In India, a growing number of women are going against the stream and rejecting gendered expectations, writes Nilanjana Bhowmick.
‘Today, I am sorry to say this, lots of modern women in India want to stay single,’ declared the health minister of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. ‘Even if they get married, they don’t want to give birth. They want surrogacy. So, there is a paradigm shift in our thinking, which is not good.’ He blamed it on the old bogey of ‘Western influences’.
The minister, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), thinks women exercising their personal or reproductive choices is something to be condemned. That some Indian women are now building up the confidence to break away from the impositions of a patriarchal society should be cause for celebration. After all, we are taught by society right from childhood that the kitchen is our rightful place and that marriage, housework and caregiving take precedence over careers or financial independence. Women who reject these impositions are shamed and humiliated – whether in private conversations or in public discourse.
Yes, more Indian women are preferring to remain single, or married but child-free. As per our last census in 2011, the number of single women in the country grew by 39 percent between 2001 and 2011. If they are choosing careers over the traditional roles of homemakers and caregivers, it’s because the option of balancing the two is not available to them. In a tussle between family and career, the former always takes precedence. How else can one explain the fact that while women have been able to close the education gap – in 2018-19 women represented over 53 percent of undergraduate degrees – they still constitute only 20 per cent of India’s labour force?
If Indian society does not allow women to balance their careers with their home life, as any progressive society should, our lawmakers are no better. While previous governments have been blasé about women’s empowerment, BJP lawmakers have consistently exposed their regressive mindsets, underlining women’s subservient role in Indian society in their speeches and comments. One BJP minster caused a storm by questioning the moral values of women who wear ripped jeans, reflecting the constant policing of women’s bodies. India’s budget allocation for projects related to women remains below one per cent of GDP – and in 2021 shrank by 26 per cent from the previous financial year.
Despite the progress they’ve made, Indian women are still staring at a very long road ahead. Take political representation. The country elected a record 78 women to parliament – but they represent only 14.4 per cent of all lawmakers. Women still earn only about two-thirds of what their male counterparts make for the same work.
Personal freedom, too, is in limited supply. Various human development reports continue to point out how a majority of women in the country still need permission from male members of their families to do basic things like consulting a doctor or going to see a film, or how they miss out on schooling for housework, caregiving responsibilities or early marriage.
Only a tiny percentage of Indian women are in a position to challenge patriarchy – but their tribe is growing every day. The fact that it worries the torch-bearers of patriarchy is a win in itself.