It was a piquantly-worded invitation from Mantralaya, the state headquarters. It emphasised that we, as women journalists, would be interested in a news announcement to be made by the then chief minister Sharad Pawar. On a typical Mumbai monsoon day in 1994, Pawar declared that the state would have “the country’s first women’s policy” which sought to give women more rights over their lives by distilling some principles of feminism into a policy.
It covered a vast ground: from shutting down liquor shops in rural areas when a majority of women demanded such a closure and a mahila sabha to curbing sex trafficking, ensuring clean public toilets in cities in three years, and joint ownership of the married house by law so that women need not stay in abusive marriages for the fear of losing home. “Was a separate policy needed to ensure equality and justice for women,” some of us asked Pawar. He, typically, mumbled something about the need to sensitise the society.
Almost two decades later, we in Mumbai still do not have an adequate number of public toilets, let alone clean ones. It’s a fight over fighting. Since then, we have had a separate section for women but more sexual harassment in BEST buses, one more ladies compartment in suburban trains but more snide comments from men to desist using the general compartments, stricter control over sex determination tests but a worse sex ratio, an increased number of legislations enacted but higher number of sexual harassment and abuse cases in addition to a distinctly reduced perception of security for women that was bragged about as a “safe city for women”.
Beyond that, almost two decades later, as a country, we seem to have institutionalised this approach: enact separate legislations, make separate provisions, create separate departments and funds, allocate separate budgets and so on to make women equal and secure stakeholders in society. The Nirbhaya fund and a separate all-women bank announced by union finance minister P Chidambaram in the union budget last week, the separate all-women police department in the state are but two recent cases in point. This International Women’s Day, two days away, may bring more tokenisms of the kind we have witnessed since that horrible gang rape in New Delhi last December.
A separate society or a separate glass house in this patriarchal society is not what women demanded to feel equal and secure. The society, large sections of which continue to remain highly patriarchal despite the cosmetic consumerist patina of free choice afforded by women, must itself become secure for women in it to feel so. Ideas such as the special fund, separate bank and a separate policy are, in plain terms, cop-outs. Consolation prizes handed out by a pre-dominantly patriarchal socio-political architecture. We are essentially being told; if you remain within your glasshouse you will be secure and feel equal.
That, certainly, was not the equality, justice and security that women demanded over a hundred years ago which led to the International Women’s Day (IWD). Indeed, it’s so ironic that the IWD which was a commemoration of working women’s struggles for equality and justice in mostly socialist countries of the world in early 20th century should have become a day of celebration in the most consumerist of ways. Back then, it was about feminist women banding together to claim their rightful place in society and show that they “hold up half the sky”; now the IWD in cities is mostly about gifting diamonds and stuff to the “woman you love”. See the ever so subtle a shift?
It’s perhaps time to throw some Gloria Steinem sort of lines at our policy-making men, Pawar included.