The Latin saying “homo homini lupus”, meaning “man is a wolf to [his fellow] man”, is arguably among the most commonly adopted phrases internationally. A less known extension of the maxim says “femina feminae lupior”, or “a woman is more wolfish to [another] woman”. The widely accepted development narratives around women issues often circumvent stressing these behavioral traits observed in women’s communities, which are deterrent to women empowerment.
There is a plethora of disheartening stories of women self-perpetuating the vicious circle of control and restraint over their daughters and daughters-in-law. Some examples are as naïve as conveying subtle messages of obedience (“the woman keeps the family together by small sacrifices”). Others are as terrifying as cases of women participating in honor killings of their own daughters.
One of the darkest persistent social phenomena of the Indian subcontinent is known as a “bride burning” (euphemistically referred to as “kitchen accidents”). This is the practice of setting a woman on fire when she refuses to, or is unable to respond to repeated requests for dowry. The most recent statistics stipulates more than 8,000 dowry deaths in India during 2012. Avid readers know that media regularly reports incidents of women burnt to death or admitted to specialized hospital units in gruesomely disfigured state. An unsettling detail of these news articles is the frequency of pinpointing the mother-in-law as the main perpetrator – she is often the one who either pours kerosene over the ill-fated bride, or lights the match to set her on fire.
Gender-stereotyping attitudes are found among the rural and the urban, the illiterate and the well-educated alike. Sometimes a successful and self-realized woman subconsciously carries the old mindset. The great role-model of young entrepreneurially-aspiring Indian women, Pepsico’s CEO Indra Nooyi, while participating in a debate on work-life balance in 2014, stated that “Women can’t have it all”. One is compelled to question the message this statement conveys, as well as to speculate what the masculine equivalent to Nooyi’s statement would be.
This year, Deepika Padukone’s viral video “My Choice” was massively mocked for promoting the “wrong” type of women empowerment, and some of the most vocal scrutinizers were girls and women, and even a couple of fellow actresses. Indeed, a lot of the criticism was substantiated- Padukone sounded more like the rich man’s guru Deepak Chopra, than a social activist. Furthermore, the Bollywood actress chose to emphasize sexual emancipation instead of many other fundamental aspects of women empowerment, such as right to education and employment. But she undoubtedly raised her voice against gender-based stereotypes and traditional roles. Her message stirred more controversy than appreciation, in spite of the fact that it addressed some very tangible dilemmas of urban Indian girls, pulled between traditional values and modern lifestyles.
I choose to end on an optimistic note. Apne Aap, Mumbai-based NGO formed in 2002 by twenty-two women, former victims of human trafficking, is an inspiring example of women rising above their own adversity to help other women in distress. Best known, perhaps, is the example of Gulabi Gang, a progressive women movement established in 2006 by an extraordinary, taboo-breaking woman Sampat Pal Devi in Uttar Pradesh, a “bimaru” state of infamous reputation for its wide-spread violence against women. Gulabi Gang describe themselves as “rural women in pink saris, wielding bamboo sticks in pursuit of justice”. Sampat Pal Devi, a former child bride and oppressed wife, rather than giving in to fatalism over her own hardship, mobilized other women into a group who confront abusive men, publicly shame them and, if necessary, physically oppose them. They challenge many societal issues apart from the gender-based violence, including the issues of caste and education. Their uniqueness and determination have earned them an iconic status in popular culture.
Such women are not “wolfish” to one another. They are tame but strong and dignified. And they have understood a fundamental fact- that the most dangerous chains are the invisible ones, or those we strongly lean onto, as if they were our safety belts instead of captivity. These women have overcome the need of proliferating oppression; they refuse to remain carriers of outdated patriarchal systems and values.
About the Author:
Lidija Stankovikj is a CSR and sustainability professional, living and working in Bangalore. Her diverse professional experience spans across several sectors, including corporate, non-profit and academia. She holds an MBA from Geneva University, MSc in mathematics and Minor in Asian Studies from EPFL, Switzerland. She is a former educational management professional. She can be reached at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/lidijastankovikj