Justice Markandey Katju-
On the occasion of Aurat March and International Women’s Day on 8th March I send my humble salute and greetings to the brave Pakistani ( and Indian ) women, particularly of poor and middle class sections of society (who consist of 90% of the population), who are bravely feeding and looking after their families on the meager amount their husbands or they themselves are earning, and that too anonymously and with heroic self-effacement.
It is estimated that about half Pakistani and Indian children are malnourished. This means that that almost 75% of Pakistani and Indian women are malnourished, because a women would rather remain hungry herself than see her children hungry. A large number of Pakistani and Indian women ( 50% or more ) are anemic. And yet despite this situation, and the exorbitant rise of prices of foodstuffs, fuel, and other commodities in Pakistan and India the women there are undauntedly struggling, inconspicuously and in anonymity, to keep their families going, often toiling from morning to night. Do they not deserve our praise and salute? I regard them as our true heroes.
I salute my Pakistani and Indian sisters on the occasion of Aurat March and International Women’s Day. May the day come soon when they do not have to bear such back breaking burdens, and are given genuine equality with men.
The Constitutions of both our countries no doubt provide for equality of men and women. But what do we see in actual practice? In practice there is often denial of equality for women, particularly in rural areas, which is due to the disgusting survival of remnants of feudalism and medievalism in our society. There is often violence against women, discrimination against them and sexual exploitation. They are often raped, burnt (for dowry), and exploited in their workplace. In many areas they are not even allowed to be born (by female foeticide). Those marrying outside the caste or community often suffer ‘honor killing’.
Feudal, agricultural society was based predominantly on physical labor, and since men are usually physically stronger than women, men were dominant over women in feudal society, and women were largely confined to household work, which is work of drudgery giving little scope for development of the mind. 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 labor, a kind of labor 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 labor 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 labor, 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 mental ability is 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 and does not involve hard physical labor. 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 who won two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics and the other in Chemistry. 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 labor between men and women, the men doing outdoor work involving harder physical labor, and the women doing household chores, in industrial society this division of labor 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 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. Even in the most industrialized country in the world USA women did not get voting rights till 1920, and before that several decades of suffragette movements had to be waged by them to get it.
In Pakistan and India we still have a largely male dominated society, and women are often looked down upon as inferiors 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. 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 practice of dowry. 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 Pakistan and 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
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.
We in the Indian subcontinent 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 `honor 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 the Indian Supreme Court in Lata Singh vs. State of U.P. and another (2006) 5 SCC 475.
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, which is only possible by some kind of French Revolution. Before that can happen, 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, communalism and looking down on women as inferiors. This is only possible by a massive upheaval, a mighty united people’s struggle and a complete revolution in our thinking and attitude towards women. That implies a massive cultural struggle involving hundreds of millions of our people which will change the mindsets of our people, and 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. including the men, must strive and contribute to this goal.
I appeal to men folk in large numbers to join their brave sisters in the Aurat March in Pakistan, and I appeal to Indians too to organize such marches in their cities.
I will conclude by quoting verses from the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati who wrote (around 1908-1910) powerful verses in favor of women’s emancipation:
“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) that is:
“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)
[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own].