Rasheeda Bhagat

Modi speaks for the Indian Woman

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on September 02, 2014 Published on August 18, 2014

Grit and grace And a recognition of it KATRINA ELENA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Considering the political class’ appalling lack of gender sensitivity, his Red Fort address was a breath of fresh air

If in oratory he came close to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in intent, earnestness, resolve, and above all content and sensitivity, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved a little ahead, while delivering his first Independence Day speech from the historic Red Fort. What struck me the most about Modi’s I-Day performance, apart from him looking dapper in an off-white kurta and the colourfully elegant red-and-green Jodhpuri safa, was the emphasis on gender issues that laced his entire speech.

On the issue of sexual harassment of women — amidst the cacophony of drivel mouthed by Indian politicians, ranging from the nonsensical “painted and dented” to the bizarre advice to women to fall at the feet of their rapists and call them brothers, not to mention the crass “boys will be boys” comment — it was sweet music to hear India’s Politician No 1 using the right lingo and nuances.

Particularly when you consider that in a shrinking world, the relentless media glare and focus — and rightly so — on violence against women, has succeeded in frightening away single women visitors from our country.

On sexual violence against women, even though he stuck to rudimentary observations, and stayed clear of issues that the Sangh Parivar would frown upon, such as the girl/woman’s right to dress or go out as and where she wished, whatever he said was hugely welcome. In a very simple and direct message to parents the Prime Minister asked why all the rules — ‘where are you going, who are your friends, when will you return home’ — were always directed at their daughters. Don’t you think you should ask these questions to your sons; why try to control the girl child all the time, was his stirring message.

Toilets for girls

The other crucial issue Modi touched, in a forthright and no-nonsense manner, with a passing reference to some people possibly questioning his choice of such a subject in an important speech, pertained to toilets for girl students in schools.

Those of us who have written about female literacy and the high dropout rate of girls, or stepped beyond big cities to take a look at village schools for girls, know only too well that the moment a girl child starts menstruating, her parents pull her out of school.

That is because most village schools lack proper and separate toilets for girls with adequate water supply to ensure hygiene.

Modi has done well to challenge the conscience of the entire nation by asking how can we talk of India’s growth and progress if we can’t assure such basic facilities for our daughters in rural areas.

Female foeticide

An even more important social evil he touched upon is the alarming decline in our sex ratio. He pointed out that against 1,000 boys India now has only 940 girls. While saying this has nothing to do with nature, he knocked on the conscience of those doctors who carry out female foeticide after sex determination tests and appealed to them: “Just to fill your coffers don’t murder the girl child growing up in a mother’s womb”.

Those looking for big bang announcements in the I-day speech and who later sneered that there was nothing “new” in the Prime Minister’s address, have certainly not talked to or shared the pain of mothers — as I have done in the villages of Dharmapuri or Usilampatti in Tamil Nadu — who have been scarred for life, both psychologically and emotionally, after being forced by their families to abort a female foetus.

So even if it seemed banal or clichéd, an India that kills its daughters had to be told categorically that “ ma ke garbh mei betiyo ki hatya (the slaughter of daughters in the mothers’ wombs)” is a collective shame on all of us.

Perhaps the intellectuals and Indian elite, who feel a sense of entitlement that all important announcements should be addressed to them, felt cheated that Modi reached out to ordinary Indians.

For what he said on the gender front — whether it is sensitisation of the male child, raising him the right way or killing of the female baby — is within the control of every family. It wasn’t an announcement of a grandiose scheme by a mai-baap government which then could be implemented by such fanfare by our pretentious politicians and top bureaucrats.

Simple, direct

In what sounded like a simple message being transmitted from a granny to her grandchildren, the PM appealed to “mothers and sisters that while aspiring for sons, don’t sacrifice your daughters”. He then told us what we all know, and yet have to be told again and again… that the chances of daughters looking after their elderly parents with love and care are much higher vis-a-vis sons.

An example of the worth of the girl child, or a woman, came in handy for Modi from the recent Commonwealth Games in Scotland. Out of the 64 medals Indians brought home, 39 were bagged by women, he reminded us.

At the end of the day, whether it is female foeticide and an unquenchable thirst for the male child, or violence against women, all of it boils down to the low worth or value that the larger Indian society bestows on a woman.

In different pockets of India she continues to be shunned… either killed before birth; weighed against the moolah she brings as dowry or burnt in its absence; molested or raped, often to avenge rivalries or even, as bizarre as might be, the family’s honour.

The other welcome feature of his address was Modi’s call for a 10-year moratorium on communal violence and all sections of India coming together to take it forward.

The Opposition, particularly the Congress, has been quick to pounce on Modi that his party and associated saffron outfits have been doing quite the opposite on the communal front.

But while the jury is still out on that one, the gender highlights of an address, delivered flawlessly by an established and accomplished communicator, were very welcome.

The distance between promise and talk of course remains, but hopefully a purposeful dialogue has begun.

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Published on August 18, 2014
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