New Delhi: Living in a society where violence and social attitude towards women has become a major societal concern, historian Romila Thapar called atrocities against women as assertion of power to maintain the caste structure.
"Whether it is killing of a Dalit or rape of a woman, it is assertion by those who see social violence as a way of expressing power," Thapar said at a panel discussion on violence against women organised by Centre for Policy Analysis at the India International Centre on Friday evening.
"Controlling women has been a patriarchal way of controlling the caste society. Subordination of women becomes a requirement to maintain it.
"When women chose to marry outside the caste, stability of caste society seems to be broken," she said.
Thapar said that there is a need to make laws pertaining to women secular.
"Laws have to be secular if women have to be given equality. Most religious laws do not give equal justice to women," she said.
Veteran advocate Indira Jaising said there was urgent need for legal reforms as well as change in perspective.
"The biggest problem is that crime against women is not considered a crime, it is considered a domestic issue," Jaising said. "We need to see how to make law empowering for women."
Jaising said discrimination reflected in the marriage laws that have no account of rights of a woman.
"All marriage laws are personal... even if you go for a registered marriage, there are notices put in registrar`s office, and there are people who go around looking for inter-caste marriages and discoursing families against it," she said.
"There is a need to recognise the importance of a woman`s consent in a marriage," Jaising added.
Thapar questioned the panel on why Sita from Ramayana is seen as a role model for Indian women and not Draupadi in the Mahabharata.
"Why do we always compare women to Sita, why don`t we compare them to women from Mahabharata? Are women in Mahabharata too fiercely independent to be compared with?" the historian asked.
Tracing the roots of discrimination against women, Thapar stressed it is important how we chose our role models.
Sita was the wife of Ram in the Indian epic Ramayana. She has been seen as the epitome of virtue and a role model for Indian women for her devoting and sacrificing nature over centuries.
"Mahabharata was based on a clan society. Women in a clan society are more independent than a caste society.
"Kunti (mother of the eldest three of the Pandava brothers) was married to a man who was impotent, but she had a gift that she can invoke gods to get a child, and she practices it four times. Draupadi was married to five men, and when Yudhisthira loses her in gamble, she questions what right he had to put her on stake when he had lost himself...," Thapar said.
"These women are interesting because they break their caste role. Why don`t we see them as role models?" she asked.
Widespread protests were witnessed in several parts of the country after the rape and brutal assault of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi Dec 16, 2012, who succumbed to her injuries Dec 29 in a Singapore hospital.
The case had sparked off a debate on the social attitude towards women, and the need for stronger legislation for protecting them.
Amidst the demands for legislative corrections, the government on Friday passed an ordinance sanctioning death penalty in extreme cases of sexual assault based on the recommendations of a three-member panel headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice JS Verma.