“The question of women empowerment”- 5 September 2012

The World Bank’s ‘Empowerment and Poverty Reduction: A Sourcebook’ describes empowerment as an “expansion of freedom of choice and action”. This is, naturally, applicable to women as well along with other unprivileged groups not fortunate enough to have the liberating feel of empowerment in a true sense. Yet, in women’s case, the word ‘empowerment’ also has to be seen in the light of where the woman fits in the social and familial situations. Because the family is the focus of the average woman’s life, the issue of her empowerment is interwoven with the overall situation in the average family. From that point of view, the average Indian woman is far from full empowerment, no matter how much educated she is, or how much capable she is as a contributor to the family’s overall well being. This has always been a disturbing thought.

Take the example of Shivali (name changed to protect her privacy). She was an above-average intelligent child and did very well in school. In college, she was forced to study humanities when she was actually interested in studies of pure sciences. That too she did not mind and did well in university exams, giving her friends an impression that she would launch a career as a writer while working as a teacher in a school or college. For, in college, Shivali’s essays or short stories or occasional poems were very well received by one and all. True to this general expectation, she garnered a decent job that gave her good enough money and status in the society. All felt, Shivali would soon start her career as a young writer.
But then the societal atmosphere intervened. Shivali’s father forced her to get married to a so-called educated, good-looking man with a good background of education and cultural finesse. Or, so Shivali thought. For, the first thing she was made to understand in her new home was that a career in writing is nonsense and she better keep herself restricted to teaching. For, “we have a large family and when will you find time to write?” was how the husband reacted to her intention of writing.
That the husband was right came to Shivali’s notice very soon. The household chores after she returned from college where she taught literature did not leave any time to sit down and concentrate on writing. Yet, she tried with grit, but the family as if ensured that she would find no relaxed moment to write. In time, Shivali’s creative instincts started withering.
This may be one of the few cases, some may argue. But those who look around with open eyes and mind would find countless Shivalis’ in our society, having been suppressed rather brutally but outwardly innocently. In my clinic, I keep meeting such Shivalis every now and then. I try to tell them to toughen up, make choices and pursue it with determined action.
Yet, I realise how tough it is to those women afflicted by familial constraints. And this is where I feel frustrated with the overall thought of empowerment of women in our society.
I have known (women) medical doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, even scientists who keep fighting losing social and familial battles and lead lives of only marginal empowerment, unable to make their own free choices and have the freedom to act upon them. It is this aspect of Indian womanhood that is very disturbing.
This may appear as a contradiction to what is generally seen in our society – women working, pursuing their careers, making choices and acting upon those. Yet, a deeper study leads us to a sense of helplessness that the average Indian woman is not as empowered as she appears on the surface. Beneath the veneer of cosmetic freedom of choice and action, there is a disempowered woman whose struggle to break free of societal and familial limitations and circumcision never ends.
Is this a happy thought? Is this harsh reality not at the root of the overall listlessness in the average Indian family today?
These, and many other, questions need a deeper investigation so that the average Indian woman starts getting higher and bigger dosages of empowerment.

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