Now that Woman’s Day has been commemorated suitably – by Ms Ambani coiling the GDP of Pakistan around her shapely neck at Jamnagar, and the Didi from West Bengal staging another march to honour the rape victims of Sandeshkhali instead of promptly arresting the rapists, and our Prime Minister gifting housewives a one hundred rupee cut in LPG prices after raising them by five hundred rupees, and Ms Hema Malini being given another ticket for the Lok Sabha elections in recognition of her outstanding record in Parliament – perhaps we can now get back to the real business of showing women who’s the boss in the land of the Manusmriti. Just in case they haven’t got the message yet even after the thrashing of Olympic women champions near Parliament, or the chicanery of using the census to deny women reservations in Parliament, or persisting with legalised rape by refusing to recognise marital rape as a crime or removing the abhorrent provision of “restoration of conjugal rights”. For, tokenism is what our governments and society are best at, and in the matter of treating women as equals in India, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Madhu Bhaduri, retired diplomat and writer, in her book LIVED STORIES, makes a startling disclosure of a fact which perhaps most people are/ were not aware of (I certainly wasn’t even after 35 years in government service and 13 more years in the pasture). It appears that till the late 1970s women officers in the IFS needed prior permission to marry, and that even then they risked losing their promotions and even their jobs as their “domestic commitments is likely to come in the way of the efficient discharge of duties.” No such stigma was attached to their male colleagues. This was not just gender bias, this was outright gender contempt. The matter was fortunately laid to rest by Justice Krishna Iyer in the early 80s on a petition by the IFS’s first lady officer. The judge struck down the offending Rule 8(2) of the IFS (Conduct and Discipline) Rules 1961 as being violative of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution.

That was almost 50 years ago, and much water, muck and money has flown down the Yamuna since then. Actually, the water and money has, but much of the muck is still stuck in New Delhi’s testosterone-filled corridors of power, at least where gender discrimination is concerned. One such odorous piece surfaced just last month.

NDTV/ Business Standard/ Hindu have reported on the mystifying issue of a notification by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to the effect that if a married woman wishes to revert to her maiden name she will have to either produce a decree of divorce or furnish an NOC from her husband! Apart from undoing decades of gender affirmative action by the courts, this order also establishes that dinosaurs are still alive and thriving, thank you, in South and North Block. For what it does is reinforce the hoary tradition of women being chattel, the property of the husband, without an independent identity or any freedom of action to make her own decisions.

The order has been challenged, of course, in the Delhi High Court and will no doubt be quashed (with the concerned Secretary being sent for a mandatory course on gender equality, hopefully) but it does remind me of the occasion in 2007 when I applied for a second LPG connection for my newly constructed cottage in Mashobra. I was informed by the company that, since I already had a connection in my name in Shimla, I was not entitled for a second one. But since I was one of the four pillars of the government then (one Chief Secretary and three Addl. Chief Secretaries, of which I was one), an exception could be made in my case: a second connection could be issued in my wife’s maiden (not married!) name, provided she submitted an affidavit stating that she was divorcing me! Neerja and I did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided that, though the idea had occurred to her independent of the LPG connection, it was now too much of a hassle to revert to her maiden name and start looking for her ex-beaus. So we stayed married, but it was a close call, folks. (I did finally secure that second connection, but claim the Fifth Amendment to refuse to disclose how).

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