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India’s Working Women: Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow

Now India has changed considerably, more and more women are entering the work force and are fighting for their legitimate position in society as an equal

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India from time immemorial has respected and revered its women as goddesses and figures to be revered and emulated. The qualities attributed to women have been varied and many. They have been worshipped as Saraswati- goddess of knowledge, Lakshmi- goddess of wealth and prosperity, as Durga- known for her courage and valour and Kali - the ferocious one who has the capacity to both create and destroy. The puranas speak of Sita – the self-effacing dutiful wife as well as Draupadi – who believed herself to be equal to her five husbands and spoke out when she believed they were wrong. 

As the years went by there have been many stories of women who fought with men shoulder to shoulder in battle and for our country’s independence and even helped to rule kingdoms. We were one of the first countries to have a woman prime minister and several women have entered politics from time to time. 

Yet this feeling of importance and power remained restricted to some emancipated and elite families were women were treated as equals. In the rest of India, women were berated as inferior beings, born for the sole purpose of honouring and serving men and with no voice of their own. The women themselves over the years, started believing in the myth that they were much lower creatures, whose role was confined to the home and the hearth.

This continues to be the position of women in most parts of India even now. I myself have been fortunate to have been born in Kerala, the most socially advanced State in India, where women are treated with respect and as equals, the girl is educated in the same manner as the boy and before the advent of the Hindu Succession Act, a larger share of the property and especially the family house often was inherited by the woman. Women therefore grew up to be independent, out-spoken and strong. 

This feeling of independence and the knowledge that they were in no way inferior to men, both in Kerala and in Urban rich families, however did not translate into many women taking up employment, in the previous and my generation. Women doctors, nurses and teachers and clerical jobs in banks or the government were accepted but women engineers, lawyers, journalists or even in high positions in corporates were unheard of. Women were satisfied with getting married, starting a family and then continuing to lead a sheltered life looking after the family, with maybe some past-time to give them some self worth. 

I was once again lucky in having a father who allowed me to follow my ambitions and to study to my heart’s desire. My husband was equally supportive and insisted that I be able to stand on my own feet. The long hours that a lawyer has to put in to succeed are not easy when you have small children and a nuclear family. In the initial years you also do not earn enough to appoint nannies and servants to help you. The legal profession in those days had very few lady lawyers and even less who were really successful. Bombay HIgh Court boasted of only one lady Judge. Your male colleagues and Judges did not really believe that you would succeed in a man’s world and you had to continuously prove yourself to your clients that you knew your job and were not going to quit when the going got tough.  

Now India has changed considerably, more and more women are entering the work force and are fighting for their legitimate position in society as an equal. The feminist movement, the laws stemming from our Constitution which confer equal rights on women, the necessity felt for a dual income, higher educational levels, have all contributed to women storming the male bastion. The Government too has realised that women should be supported in their urge to work and become financially independent, as they form 50% of the population and their earnings could lead to a big leap in the GDP. 

So while women battle the perception in society that their place is at home to enter the workforce, there are many highly educated women who are now choosing consciously to leave their lucrative jobs and exalted positions to spend time with their children in their growing years. This has in turn led to the need for jobs with flexi-hours, part-time jobs and options to work from home. Organisations also have realised that they need to give women the chance to re-enter the work place after they are no longer needed at home. 

Socially too, a working woman is now accepted and respected in urban India. Rural India always had women working in the fields. In the workplace also many employers are appreciating women for their intrinsic worth without discrimination. Women are to be found everywhere , even in professions like the police, armed forces and as pilots, all professions which were seen as male domains. There are now equal or more women than men in the legal profession, many more lady judges than in the past; yet there is a long way to go before we achieve equality in all ways. 

It is not easy, the struggle goes on.  The number of women in senior positions and on Boards of corporates, are few and far between. And with more and more women entering the man’s world and displaying their worth, there is resentment and bias displayed by the men. Grave issues like sexual and other forms of harassment also raise their ugly heads. Women are however learning to hold their own and demand what is right fully due to them. 

All in all we have come far in the last 50 years. Men are slowly learning to accept that women are equally intelligent and capable. The gaps are narrowing and we hope that our daughters will grow up into a brave new world, where there is no  gender discrimination whatsoever.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Mohana Nair

The author is President, IMC Ladies Win

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