Jan 27, 2008 at 01:42pm IST

India's soft power: Why women are on top

Who is the Indian woman? What image does the nation have of her? Who are her role models, what are her dreams, aspirations and how is she changing? On Republic Day when India saw history being made – with the country's first woman President taking the salute – CNN-IBN discussed the definition of modernity and debunked the myths of a ‘modern’ society.

In a grand finale of the four-part CNN-IBN-Indian Express State of the Nation Poll conducted by CSDS, moderator Sagarika Ghose had an eminent panel debating, arguing and discussing dominant women issues of current importance.

On the panel were Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury; Founder partner of Perfect Relations, Dilip Cherian; Director of TRYSIS Shalini Patherya; Development Researcher Yamini Aiyar; former model Feroze Gujral and CSDS fellow Prof Yogendra Yadav.

The perspective and the methodology

There are two dominant images of the modern Indian woman. The first image is that of the meek sati-savitri, an eternal victim who may have donned modern clothes and started living in metropolis, yet she remains her conservative self, steeped in values of a male-dominated society. The other image is that of Durga, the irrepressible rebel, who cannot be contained or tamed.

As for women at work, you may have come across some common stereotypes and impressions and may have wondered if these are well founded. You may, of course, have noted the very narrow definition of 'work' involved here, as if any work that does not get paid in return is not work.

The survey conducted by CSDS polled 4,000 women across 40 cities and towns and 68 villages in 20 states with almost 50-50 division between urban and rural samples.

The show discussed the most important findings of the survey and arrived at consensus on some and agreed to disagree on the others.

Living with fear [Read the survey findings]

With incidents of molestation like the one on New Year's eve in Mumbai on an alarming rise, safety of women assumes primary importance.

The CSDS survey findings regarding safety of women were not surprising. While metros reported the highest number of abuse cases – 57 per cent women in the cities said they had faced some form of abuse – the countryside didn't fair any better. At least 41 per cent women in villages said they were victims of violence, 17 per cent of whom were physically abused. The figures from small-town India were relatively less alarming with just 15 per cent women admitting to physical abuse.

It's not just outdoors that women are harassed. At least 22 per cent urban women said they were victims of domestic violence as opposed to a relatively comforting 10 per cent in small towns.

Therefore, the cities emerge as hubs of violence against women, perhaps more dangerous and vulnerable than small towns and villages.

Renuka Chowdhury, who has spearheaded the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, said the issue was not just preventing women from being attacked; it was more - or equally - about creating a "sensitised" society. She also insisted that the law is user-friendly.


"Young people today will grow up knowing the law and won’t go around swatting their wives. Just as much as you have laws about murder, rape or dowry, this law will be as effective or ineffective as them," she said.

Chowdhury also pointed out that it was the first Indian bill, which after becoming a law was reviewed for lacunae and loopholes. "I am happy to say that cases began getting reported from some of the most traditional states in India once the law came into force," she said.

But Yamini Aiyar had a different take on the issue. While she supported the Domestic Violence Act, she also pointed out how, despite the hostile environment and rigid societal structure women have to live with in villages, violence being reported from these areas is considerably lesser than the cities.

Therefore, the problem lay in the reporting of cases rather than their occurrence.

"It's important to provide social security and create an environment that makes women come out and report these cases. I think Domestic Violence Act is an important step and there's a need to sensititise people. We need to create awareness about laws and how they can be used," she said.

Chowdhury also highlighted an interesting social trend that differentiated urban areas from rural ones in terms of violence against women. "Villages are very self-regulated societies. So if a woman is being beaten up the entire village gets to know. So some village women come together and report the issue. It's in urban centres that there's a reverse prejudice," she said.

With the “reverse prejudice” argument the debate gathered steam.

Often, it's argued that most women "invite" abuse by dressing "provocatively", moving about in male company and talking "openly". The panel debated the heated issue, raising several important points.

Dilip Cherian set the debate in motion by saying that Indian values were getting degenerated in urban centres. "You move to an urban centre, you are in a new environment and everyone is a fair game. And a woman faces the maximum brunt. Obviously, when she is in a different environment, she has to dress differently, she has to make an impact wherever she is and, therefore, becomes the victim. So it's not about wearing the right clothes or 'presentation of self', it's just that in such an environment, the male gets to be more of a predator," he said.

Cherian's point left opinion among the women panelists divided. Feroze Gujral was the first to disagree with the argument that women in India must be "careful" about dressing up/down. She debunked the theory that tank tops spelled trouble and also cited the commodification of women as a reason.

"Why must have I done something 'wrong' to get molested or raped? Is it a reactive thing? The problem is how we are using women as icing on any cake, even if it's a gobar (dung) cake. Just look at the auto shows. Why are models standing next to cars? The advertising and marketing of anything is laced with this attitude," she said.

