June 27, 2006

A Letter to My Niece in India

My dear child,

I hope you don't mind my addressing you as a child, when you are a young woman in her twenties. We have lived apart two decades and more, and I am not certain about how much you have grown up in all these years. I write this letter to you based on the imperfect knowledge that I have gathered about you from my occasional encounters, real and virtual, with you, your sisters, and your friends. If there are errors and omissions, please don't hesitate to address them forthrightly.

For eons, marriage has been the sole objective of a woman's life in India. She lived for her husband, her children, her family, and rarely for herself. She was brainwashed into believing that she needed a father, a brother, a husband, or a son to take care of her. Your grandmothers and great grandmothers were denied the basic human rights, in the spheres of education, inheritance, and employment, for centuries. When poverty forced men to sell their bodies for a living, statues were erected to celebrate their labor or their valor. When a woman did the same, she was insulted as a prostitute, criminalized, and thrown into the dungeon. Sati was abolished in 1829, but widow remarriage is a taboo even today in many communities. And the life of a widow was so insufferable that you sometimes wondered if Sati would have been preferable!

Despite the fact that the gender discrimination and oppression that were perpetrated against women were no less severe than those perpetrated in the name of caste, the champions of reservation policy in India today are deafeningly silent on this. How many Gurukulas do we know of, that admitted women but not the chamars? How many women went to school before India's independence? If the deleterious effects of caste based discrimination on intellectual ability were [incorrectly] supposed to have been passed on genetically across generations, why would it not hold good for gender based discrimination? Nevertheless, I am glad that you are not fighting for crutches, and I am sure that you'd be glad, too, in the long run. For, crutches, I think, would only atrophy your body and brain, and you would be perpetually dependent on them.

The forces of reaction are somewhat weakened today, but not completely spent, and the danger of their retreating, regrouping, and continuing their assault on your freedom is ever present. There have been several instances in recent times when the draconian and discriminatory laws of Manu and Mohammed have prevailed, arguably with a tacit nod from the government that's supposed to protect your rights. Dowry has only metamorphosed and gone underground. Beating their wives is still considered the birthright of men, and sometimes even welcome by the celluloid heroines. In secular India, Sania Mirza's skirt length is fair play for a fatwah to be issued against her by a mullah. The recent attacks against the actresses Kushboo and Suhasini in Tamil Nadu are disturbing, to put it mildly. Kushboo's sane advice on safe premarital sex was twisted out of context and politicized. The self-appointed moral police cried blasphemy in the land of Kannagi. You should remind these demagogues and rabble-rousers — many of whom, to my utter discomfort, call themselves rational — that the days of double standards on sex are over. Besides, in my opinion, Kannagi is far from being your role model. Yes, injustice was done to her by an unwise king, and she had the right to demand justice, even the king's life, for her husband's wrongful death. What gave her, though, the right to burn innocent children, women, and men of Madurai? In today's parlance, she'd have been declared as a terrorist!

If only this self-appointed moral police and its allies in the government would turn their attention to women's education and health, Mother India would not be in the shameful position that she finds herself in the recent assessment of health, education, and political status of world mothers by Save the Children. Do you know that India ranks number one both in the number of new born deaths and in the number of maternal deaths? According to this report, there were 1,098,000 new born deaths and 136,000 maternal deaths in India in the year 2000. The figures for China, with a larger population, were much smaller with 416,000 and 11,000, respectively. India ranks 93rd out of 125 countries in the overall Mother's Index presented in the report. For comparison, Brazil's is 52, China's is 39, Iran's is 69, Mexico's is 24, Sri Lanka's is 69, and Vietnam's is 44. The report sums up the reasons for the poor report card thus:

To a considerable extent, the well-being of a newborn depends on the health and well-being of the mother. When mothers are malnourished, sickly or receive inadequate prenatal or delivery care, their babies face a higher risk of disease and premature death. And where mothers are not educated and where girls marry and begin having babies at very young ages, the risks multiply.

There's no denying that nature has placed certain constraints on what you can or cannot do, and when. Do not forget, though, that humans have always strived to overcome what nature had denied them in terms of physical resources with mental resourcefulness. As they say, where there is will, there is a way.

I am heartened to note that there are changes taking place in India. You and your cohorts seem to have come a long way from your mothers and aunts. Many of you are passionate about artificial intelligence, finance, and robotics, fields that were male bastions until only a few years ago. Your aspirations for a career are no longer limited to the arts, medicine, and teaching. Today, you don't hesitate to travel to any corner of the world, alone, to pursue whatever your passion is. You stand shoulder to shoulder with your brothers to design chips, construct bridges, and trade the currencies of the world. When I see you on the Olympic arena, or in the International Conference on Communication Standards, it makes me proud. And it's not just among the urban elite that I notice these changes. I have observed with great admiration, the determination of my mother's maid's daughter, who's about your age now, to break out of her mold. Today she is a college graduate, the first in her family, and gainfully employed as a lab technician.

A few years ago, when I was a visiting professor at Keio University, Tokyo, a colleague of mine told me that unmarried Japanese women above the age of 25 were referred to as Christmas cakes, because they were considered as worthless as Christmas cakes after the 25th [of December]. Most Japanese women, therefore, preferred to have a very short career. I had this to say to him then about the long-term risks for the Japanese economy, "In my view, the greatest risk to the Japanese economy comes not from its bad real estate loans, but from the fact that fully 50% of its resources remain under utilized." What I said then about Japan applies equally to India, and other misogynist countries. Societies lose when women are not equal and productive partners of men. Today, it's the central message from C.A.R.E. about women in developing countries, driven home through a TV campaign.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against your choosing family over profession. Nor am I belittling your role as a homemaker, if that's what you choose to adopt. No one, dead or alive, however, has the right to determine what you must study, where you must work, whom you must choose as your life partner, and when. It's your life, and you are the sole arbiter of how it must be lived. And, it's your responsibility to defend your right to be so. Remember, mind is a terrible thing to waste, man's or woman's. Translated into Tamil, it's the same admonition as that of Bharathi:

Lots of love,

The Rational Fool

  1. excellent post. With your permission may I forward it to som eof my friends?

  2. Thanks, Usha. You really don't need my permission to forward it to your friends - after all, it's in the public domain :) I welcome it -spread the word around; that's my intent.

  3. This is just too wonderful. My regards n respects to ur sir.

  4. Equality of women is a prerequsite for any society to survive and make meaningful contribution. The trends in tamil nadu are really disturbing. The vice chancallor of a university probhiting women students from wearing t-shirts.Such draconian and poor thinking on the part decision makers will cost the future generations.

  5. Was guided here by USHA from her recent post.

    Indeed A wonderful post!

    "mind is a terrible thing to waste, man's or woman's"....BRAVO!!!

    will remember this and also would advice many and all who come my way ...


  6. For eons, marriage has been the sole objective of a woman's life in India.


    This is the universal and necessary state for all women, Indian and non-Indian!

    However now we have cheap energy and time-saving power tools...

  7. mama.. u just rock.. i saw this post pretty late.. but i'm floored all de same...
    Mama.. U rock!!

  8. That was one good post! I liked it a lot..
    Came here through Usha's space!

  9. Excellent Post!!!


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