A day before the Indian budget was presented to the country, a few thousand miles away in Washington, US President Barack Obama and few others gathered to unveil the first full size statue of Rosa Parks. Sitting strong, eyes forward, her hands clasping a little purse, unmoving. The statue was dedicated to the memory of a woman, who by protesting against the separate but equal laws of the south hit another nail in the coffin against segregation. Ironically, the budget presented by the United Progressive Alliance government has hammered its own nail in the coffin for segregation. We are a nation of separate but equal laws where gender is concerned. Separate buses, separate sections in buses, separate coaches, separate schools, separate colleges, and now possibly separate banks, and a separate scheme to ensure our security.
Reports on the two outlines for the most part welcomed them keeping in mind that women, especially in rural areas often could not access basic banking due to various reasons that included threats from home, intimidation by banks and more commonly the lack of a male signatory on documents. Details on the “why and how” of the women’s bank with a Rs.1,000 crore initial fund and the Nirbhaya fund with a Rs.1,000 crore allocation are still sketchy. The degrees of justification by quite a few of the leading dailies by itself is an example of how popular and deeply entrenched this idea of separate but equal measures for women has become. People who don’t think twice about protesting the act of wearing a hijab or a burqa, nod sagely to the idea that women need to live their lives separately in order to protect themselves and be heard.
Separate but equal laws will only help in entrenching this idea that men and women cannot live together and share a state without the “weaker” section coming into harm. For women, who protest against the unjust nature of society, the country will be able to say we have ensured that you are able to receive all the benefits separately, so why protest? For women who quietly accept, another brick is set in the glass wall that will keep her “safe and secure” from the men who intimidate and abuse her.
The government has managed to successfully do two things with these ill-thought-out ideas. One, ensure that the safety and security (financial and physical) of women is handed out on a platter to the women themselves, thereby effectively removing the state from having to answer any shortcomings. Two, they have managed to convince its citizens that the only way a woman can travel, educate herself, and conduct her life safely, independently, and effectively would be to do it alone. There are a couple of other subtle messages that the state sends—one, a woman who dares to travel alongside men and gets harassed or abused will be “asking” for it and, the degree of separation is required to maintain peace and order in society.
Our society couldn’t possibly become more patriarchal. It is very difficult to not reduce this argument to “feminist” terms. The image of a feminist as a shrieking, hippie-styled, spinster banshee who can never be content, is an enduring image across countries. The point, however, is that the power of a patriarchal society has ensured acceptance of these superficial measures and prevented a more widespread, stronger dialogue against deeper imperfections in society. A stand has to be made again, that separate but equal is not the same as “equal”. For a person to demand that they be able to walk on the road, go to school/college, get to work or use a bank is not an invitation to be sent into a glass house where all facilities are made available. The demand is to ensure that the table be laid out for us without being harassed, abused, beaten up, maimed, or killed. A feminist’s fight is not to live alone; she just wants to live like the rest.
The problem with the idea is not in the ill-defined, ill-thought-out scheme but in the unexplored options. Branches that function for women already exist in many states through co-ops or through banks themselves. Women-run banks already do the job of enabling women to get loans, and be financially educated. The need of the hour is not a separate bank, but a simpler system that would enable a woman to get a loan without being responsible for a man’s debt or his signature, to traverse through the financial obligations of owning an account without being harassed or intimidated and more importantly to have less bureaucratic paperwork and obligations to fulfil. Priority banking, special departments within banks set up to process account information and loans without much paperwork, learned, understanding bank officers who can help customers comprehend the basics of banking without drowning them in legalese.
When a CEO of a company or a priority banking customer in an urban area can get a person to come home and deal with his financial obligations (from home), why can’t a system be set up to ensure that the same is done for a rural woman? Hiring more women in urban and rural areas and ensuring their rejection of transfer does not affect promotion is one way to ensure a more gender-sensitive way of handling women employees. The solution proposed does nothing to address the root cause of these separate institutions.
The Nirbhaya fund that is to set aside a corpus fund for safety and security of women overlooks the fact that many women already pay taxes to the state to ensure their safety and security. The hijacking of a system by the state and its grandiose gesture in giving out doles every time a woman is harassed, raped and abused to death should not gloss over the deeper problems. Would the state consider a special fund for a man ragged to death and to ensure his security? The demand of the thousands of protesters in the days following the Delhi rape was not for a special security measure but proper security for all. The deeper security measures have already been argued and a commission set up to effect changes. How much, how far remains to be seen.
The separate but equal laws were not overturned the day Rosa Parks sat in the whites section of the bus and refused to move. The separate but equal laws in this country, which have become for most people second nature, the way that it is and “should” be will take longer. Longer, not because of how patriarchal our society is or how muted our gender discussions are, but because the state has managed to successfully convince us that laws like these are the only way to live successfully in our country. I personally, will continue to travel with the rest though, not because I am “asking for it”, but to make them stop telling me that I will be asking for it.
Priya Ravichandran is programme officer for the GCPP programme at the Takshashila Institution.