I first heard of Women's Day in 1975, when I was in college. A female speaker in the declamation contest spoke about women's empowerment and emphasised the need to end all kinds of gender discrimination. During that function, I came to know that Kiran Bedi had become the first woman IPS officer and Bachendri Pal the first woman to climb Mount Everest.
Though Women's Day was celebrated for the first time by the Americans in 1909, followed by the Russians in 1913, it was decades later, when the United Nations came into existence, that March 8 was marked as International Women's Day.
More than a century later, what started as a political movement to propagate women's rights has been reduced to a show-off business. Every year in our country, seminars and functions are organised on this day to highlight women's rights; then, everything is forgotten. The media, too, ropes in influential women to share their views on womanhood; however, these speakers do not represent the larger sections of the so-called fairer sex.
This year, Women's Day comes in the backdrop of sad, tragic events which took place during the past two or three months. While the "successful" ones might illustrate how lives of women can be enriched, it's a fact that violence and perversion against women continue unabatedly across India. No doubt, the rape and death of a Delhi student has jolted the consciousness of the nation, but it's also a truth that a lot of crimes against women go unreported.
As per various studies and surveys, about 10 women are murdered by their in-laws daily and a rape is committed every 25 minutes in India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 2,659 cases of girl trafficking registered in the country last year. Research papers of Indian jurists tell us that at least 900 cases of honour killings take place annually in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. There are villages and towns where nobody can dare to defy the dictates of archaic khap panchayats whose sole aim is to push back society to medieval days.
When we talk about our ancient concepts of holding women in high esteem, describing her as Devi or Mata, we only depict hypocrisy as there is no dearth of references which tell us how badly they were exploited, maltreated and condemned as an evil influence. Her entity was confined to her roles of mother, sister, daughter and wife. Male dominance of society was complete. During the darker days of our history, socio-political influences subjected her to atrocities such as being put to death after birth, child marriage, sati or the life of a widow and social outcaste in case of her husband's early death.
Due to the disgusting survival of remnants of feudalism and medievalism, rural India even today seems to be in denial on giving woman her proper place. Lack of education and underprivileged socio-economic conditions tie women to the household like bonded labourers and restrict their outlook. Apart from bearing and rearing children, she has to cook, wash clothes and clean the house. Her work never goes beyond household chores.
On the other hand, urban India, due to the opening up of society, is fast experiencing a role reversal in the fields of education and employment. Go to any private or government office, a majority of the front desks are occupied by females. In educational institutions, the difference is more glaring. In most of the professional and technical courses, the number of girl students is more than double of the boys. The social demeanour of women is also showing more exuberance than ever before.
Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution provide for equality of men and women. But we are still far away from according dignity and respect to women. Keeping aside the rural-urban divide, it is a fact that we may be living in the 21st century, but the male mindset of seeing a woman has not moved an inch forward since the past centuries. It scares me that even after so many years of Independence, we need a day to make us aware of the place and position of 50% of our population.
(The writer is a Ludhiana-based physician and social commentator)