Chowdhury, however, said the rot ran deeper than what appeared. "What happens to the women who get raped in villages due to the caste structure? You got to be able to bring all the laws to a threshold from where we move forward," she said.

There's also an argument – and some facts to back it as well – that women increasingly use these laws, meant to help them, to settle scores with family or partner. Shalini Patherya acknowledged the point and said she agreed with Gujral's point.

"It's not just the law that will bring about some resolution. Education is the real requirement. We need to talk and sensitise people about the want of the woman. Why do you have to dress and invite trouble? It should be a matter of choice. We have to move out of the primitive mindset," she argued.

Prof Yogendra Yadav explained the trend and backed his logic with the statistics emerging out of the survey. "First of all, stats show urban areas and metros are generally unsafe for both women and men. Second, nuclear families – which are welcomed by a number of women – make them more vulnerable. Third, there's a culture of silence. So less cases may be getting reported from villages, not because there's less violence but there's less reportage," he said.

But just why do men tease women on streets? Is it an easy thing to do? The audience had some interesting points to make. One of them vouched for sex education among the older men. "Rather than giving sex education to 14-year-olds, the focus should be on the 'bigger children' roaming the streets," he said.


Chowdhury also agreed the language used in such issues needed to change. Phrases like "eve-teasing" (eve, a temptress tempting men to tease her) and "outraging the modesty of a woman" (like only a 'modest' woman can be outraged) needed to go out. "This is obsolete English," she insisted.

Gujral, too, opined that commodification of women or bad language were not the only reasons for increase in violence among women. "People coming from a village to a big city watch Hindi movies – and there hasn't been one decent Hindi woman-centric movie in ages now – and see and imbibe the commodifcation. Also, as India has it, we are traditionally used to domestic violence. My maid does not think anything of her husband hitting her," she said.

Career, children, marriage and sex [Read the survey findings]

Figures say a lot about the modern Indian woman's choices and priorities. While 40 per cent of women surveyed preferred careers to bearing children, a staggering 42 per cent said they were okay with divorce if issues like incompatibility arose.

As for sex, 50 per cent women agreed it was okay for a woman to have bodily desires like men. In the same category a mammoth 76 per cent urban and educated women felt it was okay to have sexual desires like their male counterparts. This figure comes down drastically to 30 per cent among old, non-literate and rural women.

Chowdhury said the issue wasn't just about sex, marriage or career choices. It was about "status of woman" that has remained undefined in the law. And while there are punishments for degenerating the same, none knows what the phrase means as there isn't a definition.

“Constitution has defined the status of women which connotes equality. But the law doesn't say anything. That's because the men who made the law did not envision a woman to have the right," she said.

The Minister also said several Government initiatives like ensuring health and nutritional security and equal say in paternal property had done some damage control by broadly putting the phrase in context. "It's about altering the status of a woman being equated with a TV or motorcycle she brings in the dowry," she said.

Another trend in Indian society is that marriage is considered as the ultimate aim of a woman's existence. The institution remains a guarantor of social security in India.

Patherya said it was unclear why a woman should derive her stature either from career or marriage. "She is a holistic person. You need to have everything to achieve a status. The status of women in India is on extreme polarities. On one hand you have women achievers and on the other you have female infanticide on the rise. It's a strange dichotomy," she said.

Most women members in the audience too fiercely and equivocally rejected that getting married was the ultimate aim of their lives.

Like marriage alone wasn't a debate enough by itself, being the 'single-in-the-city' sorts was an equally vulnerable position. Aiyar said that after all, anyone's identity was determined by the society. "It's tough to find a house in the city if you are unmarried. Your landlord will be difficult, won't allow boyfriends and make things tough," she said.

But Gujral – who got married right after her school – shared her experience as a young, married woman and said marriage, in fact, gave her the protection she needed. "I had to pay for my own college despite being from a good family. Marriage was a safe environment for me. Everyone referred to me as Mrs Gujral and I haven't had a single bad experience in an industry that's looked upon as dubious," she said, adding a woman had to divine her position in any relationship and environment, be it work or home.

As for the findings on sex and sexual desires of women, Cherian opined men won’t be able to deal with the idea of a sexually-active and assertive woman. "Because, traditionally men were not expected to deal with women like this. They expected a different kind of woman. Last 200 years we have lived in a happy hypocrisy," he said.

Cherian's point, once again, united all women panelists against him. Leading the pack was Minister Chowdhury who said it was a hypocritical statement to make.


Gujral went to the extent of saying the question itself was unacceptable. As human beings – male or female – sexuality is normal and equal. "The whole idea of men getting away with it is nonsensical. And who are they doing it with? Who are they having sex with?" she questioned, eliciting applause from the audience.

