By Arun Kumar Sahu*
“Why can’t I buy this pair of shorts, Mama?” A girl of about fifteen urged her mother in a posh shopping mall in Delhi. The mother showed her a stern face.
“But it is so nice, trendy and cool, and why do I have to always wear the same traditional Indian dresses? Why can’t I wear something different ?” The girl tried to argue. The mother’s eyes opened wide again, piercing the girl’s. “You are not in Canada. You are in India, in Delhi,” she said.
I couldn’t resist my curiosity. Asked, “Where do you live in Canada?”
“In Toronto Ji”, she replied with a grin. “Came to visit her grandparents and extended family members. Please tell me, can she wear these short pants and go out with friends in Delhi?” She in a sense wanted me to endorse her opinion.
I could only offer her a coy smile. I could not answer in affirmative, could not answer “yes” emphatically. Could not tell her that she is only a teenager and she could fulfil her wish. I was not sure. I could not overcome the fear of a parent for her daughter’s physical safety in India.
It’s a tough question for anybody who has a daughter in urban India. Parents of a girl child live in constant insecurity, anxiety and fear. Despite imparting the best available education and economic success, many eagerly wait to migrate between two social institutions, traditionally believed to be safe and secure, though they are not necessarily so: ‘family’ and ‘marriage’.
Most part of the western and the communist world is very safe for a girl child, at least physically. While in the West, it is the high sensitivity to gender equality and protection of human rights, in the communist world, safety is state driven, both men and women being equal part of the same productive force. For instance, in China a girl can chose to do any kind of job. In fact, most of the social sectors are managed by women. Bus drivers, train managers, factory administrators and many others in public service delivery systems are women. So is in Russia. Throughout the Islamic world it is driven by stringent laws. The standard punishment or outraging the modesty of a girl child is extremely severe including death penalty, though the social standing in these societies are much to be debated.
In India, we are caught between “divinity” and “objectification”. We worship the female idols, but ordinary treat them inferior when in flesh and blood. We run an economy that does not have enough pull to engage all eligible girls to its workforce. We work in a political set up where equality of gender can only triggers emotive debates. We live in a society where a girl child is expected to be indoctrinated into a set of prescriptions and proscriptions. As society moves and as technology and connectivity intensify, we are caught between the strain between the “little” and the “great” traditions. Limited opportunities and access to resources make our situation worse tilting the balance towards a male child.
We have two options: either to dismiss the problem outrightly taking refuge in our traditional discourse that we treat them like goddesses and they are completely safe or tackling it heads on. We can continue to emphasise that our social institutions are robust enough to take care of them and do nothing more. But the reality, out there, is much worse than what we think, read or see. The only safeguard is “fate” and “chance”. We can also dismiss the West terming them extremely individualistic. All these arguments, however, do not change the reality that we are a land unsafe for a girl child.
It is a pity that our gender discourse starts with either deification of the girl child or the economic success of a handful of women, who have held high public office. It’s also sad that even after seventy years of our independence we have not been able to put a robust criminal and legal system to protect almost half of our population. We masquerade isolated success as the parameter, while we need to do much more to ensure that every girl child is safe in our country and free to pursue her dream to live as a complete individual. I just hope that sooner rather than later, we take steps to ensure such an environment.
*Arun Kumar Sahu is the Deputy High Commissioner of India to Canada. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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