Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Ritika Gupta, Nishi Verma

Learning gender equality through the account of Rifat Bi

As societal norms undergo changes and the law updates to reflect these changes, the conception of gender equality to changes. To discuss what equality means in the urban societies of India, the Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC) IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a talk on “What does equal treatment mean in an urban society?: Learning gender equality through the account of Rifat Bi” as part of its series on The State of Gender Equality #Gender-gaps.

GenderGaps Sanchita Ain What does equal treatment mean in an urban society Learning gender equality through the account of Rifat Bi

Prof Vibhuti Patel Former Professor, TISS, Mumbai introduced the session and spoke about the power of law in empowering women. She mentioned that despite legal landmarks like the equal remuneration act, women in the informal sector, women of the so-called lower castes, and disabled and LGBT women were not treated equally. Ensuring respect and dignity to each and everyone and the universalisation of social security and protection are being discussed all around the world. These lofty goals are also recognized by states and international organizations. It is important to assess whether these ideals are actually being practised.

Prof Patel

Patriarchy and Women Subordination

Sanchita Ain Partner, ASV Legal; Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court of India began her lecture by narrating a dream she had that encapsulated how working women suffer in a patriarchal society by suppressing their hopes and dreams. Many women in the workplace end up being enablers and fixers for men and are not recognized for their contributions. Men are unable to accept women in leadership roles, take orders from women, and sometimes even work with confident women. These realities have failed to change even with more women entering the workplace. She explained how the Constitution through Article 14 established that the state could not deny any person equality before the law and had to ensure equal protection under the law.

Ms Ain

Law and Reality

 To illustrate the gap between the law and reality, she shared a fellow lawyer’s interpretation of Article 14 is that it only ensured equality before the state and not equality in all workplaces. She spoke about Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitutions which prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and ensure equality of opportunity in matters of public employment respectively.

Despite the existence of these provisions, the professional status of women is still affected by their decision to marry or have children.

 Equal opportunity policies have to be made mandatory in every organization and be articulated with such clarity that the men themselves notice their tendencies towards prejudice.

Due to restrictions early in life such as women being discouraged to play sports, their ability and inclinations to take risks and initiative are hampered. They are also perceived as ‘difficult’ for doing the same. Thus, women too have to stand up for themselves and other women around them.

India’s Law on Prevention of Sexual Harassment

Talking about landmark judgement that created a positive environment in the Labour market Ms Ain said that the Vishakha judgement was still unparalleled as a judgement that affected the lives of working women. Before it, the definition of sexual harassment was very narrow. The Vishakha judgement managed to highlight even the little gestures that women understood as sexual harassment but could not have gone to court with before.

She explained that the writing in judgements had started to change post the Mathura rape case of 1972. There was a shocking presence of voyeuristic language. In the previous decade, especially due to the changes in the way judgements are written, such as the inclusion of several researchers’ inputs, the writing in judgements has improved further. The character of women is not relevant considered relevant anymore. Voyeurism is now an offence too. Such changes primarily occurred due to civil society raising its voice. Unfortunately, these improvements in writing have not been seen when judgements that discuss disabled people and those from marginalised communities.

Pertinent Questions

In response to Ishika Chaudhry’s question on menstrual leave, Ms Ain said that employers had to change their outlook on leaves and realize that leaves do not impact the productivity of the employee in the long run, instead they create an environment where employees collaborate and cover up for each other till the employee who needed leave can return to business as usual.

It would be nice to create a culture where employers wished to project themselves for their accomplishments in ensuring equal opportunity in their organization.

Dr Arjun Kumar asked about the gender gaps in different areas of work such as the informal and unorganized sectors. Dr Simi Mehta remarked that working women who are married are always expected to balance work and the household while married men are never held up to the same standard. Women who prioritize their work are often characterized as uncaring, ‘not woman enough, or too ambitious and competent women are seen as threatening. She asked how long one could attribute these attitudes to the patriarchy since no one would outright admit that they didn’t believe women weren’t equal to men and if Ms Ain ever felt impatient at the pace of change.

Ms Ain admitted that she did feel quite impatient at the existing state of affairs especially when she’d been on the receiving end of discrimination. She said that it was important to move to a solution-centric mindset when faced with these issues. Women have to influence other women around them and ensure they get equality of opportunity. Men have to be made aware that such equality ultimately benefits their organization. The responsibility of care even in the household has to be shared between men and women.

She said that women in the unorganized sector suffered more discrimination than in the organized sector perhaps because they were not seen as the primary breadwinners of the family.

Awareness and enforcement of the existing laws is important.

Some further questions were taken from the audience- Rajashree Padhi asked about the role of the judiciary in protecting women in the context of data privacy as online work was rising. Ishika Chaudhry referred to the Bombay High Court judgement that ruled that groping without skin to skin could not be considered and a Guwahati High Court judgement that granted a divorce on the grounds that a woman did not wear sindoor and asked how such judgements should be perceived and dealt with. She also asked for Ms Ain’s opinions on propositions by political parties to pay women for their household work. Swati Solanki asked how we could tackle the worrying trend of women dropping out during the pandemic. Mahima Kapoor asked about the way forward to bridge the pay parity between men and women.

Ms Ain said that equal remuneration was a provision in law already but it isn’t enforced. Often women do not raise their demands due to the internalization of gender roles and expectations. Gender-sensitive education of both men and women is required but not sufficient to create change. These differences reflect power structures and changing them will require women to fight for their rights. With regards to data privacy in the face of rising online work, she suggested that women should organize themselves and demand the organization to provide for harassment online. Ms Ain said that as lawyers they had to accept when judges disagreed with them and had to change their strategy to convince judges of their perspective.

 Speaking out and fighting for equality is difficult but not impossible.

Concluding Remarks

Prof Patel concluded the session by summarizing some concerns women across the country have been raising such as the state of women manual scavengers who have been fighting for their rights for over a year. Women in the workplace face invisiblization, non-recognition, a controlled private and public life, mobility, and self-esteem issues. The recently labour laws passed did not address any issues faced by women other than maternity leave. Awareness and organization can together create agency among women. She suggested that the judicial activism of the 1980s needed to be revived.

We must foster an environment for equity that will lead to equality.

Acknowledgement: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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Picture Courtesy: istockphoto