“Why do we need a Woman’s Page?” a friend asked me recently. To her, a page marked ‘Women’ or ‘Gender’ is a tacit admission that there is no space for “women’s issues” or “gender issues” in everyday, normal discourse.
And perhaps that admission is true. When I look at women’s issues, as presented by activists, academics and thinkers, they seem to revolve around specific areas. Sexuality and reproductive health; marriage; earning equal wages; children and childcare issues; domestic rights and how to fight domestic violence; safety in the home, the workplace and the public world. All of these are deeply important issues—a woman who has no say in her sexual and reproductive choices, who cannot be free in the office, the home or on a public road, is half a human being.
But there’s an unspoken corollary to this branding of certain spaces and certain issues as women’s spaces, women’s issues. It’s a way of saying that women have no right to comment on other areas that might affect them just as strongly.
Every year when the Budget is discussed, for example, noises are made about making the Budget more “woman-friendly”. This seems to translate into lower LPG prices, more tax breaks for women entrepreneurs in small businesses, with a few sops in education and health care thrown in. But I rarely hear arguments for cutting defence spending drastically in order to spend more money on enabling the education of young girls, for example; nor has there ever been a Finance Minister who has insisted that unequal wages for men and women working in the same field is a huge shame at the national level.
POTA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and similar laws often have the effect of drastically reducing women’s freedoms and rights—but this is not often seen as a feminist issue. It takes an unusual gesture—the protest of Manipuri women last year, who stripped naked in order to draw attention to what POTA and laws like it were doing to their lives—to make us think about what effect ordinary, apparently non-gender specific laws might have on the lives of women.
In a different vein, the increasing demand for the Right to Information has not been seen as a gender issue. But if women had a genuine, unassailable right to information, and were able to access information comfortably, so much would change. If most women knew that they had an equal right to property, that they had a right to be paid the same wage as a man doing the same job, that they had a right to expect some recompense for looking after the family and bringing up children, and most important, that they had an absolute right to dignity, our society would be very different. Most of this information is coded in ways that many women find hard to decipher: wills, property deeds, tax laws, job contracts, share certificates, legal notices. But the battle for the Right to Information has been taken up by women’s groups at the village level, and it is significant that in areas where information is freely available, that availability has changed the quality of the lives of women radically.
It would be nice to be able to do away with a gender page, or a focus on women’s issues. But that would require a world where women’s issues were intrinsically entwined with everyone’s concerns, where recognising discrimination was as natural as breathing, and where equality was not just a distant concept, but a natural condition of who we are. And that world, unfortunately, is still a little distant.
(Carried in The Kolkata Telegraph, November 2005)