By Rupande Mehta
When someone like Hema Malini makes a disparaging comment about widows, we have to accept that the problem of gender inequality spreads to all echelons of our society.
“If they (widows) are not from here then there is no need for them to come here from other states. There are many famous temples in Bengal and Bihar too, where they can stay,” the former Bollywood actress and current Lok Sabha BJP MP is reported to have said.
For someone like Malini, who rose to fame after her share of struggles and having raised two daughters, such a comment is not only puzzling but also morally and ethically flawed.
A comment of that proportion identifies the deep rifts our society is facing in finding its women a free and fair place. As far as I am concerned, her comment applies not only to widows but also exposes a far wider truth that regardless of our gender we are our women’s biggest enemy. We do not want to identify with their cause and we do not care about their upliftment. We are a man-based society and will cast the woman down every chance we get.
Widows living in Vrindavan have been a struggling lot. While there are many shelters that help them with food and a place to live, many widows also live in ashrams rife with sexual abuse and prostitution. Despite this, widows “crowd” Vrindavan because they have been discarded and abandoned by their families who consider them a bad omen.
However, a man whose wife dies before him rarely suffers the same fate or cultural backlash. Sati has been banned but the notion of the practice is alive and thriving in various other forms.
We live in a strange land, worshipping goddesses and claiming that Shiva in his ardhanarishvara form is the most divine but in reality both our men and women are least concerned with the hypocrisy of our actions. We fail to realize that meaningful progress is incomplete until everyone – young or old, married or widowed, man or woman – can operate in an environment free from fear and judgement.
But how do we get to progress that is meaningful and involves all citizens? How do we change these mindsets that have been circulating the same ideas for millennia?
According to me, this is a three-fold approach:
- Change starts with family: It begins with each member in the house treating the other with respect and equality. It is not a woman’s job only to pick up dirty dishes or fold the laundry. The mindset that a man will lose his manliness if he shares responsibility needs to be discarded. Any children born in such a household are bound to treat their future partners and each other with respect. We can finally begin to shed old ideologies and move together towards a more meaningful tomorrow.
- Schools play an important role: The next generation needs to imbibe concepts of fairness and equality. Instead of shying away, schools need to discuss taboo concepts such as sex early on with both, boys and girls, at the same time. Creating a division only helps strengthen the belief in young minds that sex is forbidden and such acts are vulgar. Talking about such issues openly will help make them more acceptable. With time and persistent effort, change will occur.
- State and central governments need to take issues of equality more seriously: The government needs to appoint officials that are serious about solving these matters and take timely measures to punish perpetrators. This entire process is doomed to fail unless individuals and government work together to ensure all of its citizens are viewed with respect and if violated obtain swift justice without any embarrassment and false judgements.
I realise this is cannot happen overnight but my hope is that, someday, we will be bold enough to implement these and not shy away from them. That day, India will be born again.
Rupande Mehta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org