In its sixtieth year as an independent nation, India has just elected its first woman president and we are celebrating 'women's empowerment'. The demure Patil, with her head carefully covered, has ascended as India's head of state. The no-nonsense Kiran Bedi, with her crew cut and mannish trousers, failed to be promoted as Delhi's police chief. It seems as if in the age of 'new India', only a certain type of woman is approved of.
Today women's empowerment is a government slogan, it is the universal feature of every party manifesto. The officialising of the Indian women's movement has meant that society has been left to find its own definition of freedom. For millions of Indian women, it's not a talented woman like Kiran Bedi or even a professional politician like Pratibha Patil who is a role model. Instead, it's the heavily made- up and bejewelled, husband-centred glamorous figures of the soap operas, with their hair full of sindoor and their minds full of domestic politics, who are figures to be emulated. In urban India, across income groups, when it comes to individual freedom—as opposed to the collective freedom of equal opportunities in education and at work—that freedom is often defined as simply the freedom to be constantly sexy. The Indian woman is so sexy and beautiful that she's forgotten to be independent.
Today in India there are laws protecting women from dowry, there are laws against female foeticide, there are laws against domestic violence and laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. The numbers of working women are exploding: businesswomen like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, sportswomen like Sania Mirza, policewomen like Kiran Bedi and politicians like Mayawati show that talented, determined women are recognised even in a traditional society. In the first decades of the 21st century and after sixty years of independence, the Indian woman—seemingly protected by law, celebrated by the media and nursed by activists—is freer than ever before.
Yet in her freedom to choose her own path, she sometimes chooses to turn her back on the very ideals on which her freedom rests. Indian feminists have let down the Indian woman. The campaigns they led through the '70s, '80s and '90s were important ones, yet the leaders of the movements allowed themselves to be readily absorbed into the establishment, as directors, advisors and government consultants. They failed to evolve an Indian definition of women's freedom. They failed to create any meaningful debates on sexuality, the family, or professional choices. No wonder then that India's movies, beauty pageants, advertisements, media and television soaps have created role models of women who are beautiful thoughtless beings.
Yet campaigns by women have been successful in several landmark events. When 16-year-old Mathura was raped in 1972, protests led to amendments in criminal law. When Roop Kanwar committed sati in 1987, a strong women's campaign rose. The Indian women's movement has prided itself on a down-to-earth, activist and pragmatic identity, one that campaigned for legal and social reform, led protests against price rise, dowry, domestic violence, rape and even male alcoholism. Indian feminism was largely unconcerned with western feminist ideas of birth control or sexual freedom or opposing the male-headed family. Yet, that unconcern has meant that apart from small groups of Left-liberal activists, ideas on women's freedom have failed to become popular or relevant at an individual level.
Today, the urban middle-class woman demands a new kind of freedom in the 21st century. And this is the freedom to not worry about women's rights, if it comes in the way of a good marriage or a successful career in glamour. The heroines of mega-hits like Hum Aapke Hain Koun or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge are presented not as individuals attempting to create their own lives in a new economy, as millions of women across India were doing. Instead, the films showed young brides propagating an ersatz tradition of following religious ritual down to the last detail, viewing the moon through a sieve, praying before their in-laws' photographs, carrying out their duties as good wives and daughters and spending their girlhoods in working towards getting a husband.
In a recent survey by Outlook magazine, 61 per cent young people said they disapproved strongly of losing their virginity before marriage and a fairly large percentage, 40 per cent, said they would prefer to marry someone from their own caste and state, leading a sociologist to comment that just as the economy was opening, the minds of India's youth were closing down.
(Sagarika Ghose is senior editor in CNN-IBN. This piece first appeared in The Guardian.)