Women in India understand that their vote is important. Candidates to village panchayats, multi-purpose co-operatives, the State Assembly and the national Parliament woo women at election time. But they do not vote regularly. Indian women have participated with unreserved enthusiasm in the electoral process on issues of national concern. Their participation during the national struggle for freedom moved Gandhiji to observe: “The awakening of our women has helped mightily to awaken India. We cannot achieve freedom without them.”
Historic changes have taken place in law as it relates to women in India. The judiciary has taken an enlightened stand and dismantled the legal framework for the exercise of some archaic practices. For instance, it is no longer possible to petition for the restitution of conjugal rights or to alienate women from coparcenary rights to dwellings.
In 1964, Nagamani filed a petition in the high court for the restoration of the custody of her children, aged 3 and 5 years who were forcibly separated from her when she left home on her husband’s unlawful second marriage. But the high court allowed her access to the children only on the ground that after the divorce, she had married again. Today, a mother is almost guaranteed the custody of her children as the courts have ruled that a mother has a more ‘onerous’ role in the upbringing and well-being of a child.
Deep concerns animate women’s lives. They do not have resources and skills for permanent, well-paid jobs. They are investing disproportionate time and energy into firewood collection and fetching of drinking water. Women in India do not yet determine their own fertility and tend to be poor in health. Their children lack opportunities for a life of joy and achievement. Society subjects women to acts of physical violence. Women in India are themselves thoughtless practitioners of infructuous social practices that have to be shunned. Women seek status in the family. They seek dignity in society.
Five thousand years ago, an artist sculpted the leitmotif of Indian women’s strength and authority. A girl, whose lean limbs show the grace of running through forest glades and climbing trees in the Harappan era, stands with an easy assurance, one hand on her waist. The body is proud in a stance of power and youthful promise.
Gradually, we begin to see the new woman arising out of past tradition and current imperatives. There is a transformation, but not, it seems, a complete rejection of social values. The women’s movement is assisting society to create space for the new Indian woman—a significant being who is poised to conduct India in the new millennium.