In this benighted country even the issue of women’s rights has been reduced to a meaningless level by a combination of competitive politics, hasty judicial intervention, hyper ventilating media and self-seeking femininism. In the process the cause itself has been damaged and it is debatable how many of the intended benefits have actually accrued to the vast majority of women in the country. Statistics tell us, in fact, that in spite of years of high decibel “affirmative action” their position has actually become worse! According to the 68th round of NSSO data the %age of women in India’s work force has declined from 25.6% in 2001 to 21.9% in 2011. And ironically, for all the posturing by successive governments, the position in the public sector is worse than in the private sector: in the latter women formed 24.5% of the work force while in the former they constituted a mere 17.9%. Our politicians’ sanctimonious hypocrisy is thoroughly exposed by these figures.
The Triple Talaq ( TTT) hullabaloo is a case in point. The BJP govt. took up this issue as a pure political gambit, the objective being to help the party, not Muslim women. Neither divorce nor TTT is a major issue for Muslim women, at least not any more than it is for Hindu women. In fact, according to the 2011 census again the rate of divorce among the Muslim community, at 0.56, is lower than among Hindus at 0.76. (National Herald, 29th Jan. 2017). Nor are Muslim women the sorry victims they are being made out to be by the govt.: a BMMA (Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan) survey for 2014 shows that in 40.57% of divorce cases it was the woman who initiated the proceedings. Nor is TTT the endemic it is portrayed to be: the same survey reveals that out of 219 cases received in one sampled Shariat court, only 22 were of the TTT variety. It also shows that the electronic media is not the favoured medium for serving a TTT notice as is constantly being tom-tommed by the media – only in 0.25% cases was the message delivered via phone, SMS or email.
Objective data, therefore, seems to suggest that the chai-wallah party raised an unnecessary storm in a tea cup for its own ends, without any scientific study by an agency like the Law Commission. It made matters worse by criminalising something which the Supreme Court had already declared “non-est.” In the process, at best, it missed an opportunity to address the real issue confronting women of all religions and communities – abandonment, without recourse to any law. This is the practice which is endemic among Hindus and Muslims alike – the Prime Minister’s own constituency, Varanasi, is the forced abode of tens of thousands of abandoned women and widows, if only he would care to admit it – and needed a law to eradicate it. At worst, the new TTT law/ordinance will only mean that Muslim women will now be thrown out and abandoned without a penny, instead of being divorced through a process that at least gave them some recompense in the form of mehr etc. How is the lot of these women any better now?
The Sabarimala case has not advanced women’s rights either, but it HAS done two things. One, it has exposed the BJP’s double standards: while in the Triple Talaq case it professed to champion the rights of women, here it is ranged against them! Two, it has made the Hindu male more vociferous and aggressive against allowing women the right to enter the temple. In the process it has done great disservice to the cause of women. But it has served the true purpose of the hypocrisy on display – consolidating the Hindu vote against the left front govt. in Kerala. It has provided another instance where the judiciary has unwittingly played into the hands of politicians. I have always maintained that religious reforms have to come from within and should not be legislated.
The MeToo campaign started on a positive note and for some time held out the promise that it would improve the woman’s dignity and safety in the work place. Enthused by its claiming an early victim in MJ Akbar, however, it soon degenerated into an orgy of naming and shaming on social media, with accusations flying thick and fast, some of them going back decades. The distinction between sexual molestation and inappropriate behaviour was quickly forgotten in the ensuing media frenzy. The genuine cases got mixed up with allegations meant to settle personal scores and the atmosphere in work places has now become even more hostile for women generally.
Some “progressive” pieces of legislation have not helped their cause either. The Maternity Amendment Act of 2017 now makes it mandatory for private companies to provide 26 weeks of maternity leave on full pay, provide a creche if they employ more than 50 persons ( something, incidentally, which the govt. itself does not do!) and also permit them to work from home. This is even more generous than the provisions in many European and SE Asian countries which are far more developed than we are. Now, these are good ideals to work towards but they should be calibrated to correspond to the existing business and economic environment. In a country where 80% of the employment is provided by MSMEs and small businesses which work on very small margins such munificent provisions become unsustainable for the average entrepreneur. Moreover, many countries which have similar provisions, such as the UK and Germany, share the financial burden by bearing 50% of the cost. We do no such thing. The combined effect of all this is that many employers are now reluctant to hire women; just about everyone I know who runs an establishment tells me that this is perhaps the worst kept secret in industry. The declining figures for female employment would appear to bear this out.
The question that needs to be asked therefore, shorn of all feminist dogmas, is whether the majority of women have actually benefited from these half-baked, politicised, short-sighted measures, or has their cause been set back by many years? Have we done more harm than good to the interests of women ? Could we have done better with a more calibrated approach, taking one small step at a time instead of many giant steps for womankind? It is sometimes best to make haste slowly.