The picture is completely the opposite in rural areas where women were still reeling under male-dominated ideas of sexuality. Aiyar said expressing herself sexually was one indication of a woman being empowered. "While urban women have all opportunity, it's not that fast in rural areas," she said.

Prof Yadav pointed out that it was the voice and the tone of confidence emerging from the survey that needed to be appreciated – the fact that more and more women were getting confident with themselves, be it work or sex.

Cherian made an interesting rejoinder to Yadav's statement. "As women get confident, men cringe and then react with violence," he said.

A member in the audience agreed and said women today were getting "too free." "While women should cover up, the blame also lies with the migrant population that comes into the city and sees these women," he said.

Freedom to think and decide [Read the survey findings]

The survey showed 66 per cent women thought their opinions mattered, 39 per cent decided on their careers and only 20 per cent had a say in choosing a life partner.

"We need to think about marriage as social security. So if you are unempowered, the married life offers you security. In a way you do want to leave that decision to someone because they may help," Aiyar pointed out.

Chowdhury said she was shocked to see more and more urban women wanting their parents to choose a life partner for them. "I don't know why this is happening. May be that's because of environment," she said.

Patherya also said marriages these days had become issues of convenience and pragmatism rather than following the heart. "It's about having a car and a bungalow," she said.

Speaking about arranged marriages Gujral said, "I think lot of arrange marriages are not singular. Today if I am a working woman or supporting a household where do I have the time to meet anybody to date? So who are the people you meet. Either you fall in love with college friends. Then you get into a workplace and you find you can't really marry the guy you like because he is struggling too."

However Patherya shared a different opinion. She said that a lot of independent women doing well find it difficult to find match who they can look up to, who they can adjust with and who they can get along with.

Yadav replied, "I hear hundreds of reports of girls wanting to marry being taken away by their brother in most cases. Women being shot because they want to marry someone."

Is beauty the main feature of Indian women?

What are the anxieties of the young Indian women? 40 per cent married women want to be fairer, 52 per cent unmarried women also want to be fairer. Thirty-seven per cent married women wish to be taller while 51 per cent of those unmarried also wish to be taller. The survey also found out that 24 per cent married women and 38 per cent unmarried women want to be slimmer.

Talking about looks, 34 per cent women rate themselves as beautiful.

Taking a cue from the findings, Gujral said, "It’s a big thing in India being fair and every matrimonial ad says ‘fair’ bride wanted. But it’s a silly little recipe for confidence packed in a little tube. And there are millions of women who use that cream and perhaps it's India's biggest selling cream and why – just because it's confidence building."

Aiyar didn't agree with the statement. She said, "Beauty is a social stigma and different things are beautiful in different environments and societies. The problem comes when you are deriving your only form of identity from that. The fair and lovely ad says you have to be fair to get a husband, you have to be fair to be beautiful to get a job etc."

Adding to the debate, Chowdhury said, “Beauty and sringar have been intrinsic to our culture and as a society. Lot of value was given to looks. Unfortunately we have now reduced it to saying that if you are fair then the rest of the world is lovely. And that being fair and lovely equals a job, promotion, life partner etc."

Proud to be a woman? [Read the survey findings]

Fifty-three per cent of all women said ‘yes’ they wanted to be re-born as a woman. The remaining 47 per cent didn't say ‘no’ while only 29 per cent said ‘no’ and the others were undecided. So, where does the woman stand in the 21st Century?

Aiyar said, "I think we have a lot of things to be optimistic. So let’s just focus on the positive. Take rural India, it’s an extremely complex space. We got a SAG movement where millions of women are working with each other and interacting with bank officials. It's a tremendous movement of Indian women.”

"I would say that the modern Indian woman is an evolving creature who has evolved much faster than the rest of the society, and I am very proud of what has emerged and I am terrified yet that the numbers are going to shrink," Cherian said.

However, Patherya was of the opinion that there should be a society in which women don't need reservations and legislations to move forward.

"We can simply do that because of capability and because of what we are. We are not getting into jobs because we look for the right job, it’s simply because we are right for the job," she said.

Responding to the view Chowdhury said, “Across the world laws are for the convenience of governance. You need that to govern a society because law is never static. What I want to say is that women already know this, however it’s men who are taking a little longer to understand that."

Giving the final comments on the State of the Nation survey on Indian women, Yadav said, "We have the emergence of an Indian kind of modernity with its own strength and pathologies. Women are the agents of change. If we look at the social movements throughout the country most of these social movements are led by women."

The debate ended on the note that modernity of Indian women is not the borrowed modernity of the West. Every woman in this country has her own definition of modernity. The idea is to let her express it without any bindings.

Previous Comments