Only targeted domestically derived solutions are likely to be effective to combat societal norms and ingrained cultural attitudes that limit the empowerment of women in India argues Dhruv Kanabar (Cambridge University).
“In your opinion, are men and women equal in Mumbai?” There was a long awkward pause. All I could hear was the clatter of the classroom fan at the Elphinstone Road School, a member of the Muktangan Education Trust, that was fighting a losing battle against Mumbai’s unrelenting heat. Many alumni looked at the floor and shifted awkwardly in their plastic stools. Their unease was understandable. By answering yes, they would fail to accept the subtle yet powerful barriers that inhibit women’s empowerment. Answer no and they would be being ungrateful for the privileges they have. After all, they were inhabitants of a city where many women work full-time jobs and had opportunities that rural women could only dream of. In India, it did not get better than this.
A member of the research sample selection, after some hesitation, quietly replied “yes” with a reluctant yet distinctly Indian nod. However, as the interview continued, it became clearer to me that I had not travelled nearly 5,000 miles to research a non-existent issue. Whilst there had been considerable progress, it was evident that India was still far away from complete gender equality.
In rural areas, the situation remains worse than in cities such as Mumbai. As the interviews with the alumni continued, and the questions became incrementally more probing, they began to refer to the situation in their ancestral villages. One alumnus spoke of a teenager from a remote village in her native state of Haryana who is forced to wake up in the early morning to cook for her brothers and father, then attend school for two hours before returning home to cook again and complete household chores until night. The reason: her parents have prioritised developing her skills to become a suitable wife for her impending marriage to a groom of their choice over her education.
Combatting limitations women face in rural India requires radical innovative solutions designed specifically to challenge beliefs that have not changed for centuries. Particularly in the most remote areas, this requires working closely with village elders and adjusting to intra-village hierarchical structures. Additionally, outreach programmes could be run by NGOs such as Muktangan. They can highlight cost-effective solutions to provide girls with a high-quality education that can equip them for present-day careers, despite the low socio-economic backgrounds both communities have in common.
In the cities, the limitations that inhibit the empowerment of women are less obvious. Nevertheless, the sentiments from which these barriers stem are the same. It became apparent that many alumni, whilst being allowed to pursue careers, were limited in choosing jobs that would be deemed acceptable by their parents and society. The parents of one alumnus feared the response of their close friends and family if their daughter pursued her dream of becoming an interior designer, as the job and training required overnight stays with male colleagues in projects across the country. Subsequently, she has been forced to take up a business course that will allow her to gain a job with conventional office-hours.
Solutions to the limitations that women face must be considered in the Indian context. Challenging archaic social norms that dictate the age at which women should get married and the style of clothes they should wear requires looking into the distinct causes of why these attitudes exist and their effectiveness in serving as barriers. This includes taking advantage of India’s modernisation to ensure that it extends beyond tangible developments and into social changes. Foreign influence can be used to provide a realistic alternative based upon a society where a woman has greater agency over herself. However, it is imperative that more Western views on the role of women are introduced gradually and within the Indian context to avoid the risk of absolute active resistance.
Additionally, overcoming society’s expectations, or in terms of the colloquial and commonly used Hindi phrase ‘log kya kahenge?’ (what will people say?), requires strengthening the way in which women, in particularly girls, view themselves. Schools, such as Mumbai’s government-funded and run BMC (Brihnmumbai Municipal Corporation) schools, can do more to push forward a narrative that female students have the capabilities to decide their own futures. Unlike in some countries, where girls can aspire to be like prominent women in society, in India it is often difficult to for girls from low-income backgrounds to have equivalent role models. For example, a girl from the historically oppressed Dalit caste would struggle to find a role model in society that she could aspire to become.
The challenges that India faces are unique; directly replicating solutions from other cultures would be ineffective. For example, as Kapadia argues, the joint family system is one of the key “potent factors in the continuance of cultural traditions” and thus plays a vital role in hardening conservative attitudes and depleting the scope for parents to allow their daughters greater freedoms. Finding a solution to this problem requires looking specifically into the dynamics of the typical Indian family and redefining concepts such as the role of filial duty.
Despite the need for specific solutions to combatting unique challenges, it would be wrong to completely disregard existing practices used elsewhere in the world. For example, introducing greater sex education into the curriculum is vital for instilling a healthy attitude towards women amongst boys. However, the introduction must be done with respect to the sensitivities of Indian culture and the reluctance to encourage taboo subjects to be openly discussed, as evidenced by the 2007 banning of sex education in the state of Maharashtra.
Homegrown solutions to gender inequality can even have a widespread impact outside India. They can be adapted to combat barriers women face in other developing countries, where societal norms may be more similar. Even then solutions should still be tailored specifically to the causes of the barriers to women in that country if they are to be effective.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image: Children in school, India. Credit: Akshayapatra, Pixabay.