Yesterday on India’s 66th Republic Day, we saw something unprecedented at the parade. We witnessed the first march by all women contingents of the army, navy and air force personnel.
As we gasped in awe and pride, I realised the real reason why it was such a momentous event. These women had broken away from the pre determined roles our society had assigned them. Wing commander Puja Thakur, who led the guard of honour for President Obama again a first, said, “We are officers first, women later.”
Matching steps and walking shoulder to shoulder, for a fleeting moment a sense of real equality, freedom and true progress swept through me. But is this the same feeling we get in our day to day lives? Has our Constitution, the reason for Republic Day celebrations every year done its job the way it was envisioned?
So, on our 66th Republic Day, we thought it might be fun and pertinent to examine the dichotomies of the Constitution versus the reality with respect to gender issues.
1. Right to Equality (Articles 14-16): This fundamental right ensures equality of opportunity, equality before law, equal protection in the laws and prohibits discrimination against any person on grounds of sex, religion, caste and place of birth.
Reality: We have a right to equality, only if we belong to the same caste or social strata. A person belonging to a lower caste/class can only aspire of equality. A case in point is that of a young dalit girl that changed our perceptions about rape, a case which proved the double standards we had for women, especially women belonging to a lower caste and our deeply misogynist systems which let the perpetrators walk away unscathed while the victim watched the justice system fail her. Why? Because our judiciary believed a dalit girl who had a sexual relationship while being unmarried couldn’t possibly be raped. Her story will break any notions of equality and equal protection of laws you may have. (Mathura Rape Case)
Article 15(3) talks about special protection and positive discrimination in favour of women and children. However what we think of as positive discrimination to uplift the status of millions of women, a majority chunk of society believes it is discrimination against men and gender biased because they’ve read about 200 cases out of 20 crores of women which turned out to be cases of misuse of laws. Do all women lie about being raped? No. This perception has only made reporting all the more difficult for women.
Fun Fact: Many religious/caste groups called Khap Panchayats or Kangaroo Courts in certain parts of our country sanction rape as a legitimate form of punishing a woman for marrying/wanting to marry someone outside their caste or for any act which such groups may define as “immoral conduct”. And for some reason these courts have more legitimacy and swifter action on their judgments. How do we protect women if we’re letting these people legitimise violence against women that violate any semblance of legal protection or equality for women?
These Khap Panchayats also advocate child marriage to avoid rape.
2. Right to Freedom (Articles 19-22): We have the right to freedom of speech and expression. The media has the right to free speech where they can insult, objectify and tear apart any woman they want. But if a woman comes out to express outrage and encroachment on her personal rights, especially a famous woman; the media will shrug it off with “but you look so great, it’s a compliment!” (TOI and Deepika Padukone)
Also now there are more technologically advanced ways to assert your freedom of speech such as the Internet. Freedom of speech on social media platforms only exists till you don’t offend people. (Read: Men) You can threaten a woman with rape and sodomy all you want on Twitter and Facebook; and if your girlfriend leaves you, put up her nude pictures or videos of you having sex online as a way to get back at her. Ah sweet revenge. Because: freedom of expression.
Fun Fact: Revenge porn is not yet a specifically defined term under India’s cyber laws. Consequently, we don’t have any specific punishment for it.
3. Right to Life (Article 21): We have a right to freedom of life and liberty. But in case of a pregnant woman, the unborn baby has a right to life according to social diktats and you are a baby killer if you abort it and a slut if you’re unmarried and keep it. The government has the liberty to coerce you into undergoing unsafe sterilisations like you are animals, kill you in the process and later give your family some money as compensation and apologise for your accidental death. So much for right to life. (Chhattisgarh’s sterilisation case)
Fun Fact: If you kill a girl child it’s not immoral or violating Article 21. A recent report by UN Women and UNFPA says that the number of girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6 has dropped to a staggering low of 918 in 2011 from 945 in 1991.
4. Right against Exploitation (Article 23): This Article prohibits traffic in human beings. But trafficking of women and children is rampant for a variety of reasons. Trafficking of women and young adolescent girls for marriage has become one of the biggest businesses for traffickers. The reason? Drastic drop in the sex ratio of our country.
“Families in the northern states of India especially Haryana which has the worst sex ratio in the country with only 879 women for every 1,000 men, have come up with a quick fix to deal with the lack of women to marry their sons. They “import” them from other states where there are more women, and where the impoverished families of those women are ready to sell their daughters for a price.”
And the only way so many men in our society can get a wife is by purchasing one. Bride buying markets are thriving in several pockets of the country where girls as young as 11 are sold as “brides” to much older men. But that’s not trafficking. Bride Traffickers are kind of like marriage bureaus, only more convenient since they bring the women to you directly.
Fun Fact: There are no effective laws to specifically deal with the issue of Bride Trafficking and child brides in India.
5. Freedom of Religion (Article25): Under this right all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate any religion. How does this right affect us? Because of this Article women do not have equal rights to property; or equal rights within the family; we don’t have the right to decide where we will reside after marriage, some of us have to deal with domestic violence because the religious laws say its okay and some of us have practically no way of getting a divorce while the man can divorce his wife at his whimwithout giving any reasons.
Fun Fact: The husband can rape you. But that’s not rape, no sir. If you married the man you areassumed to have given consent for the rest of your life.
Basic human rights end where freedom of religion begins. Hurray India!
Our Constitution, which we hoped would put an end to repressive social systems, has in so many unique ways either upheld them, or left enough wiggle room for them to continue existing. Many of us feel, and rightly so that the law cannot help us because the scales of justice weigh heavily against us. Laws must change and adapt with changing times in order to serve the purpose of justice, equality and freedom for all. Unfortunately, India has a lot to catch up with not just in terms of legal reforms but also in the implementation machinery which instead of being enforcers have become perpetrators of crime.
Oh and Happy Republic Day. 66 years on and the struggle continues.