by Stella Ramsaroop
(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 27 July 2007)
I have good news for you today; and I have bad news as well. The good news is that India swore in its first female president this week. The bad news is that not many women in India see this event as offering a promising future for them.
Pratibha Patil, India’s new president, has said, “We must banish malnutrition, social evils, infant mortality and female feticide.” These are nice sounding words, so why is it that more women in India do not see Patil as a step in the right direction?
According to a July 25 USA Today report, Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, a feminist and human rights magazine, said, "She was chosen for her loyalty and has moved from one post to another because of that same loyalty.” It would seem that some women in India expect Patil to be more loyal to the government than to them.
Kishwar continued, "I have always believed that it's not everything to just have sari-wearing creatures in politics. It's more important that politics stands for and enables honest, upright people to survive. But sycophancy is the only token that works.”
It is easy to understand Kishwar’s point. Just because a woman is in a position of power, there is no guarantee that she will use that position to help other women. Moreover, one woman in a position of power does not necessarily change the plight of women in general throughout a nation.
Take Guyana for example, this is one nation that has already had a woman as president. Even the US has not had a female president as yet. Moreover, although the position of president in India is largely a ceremonial post, that is not the case here. The president of Guyana is the one who actually leads the country. Yet still even though a woman sat as president nearly a decade ago, the women of this country continue to suffer immensely from all sorts of atrocities because of their gender.
What good does it do the women of a nation if those who achieve positions of power forget what it is like for the rest of her sisters? It is for this reason the women of India are not jumping for joy that they finally have a woman as president – they simply do not expect much from her.
Patil was chosen for this role because of her known devotion to India's powerful Nehru-Gandhi family. It remains to be seen to whom she will be loyal as president of India - to the ones with power or to the powerless?
For example, Patil drew criticism for calling on all women, Hindus and Muslims alike, to abandon the tradition of wearing headscarves. However, upon being sworn in as president this week, Patil herself wore a headscarf. This does not seem to be the type of leader that is strong enough to champion the cause of women in India.
Female feticide is rampant in India despite laws against the practice that aborts a baby girl because families would prefer to have a boy instead. A UK Guardian article from just this week reported, “Police in the eastern Indian state of Orissa exhumed skulls and body parts believed to be from three dozen aborted female foetuses and murdered girls in an abandoned well, a grisly find that highlights the persistence of infanticide in the country.”
This find comes after seven foetuses were found two weeks ago. It is also important to not that women who do not wish to abort their female foetuses often suffer all sorts of abuse from their husbands and his family members.
Male children are deemed more desirable because of the large dowries a young bride’s family must still pay to the husband to placate the burden of caring for the woman for the rest of her life. Sometimes the family must take out large loans to pay the dowry.
Also, only sons can perform last rights for the parents in the Hindu religion. An old proverb shows the general attitude of how girls are viewed by many in India. The proverb says, "Raising a girl is like watering the neighbour's garden."
The question then becomes, what can India’s new female president do – if anything –to help the women of her nation? Can she bridge the gap between the entrenched patriarchy and a life of equality for India’s women? If the scarf she donned during her induction ceremony is any indication of how she waffles under pressure, the answer seems clear.
The Indian government is trying to crack down on female feticide through the doctors who are aborting the female foetuses. Talk of a registry of pregnancy has also been tossed about. So as far as Patil’s statement about ending this practice goes, it seems quite possible.
However, one must ask if the government is now taking such drastic steps simply because the gender ratio is so skewed since so many boys are being born and so many girls are being killed. If this is the case, the way women are viewed in society does not change at all.
Girls will still be deemed a burden on the family, women will still be second-class citizens and female leaders will still be impotent. The focus should not be on stopping the abortion of female foetuses, but on how to change society’s view of women. Once the latter is accomplished, the former will dissipate as well.
China ran into a similar problem when they realised there were not enough women for all of the men after their one-child policy seemed to mean the death of so many little girls to make way for the more desirable little boys. The government started paying some families to have girls to balance the gender ratio again.
However, the practice of female feticide is only a symptom of a much larger social ill – misogyny. A woman in the position of India’s President only guarantees that at least there is not a sexist man in that position, but will Patil’s appointment add up to anything more than a “sari-wearing creature in politics” for the women of her country? Only time will tell.
(Here’s hoping Priya will make a difference for women when she is president of Guyana)