Do we deserve to celebrate Navratras?

I don’t mean to spoil the party. The nine days in the month of Ashwin are meant for carnival.

Akrita Reyar I don’t mean to spoil the party. The nine days in the month of Ashwin are meant for carnival. There is a strange thrill in the milieu, and verve in our gait. Artisans give last touches to their labour of love and immense patience – the beautiful figurines of the Goddess; and make new fashion statements with the exquisite pandals (special enclosures). The heady fragrance of Shiuli flowers fills the air as if to indicate the auspicious. It is the 9 days devoted to the celebration of womanhood. Her miracles, her compassion, her power, and even her retribution. But there is a need to pause and ponder. Is the feminine power meant to be eulogized just nine days in a year? I have serious differences of opinion with Uma Bharti on almost every issue. But hearing her interview once, her words struck me. She said in our society we either treat women like devis (Goddess) or daasis (servants). India has not learnt to treat a woman like a woman. Who has her own dreams and desires. Who can be a comfort to a family, but is equally capable of achievements outside the four walls. Who has her strengths, but also her own share of foibles. I am by no means blaming the men. The entire society must bear the blemish as a whole, including the women themselves. Let us look at the nine nights from the perspective of the Indian women that call for serious introspection. While they are not universally applicable, they do indeed apply to large sections. 1. Female foeticide: While the Goddess is welcomed with open arms, our doors are shut tight for the girl child. Such is our intense aversion to the double X chromosome that foetuses are killed in the womb itself, even if it sometimes means risking the life of the mother. According to the last census done in 2001, India had 927:1000 girls to boys ratio, against the world average of 1045:1000. The well educated and well healed are very much party to the sin of getting rid of de trop unborn females. South Delhi, one of the richest constituencies in India, has one of worst track records with 750-850 girls per 1000 boys. While the skewed sex ratio will have dangerous social implications in the long run; what needs to be realized is that there is nothing worse than the feeling of being unwanted. 2. Dowry: Marriage very often is a financial transaction in India. With economic prosperity our greed has only grown. Rich and poor alike expect to make a small fortune when they get their sons married. Demands are often made on the bride’s family with not the least amount of compunction. It is no surprise then that this is one of the main reasons why families prefer to put girls to sleep in the womb. The cavernous greed of the groom’s family is sometimes not even satiated with the booty it acquires on marriage and iterative demands are made thereafter. The worst casualty in this is the dignity of the young woman as well as her family. Non fulfillment of demands sometimes spells death for the woman. According to the Indian National Crime Bureau reports there were about 6787 dowry death cases registered in India in 2005, a 46% jump over 1995 level of 4,648, which was 10-fold more than the figure of 400 deaths a year in the 80s. 3. Disparity in education: Girl education is one area where there has been some heartening progress. According to last census held in 2001, female literacy in the country stood at 54.16%, the highest ever. However the figure is still a good 20 percentage points less than that of their male counterpart. The disparity is even higher in rural areas where over 63% or more women remain unlettered. Among the main impediments to the education of the girl child are the dearth of schools in close vicinity of every village and lack of female teachers. Another main reason for low enrolment is that families find it more beneficial to entrust young or adolescent girls with household chores than send them to school. This is also the reason for high drop out rates besides early marriages. A good education not only becomes a gateway to a woman’s economic independence but also helps her achieve better health, hygiene and be a support to her family. 4. Inadequate Nutrition: One of most understated problems facing the Indian girl child is that of poor nutrition. Girls belonging to the lower middle class and poor families suffer the most. Because of limited incomes it is an unsaid rule that while the male siblings are provided with milk, fruit and eggs, the girl but has to make do with the regular rice and lentil or sometimes even less. It is for this reason that girls are more susceptible to poor health and disease. The unfortunate part is that while the per capita food consumption rates in India have either sustained or increased, it has not led to any reduction of malnutrition among the girl child or women and most gains have been made by the male segment. The mid-day meal programme is helping girls get a better diet provided they make it to schools. However years of deficient nutrition are among the main reasons for girl child mortality and the death of women during child birth. 5. Sexual harassment: Among the worst countries in crime, India has an abhorrent track record in all forms of sexual exploitation. In homes, on streets, in public transports, at offices, even on vacations. No place is safe. And the most terrible fall out of this is the lack of self worth and feeling of degradation following the emotional and physical trauma that constant harassment creates. Such is the recurrence of these incidents that Delhi has earned the ignoble nickname of the ‘Rape Capital’. While most cases go unreported as it is considered an act that puts one to shame, only 20% of the registered cases for sexual harassment reach actual conviction. That apart, there is no woman in the city who has not faced at least some form of eve teasing. Worse still, the figure has shown a gradual but steady increase across the country. It is just impossible for the ‘men’ in town to keep their respect intact! 6. Domestic violence and status in the family: Marital bliss, certainly not. A study conducted in 2004 across spectrum showed that 60-80% women face some sort of abuse or violence in marriage. Worse still, over half the women in India feel this to be perfectly normal. Physical abuse immediately relegates a wife to an inferior status where her main purpose is to serve than to be a partner. It was found that most violence was triggered by the alleged inability to perform household duties to the satisfaction of the husband or the in-laws. Certainly not an institution founded on love and respect. 7. Status of widows: The genesis of the problem lies in the culture of our country where a widow is considered worthless and inauspicious. While the practice is on the decline, women who have lost their husbands are still forced to don only white garments and shave their heads etc. They are treated poorly, hardly given proper food and sometimes altogether abandoned as one can witness in the streets of Vrindavan and Varanasi. The scenario is not so bad in bigger towns and cities as well as in affluent families. The trend of remarriage which was unheard of has slowly gained acceptability. But in rural India, the situation still remains dismal. For no fault of hers a widow is excluded from most festivities or family functions as her presence is considered star-crossed. However a man who has lost a wife normally faces no such problems. This illogical discrimination must end and loss of any partner should be considered a normal occurrence in the cycle of life. Widowhood should be no taboo. 8. Equal pay for equal work: While there have been several court rulings guaranteeing the right of earning the same pay for the same amount of work, it remains a distant reality in practice. This is particularly true of the unorganized sector especially dealing with manual labour where the Minimum Wage Act norms are often violated. Besides these women get no maternity leave, or proper transportation facilities especially in the night shifts. Unequal pay for the same job happens to be one problem that men sometimes face as well. 9. Property rights: While the law of the land enshrines equal property distribution to the family of the deceased in the absence of a will irrespective of the sex, this is again normally just on paper. In practice most families leave daughters out of property rights and payment or dowry is symbolic of the girl’s disinheritance vis-à-vis finance. Besides different religions have different takes on the matter. Interestingly it has been found that women who own property face less violence at home compared to ones who are completely economically dependent on their spouses. A serious change in mindset and actual sharing of some of the economic clout will help women better assert their rights. It will also give women an increased status, more power and better say in decision making. If we genuinely examine the points mentioned above closely, there would be something that would have touched our lives in some way or the other. And if we in anyway are the perpetrators of injustice in even a small quantum, this could well be an occasion to make amends. Vijay Dashmi, the culmination of the Navratri festival, is symbolic of the victory of good over evil and destruction of the forces of darkness. Better treatment of half the population of the country would be a good start in moving towards becoming a more enlightened society. Otherwise I am not sure the Goddess will be too keen to accept our hospitality.

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