December 16, 2012 may actually have been the tipping point. Women are committed to participating in their own future as politically and socially aware voters.
This is among the key findings of the HT-C fore nation-wide survey, where 973 women, aged 18 and above, were quizzed about their views on the status of women in India and the role of politics and society in shaping their lives.
A huge majority, 64%, slammed the existing status of women, calling it not at all satisfactory. An even higher number, 78%, said the December 16 sexual assault on the paramedical student in Delhi, which sparked widespread protests, has made them decide enough is enough and they can no longer ignore their political responsibilities.
The survey was conducted on the heels of the 2013 budget, which saw Finance Minister P Chidambaram address gender concerns by announcing an all women's bank and a Nirbhaya fund for women's empowerment.
The HT-C fore survey polled women from rural and urban areas, across income groups and professions in a bid to gauge the response of the target group to the first-ever overt wooing of women in a budget.
Chidambaram's inclusion of women's concerns in the budget is a sure sign that that there is "a definite attempt to create a constituency at a non-political level," says Rajeshwari Deshpande, professor, political science, Pune University.
She adds: "The idea of a women-only bank doesn't encourage routine politics - no one would oppose it."
The women surveyed agree, with 64% saying an all-women's bank was a good idea. Maximum votes came from the middle income group (75%) followed by high (60%) and low (58%) income groups.
The other surprising trend - pleasantly so, for the emerging women's constituency - is that women are speaking in one voice across rural and urban centres.
Safety topped the list across sections in women's concerns, with 71% women in urban areas and 63% in rural areas placing it as their biggest demand from the state. "It is clear that safety is a political issue today," says Radha Kumar, director general, Delhi Policy Group.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta calls safety "a lightning rod bringing focus to pent-up grievances." He compares it to the West's suffrage movement: "It's a start to a prolonged movement. In a few years, change will be calculable."
At the moment, though, the overriding sentiment is one of complete dissatisfaction. Almost half the respondents rejected the current political system with 47% not being able to come up with a name for a woman-friendly politician in India.
"The primordial loyalties with the party along caste, religion, region which peaked after the 90s is going to give away in the next decade or so," says Sanjay Kumar, specialist in survey research with Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
"As earlier loyalties dilute, new ones are coming up - women/gender, youth, age groups."
The 1990s saw more groups including Dalits and women mobilised, leading to a participatory upsurge with female voters going up from 32.19 crore in 2004 to 33.75 crore in 2009, while men voters in 2009 were about 36 crore.
According to experts, 16/12 and its aftermath will add substatially to this number, but in addition, what they expect from goverance is also likely to see significant changes.
Gender gap in voting in India fell from 10-16% in 1952-57 to 8% by the 2004 elections. Women also traditionally favoured Congress till the last election as per National Election Study 2009. Our survey, though, shows women holding the ruling establishment responsible for lapses that led to 16/12. The government was blamed by 67% of respondents for the Delhi gangrape; 30% blamed society.
The response to this question is interesting at many levels. Most surprising, for many, is that urban and rural women are voicing the same opinion. This goes against the widely held belief that the differences between city and rural dwellers will add drastically to the splintering of the already heterogeneous women's vote.
While this unites the women's vote, according to Kumar, "it may be a reflection that city women are not as empowered as one would expect."
Like their rural counterparts, urban women have held government rather than society more responsible for crimes against women. "It's dismaying as it shows urban women are not as individualistic as society would encourage them to be."
Gupta adds, "the more culturally conscious and literate blame society for widespread patriarchy and female suppression. Those blaming only government don't think about the larger issue of male supremacy."
The participation of urban women in the larger process is crucial for real empowerment. "This educated narrow social base has to reach out to less fortunate women for change to happen," says Sumit Ganguly, professor, political science at Indiana University.
Gupta draws a parallel with the suffrage movement where "elite women became the force for change."
Urban and rural women differed on only two of the 12 issues - for rural women economic growth was most important while for urban women, women's issues were paramount.
"The cross cutting cleavages will play a role in formation of the women's vote bank," says Ganguly. "A rural woman will think 'Is my vote going to get me a well near my house? An urban Indian woman - like her Western counterpart - would think more about gender equality, safety and treatment at the workplace."
The other division was in the influence on vote. Gupta however says, "Even in urban setups, husband and wife tend to vote similarly, though subconsciously."
Issues like unemployment, agriculture production, inflation and caste have a bigger impact in rural than in urban areas says advocate Pinky Anand.
"Rural women are more politically aware. There is high participation in panchayat elections. In cities, however, students, especially girls, avoid university elections. Thus, we've had an apolitical population."
However, 16/12 may have changed this, with safety of women becoming a single unifying issue across the country.
And about time, too. The situation on the ground continues to be dismal. While abortion is a burning political issue in US, Indian women are far from claiming their reproductive rights.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 2,28,650 crimes against women were reported in 2011, compared to 2,13,585 in 2010.
Just about 40% of India's women, aged 25-54, were economically active in 2010 compared with 82% in China and 72% in Brazil. A 2012 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report shows the gap in work done by men and women is the biggest in India.
A survey by Centre for Talent Innovation, a think tank, shows 45% of Indian respondents felt they were treated unfairly at work, prompting more than half of educated women to 'consider scaling back their career goals or quitting altogether.'
If the widespread protests post gangrape - and the results of our survey - are an indicator, women have had enough. The personal is now political.
(with inputs from Srishti Jha)
International Women's Day: HT-C fore Survey