The feminist movement emphasised the importance of economic freedom for women. It is seen as a first step towards emancipating women from the tyranny of patriarchy. Economic independence would enable women to choose and shape their lives, as well as provide them with greater voice both in the private and public arena. Given the movement’s origin in the West, how has it translated in the Indian context?
Today we find women competing with men in almost all spheres of life. We also see the changes in women’s relationship to society. Over time more women have managed to step into public arena and some were able to redefine their role and position in society. But do these connote true freedom? In India, on the one hand, women are worshipped as goddesses and considered to have some supreme power. On the other hand statistics reveal that crimes against women are rising day by day. How do we explain this contradiction? An issue that constantly troubles me is whether modern women really enjoy true freedom or is it just a façade?
Let me begin with my own understanding of true freedom: True freedom empowers an individual to exercise his/her agency of choice without any influence from external factor and lead their lives with dignity. Can integration into mainstream economy in itself an adequate condition to empower women? The common (mis) understanding is that women can enjoy true freedom only when they venture out outside their home to earn money.
The society (especially most of feminist) in order to recognize the office going women started assigning an inferior status to household chores. Thereby, it devalued the contribution of women to home and to larger community. Though earlier feminist writings have argued for payment of women’s household work, it is far outside the policy discussion in India. A woman is now judged by her occupational skill which most of time does not consider a housewife as a worker at all. Even though it may be the most laborious and demanding work in the world. This process is resulting in a housewife losing self-esteem and thus cannot expect respect from others when they don’t find dignity in their own work. Contrasting to that, a man who shows interest in household chores is hailed up by society. A large section of women who had internalized such a notion agree to work at low pay scale just to avoid household chores and thus struggle to balance their personal and professional lives.
It is of no doubt that economic freedom helps in balancing decision making process equitably at household levels but that is possible only when women tend to earn enough to cover their entire expenses and accumulate savings. It is observed that men do not prefer a working partner who might be earning more than him, or sometimes women prefer a partner who earns more. It can be attributed to possibly two situations: firstly men’s ideologies are embedded in patriarchal systems making them uncomfortable of their wives earning more than them and hence clashing with their ego. Secondly it may also reflect a sense of insecurity among women who are not comfortable with the idea of having a husband earning less than her. One can doubt that women themselves have internalized an inferiority complex despite having feminist influence and hence feel comfortable partner earning more.
The objective of this article was to provoke the reader to think about the changing role of women in society where dignity is equated with earning potential of a person. A modern society should be a place where no task is considered menial and an individual derives dignity from the self. An individual should be able to exercise her/his agency of choice in an unrestrained manner. The society should not stereotype any job with a gender, which causes immense problem to people struck in a transitory phase. True freedom should result in happiness, which is possible only when personal and professional life of an individual is not stigmatized!