and women could live and appreciate each other as true equals.
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