Globally, one in three women experiences domestic violence, according to a 2018 UN report. Despite under-reporting, many reports suggest a similar figure for India. The financial and space constraints that the Covid pandemic created would have increased this number substantially. The same UN report suggests that the most dangerous place for women is their home. On the one hand, we talk about equal representation of women in corporate India and on the other we are faced with these troublesome statistics. What is the real situation and how did we get here?
Let’s start with how women are imagined, in historical depictions, myths and epics. The earliest deities were female. Childbirth was a miracle and women were worshipped.
Over the years, the woman moved into the shadow of the man. She was his “plus one”. Yet, some women in history made a mark in spite of being in the shadows. Nur Jahan is one such woman. While she was beautiful, Emperor Jehangir loved her for her intelligence and competence. Many historians claim that without her, Jehangir’s rule would have been far shorter. In fact, he named her “Padshah Begum” and everyone in the Mughal court was aware of her power.
The representation of women in Hindu mythology follows the same thought. Lord Vishnu is the preserver of the universe. Goddess Lakshmi, his wife, is the enabler, the “plus one”. She is powerful. She represents wealth, prosperity, luck — all the things that enable a good life — yet Vishnu remains the centre. According to a well-known story, when Vishnu, in his avatar as Vamana, placed his foot on King Bali’s head to control his power and forced him down to hell, he also graciously offered to guard him there for eternity. This is when Goddess Lakshmi stepped in. She went to hell and asked Bali if she could tie a “rakhi” on his wrist and make him her brother. Bali immediately accepted. As his sister, Lakshmi was now entitled to a gift from her brother, and she promptly asked for her husband to be returned to her in heaven. What would Lord Vishnu’s legacy be if it was not for his wife Lakshmi?
In modern India, successful businessmen often accept the role of their wives in their successes. R P Goenka, who created one of India’s largest business conglomerates in the 20th century, used to credit his wife Sushila for inspiring him to make his first acquisition of CEAT Tyres from the Italian tyre manufacturer in 1958. L N Mittal of ArcelorMittal, ranked amongst the richest and most influential people in the world, publicly credits 100 per cent of his success to his wife, Usha. Yet, these women remain largely in their husbands’ shadows.
From Nur Jahan to Sushila Goenka, did these women choose to be in the shadows or did they have no choice?
While it might appear that most of these women voluntarily choose the back seat, it is often involuntary pressure that forces their decision, pressures that arise from their responsibilities, upbringing and societal expectations about the role they must play. Whether it was voluntary or involuntary what is evident from their stories is that women want respect in a relationship. The man must realise that she is not inferior to him, but his equal. Her choice to be a co-passenger doesn’t make her inferior, but an important team player.
Unfortunately, when we look at domestic violence figures, we learn that this is not realised by the majority. While some men clearly recognise and acknowledge the role that women play in their lives, others go to the other extreme of disrespecting women by abusing them, physically and emotionally.
What do we do to change this? The obvious answer is: Educate men and women, men about the important role that a woman can play in their life, women about the power they actually hold. We need to re-look at our school curriculum with a gender-sensitive lens, bringing in a fresh way of thinking in young children. In this highly digital world, we need more role models, both men and women, who publicly take a stand in empowering and crediting women for the role they play.
While education is the best long-term solution, we also need to address this problem in more than one way. The number one reason women don’t leave a toxic, violent relationship is because of their financial dependence. Finding ways to make Indian women financially independent is the answer. We need to make women more employable, educate them, upskill them, and encourage them to work. We need to empower them financially. We need to teach them how to earn and manage their finances.
We need to protect them financially through legislation too.
The Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act were amended as late as 2005 to make women eligible in succession as daughters. We need to go further. What about women as wives? Today, women in India are not considered equal to their male counterparts as wealth creators. In most divorce settlements in India, the woman doesn’t even come close to getting half of her husband’s wealth. The recent highly public divorces of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates show how the West is changing this, with wives getting sizable settlements. Under California law, a wife is entitled to 50 per cent of all the wealth accrued by the husband after his marriage. We need to follow suit in India and maybe even make another amendment to our marriage acts securing the financial independence of women in marriage.
Women are 50 per cent of the vote bank. But they are definitely a neglected population. Creating reservations and legislation that protects them is one way to ensure the playing field is levelled over time.
Radha Goenka is the Director of RPG Foundation