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Posts Tagged ‘women’s status in India’

Some time ago – quite some time ago – I told a few stories about the condition of dalit women (women belonging to the lowest castes in the Hindu social hierarchy) living in rural eastern Rajasthan (see the category Rajasthan Village Diary).  My stories were based on close observation and interaction with people over a considerable length of time, living as I currently do in a village in this region.  The main theme of those  stories was the  daily – and often brutal – psychological, verbal, and physical violence suffered by a majority of dalit women at the hands of their husbands, violence that is often abetted by the sisters or mothers of these husbands.  In some of the cases that I had described, patriarchy had closed ranks behind the abusive husbands in the form of democratically elected Constitutional bodies like elected village councils (Panchayats),  most of whose members tend to be male or males acting on behalf of women.  Nor did women in the village – family members, neighbours –  either individually or in groups free themselves of the hold of patriarchy to express support or engage in action in favour of the rights of the abused women to lead violence-free lives.

In taking up stories of dalit women, I  was not trying to imply that the weight of either patriarchy or domestic violence sits heavily only on women of the lowest castes. Far be it.  Patriarchy in this region is all-pervasive, and is ever-present whether in subtle or overt ways.  My reasons for focusing on the condition of dalit women were three-fold.

In this region, dalits – belonging to a wide range of communities, all of which coexist in nuanced hierarchical relation to each other –  are numerically the largest social group.  Affirmative policies over the last few decades since Independence have brought them into the social and political mainstream and have given them a public voice.  Changes in patterns of behavior  among them, therefore, take on significance.

Secondly, dalits in this region almost universally own agricultural land.  Due to historical reasons of feudal modes of landownership (jagirdari), small communities of high caste (Rajput) big landlords needed  armies of tenant-tillers for revenue generation.  When land reforms were enacted and implemented in the 1950s following on the country’s Independence,  all the hitherto-landless tenant communities acquired property rights.    The rising prices of land in recent years have motivated many to seek  dramatic economic prosperity through land sales.  This has resulted in unprecedented consumerist behaviours,  a feature that dalits share with intermediate and higher castes in the region.

Finally, dalits have a long tradition of hiring themselves out as wage labourers.  Today, with the growth of urbanization, spread of industry, and launching of road and other infrastructural projects in the region, there has been an  explosion of non-farm employment opportunities for semi-skilled and unskilled labour.  Both men and women go out for wage labour,  making them the largest ‘working class’ in the area, in both agricultural and non-agricultural spheres.

For all of the above reasons, dalit women are more accessible to an observer like me.  They also tend to be relatively more articulate about their lives than women of higher castes who are invisible and whose ideological conditioning makes them more reclusive about their views.

A dominant strand of academic thinking has for long held that while poverty carries its own disabilities for both men and women belonging to historically disadvantaged groups,  the compulsion to go out of the house to work for wages gives poor women a double-edged advantage over their better-off sisters belonging to higher social echelons.  It brings them into contact with the outside world, which is the pre-requisite for self awareness denied to cloistered women.  And their tangible economic contribution to the family in the form of wages  enhances their social value within the family, i.e., it gives them  a greater say in decision making regarding budgeting and allocation of resources, children’s education and their futures etc., and also confers on them the self esteem required to negotiate greater autonomy for themselves.   A lot of economic analysis, policy initiatives and social activism have, therefore, focused on how to create conditions for increasing women’s ‘gainful participation in the labour force’  with its attendant ‘visibilisation’ of women as economic agents.

My observation in rural eastern Rajasthan is that stubbornly-persisting cultural factors rooted in feudalism continue to militate against women’s autonomy even within the current changing economic and political scenario.  And under the weight of consumerist aspirations and men’s sense of entitlement to these aspirations, these cultural factors take on added forms.  Women’s employment outside the home, far from enhancing the family’s economic base and conferring higher status on the women wage earners, is actually causing the reverse.  Men’s  heightened sense of entitlement has also gone hand in hand with the weakening of extended family structures, most notably the authority of the supreme patriarch and traditional norms that upheld men’s role as providers. There has been a distinct generational shift in this regard.

The net effect is that men are dropping out of the labour force – or working only fitfully – leaving their wives to single-handedly support the family on their sole incomes.  When men do work, their tendency is to keep much of their earnings for their own pleasure and recreation rather than contribute to the family’s  expenses.  In addition, men are using violence to ensure that their wives’ apparent economic value and greater mobility due to employment does not translate into greater autonomy for them.  The surveillance of working women by men in general – in collusion with their female allies in the family, neighbourhood and village –  can take many forms.  Clusters of men idling at street corners and in ubiquitous chai and liquor shops along roadsides, or playing cards under clumps of trees,  have become the new symbol of women’s collective oppression by the male gaze.  ‘Stories’ about the imagined misdemeanours of local working women as they travel to and from work are spread via these idle clusters, as parables that advise men to control their wives.  These  culminate in violent domestic  abuse of women by their  men,  who feel their ‘honour’  and  marital rights wronged in the public eye.

Women, thus, not only do the double shift of domestic work plus paid labour; they also do a third shift where they become punching bags for the daily doses of domestic violence doled out by their men.  This has its own negative health fallouts, both  physical and mental, which add to the burden of disease and chronic debility already carried by women.

The obvious questions that arise are:  why do women put up with these conditions?  Why do they not fight back? Why do they not simply walk out of abusive situations to rebuild their lives on their own terms? If most women are facing domestic abuse, what comes in the way of women making common cause to work out ways of dealing with such problems? Is this a problem of all women in eastern Rajasthan,  or only of rural dwelling women?

I try to address some of these questions through the next story.

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