It’s been seven decades since Independence but has freedom been truly achieved by the female population in India? Indian women may be free to vote but are they free to choose a partner, or when or not to have children, and do they have a say in their own education and earnings? Can a woman in India aspire to bekhauf azaadi (fearless freedom) – the freedom to roam public spaces at will, at any time of the day or night, to choose and to live the way she wants?
These questions – which are remarkable only because we are still asking them in the 21st century – are tackled by women’s rights activist Kavita Krishnan in her new book Fearless Freedom (Penguin Books, Rs 299). It looks at the several systemic ways that Indian women are denied their basic human rights, beginning with the fundamental right to autonomy.
Giving examples from laws, literature and religious texts, the author points out how social structures ensure that women are confined to the four walls of the home. Once a woman’s freedom to move has been restricted, other freedoms are easy to snatch away.
The patriarchal argument that it is better for women to be ‘safe’ than be ‘free’ is used time and again even in the modern day as an excuse for gender discrimination at all levels. Instead of putting the onus on men to change behaviours, the threat of sexual violence is used as a societal tool to frighten women into submission and confinement within homes.
Further, using case studies of recent brutal ‘honour’ killings, the author demonstrates the role of caste in the denial of female agency – all restrictions on women’s freedom have one subversive goal in mind, she says: to eliminate the possibility of inter-caste couplings and ensure ‘purity’ of bloodline.
She also looks at discrimination in workplaces, and how social patriarchy is perpetuated even in corporate environments, especially factories that hire young women and practically imprison them in hostels at the behest of their parents.
A large chapter of the book is to do with sexism powered by religion, and the role of Hindutva in denying female agency. The author is univocal in her criticism of the BJP-RSS model of governance and indoctrination that normalises gender violence, so much so that even its female proponents internalise their subjugation and accept it as a necessary part of life.
While much of the information in the book is an eye-opener and makes for essential reading for both men and women in modern India, the author’s over-zealous striking down of anything to do with religion strikes a discordant note. While one agrees that ancient texts like Manusmriti and many Hindu customs are horribly demeaning to women, it is one thing to reject misogyny and another to reject religion itself. It is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Japanese Buddhist peace activist and educator Daisaku Ikeda says, “People do not exist for the sake of religion; religion exists for people, to enable people to become happy.” As thought-leaders and social activists, one must contribute to the evolution of religion instead of perpetuating ancient definitions that no longer serve us today, for then we are just as extreme as radicalists who put religious law above humanity.
For instance, the author chooses to read the word ‘svadharma’ in the Bhagavad Gita as ‘caste-ordained duty’ while I would much prefer Sri Aurobindo’s definition of it as one’s ‘nature’ or ‘law of action’, and to read verse 35 of chapter three in a more empowering way as a guidance to follow one’s own calling rather than codes made by someone else: Better is one’s own law of works, svadharma, though in itself faulty, than an alien law well wrought out.
Similarly, while I reject the BJP-RSS’s sexist, casteist Hindutva, I would be wary of rejecting Hinduism – or any religion – itself, for then one closes one’s doors to a vast spiritual resource to understand humanity and oneself.
All said, the author’s feminist intentions are in the right place. She does her job effectively of bringing to the fore the deep and malignant cancers in society that keep women oppressed and deny them that most elusive of freedoms: bekhauf azaadi. Awareness is the root of change, and this book serves well as the roadmap marking where the corrections must take place.
Lead image: Tanuj Handa / Pixabay. First published in eShe’s March 2020 issue
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