Seminar at the University of Oxford

The changing role of women in India. Women in government and girls in the family

19 November 2014, Margaret Thatcher Centre, Somerville College, University of Oxford

On Wednesday, 19th November 2014, Dr Meena Dhanda, Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics, University of Wolverhampton and Ratna Vira, best-selling novelist – author of ‘Daughter by Court Order‘ presented the Two Cultures Seminar “The changing role of women in India. Women in government and girls in the family.”

Transcript of the lecture given by Ratna Vira at the University of Oxford, 19 Nov 2014


Two Cultures Seminar. “The changing role of women in India. Women in government and girls in the family.”

Dr. Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, Dr. Meena Dhanda, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for this opportunity to be part of the Two Cultures Seminar at Somerville.

I shall be speaking today from my experiences of two perspectives on the changing role of women in contemporary India:

  1. The woman outside the home. This will be based specifically on my experiences as a working woman in a changing and developing India.
  2. The woman in the home, particularly the hypocrisy within families as relates to women. This is also the subject of my novel, Daughter By Court Order.

Indian society has been uncomfortable and paradoxical in how it has viewed women. On the one hand, women have been viewed as the pivot around which the family revolves. On the other, they have been barely tolerated and subordinated in the family and in society.

As this audience knows, in the Vedic Age, women enjoyed a privileged status, in no way less than men. There is a saying dating from the Vedic Age: “Where women are honoured, gods reside there.”

The paradoxes existed even then. Manu, the lawgiver of Ancient India, said: “In childhood a woman must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband and when her lord is dead, to her sons. A woman must never be independent.”

Things changed for the worse. The Indian woman’s position in society deteriorated during the medieval period. Women were hidden away; the Purdah and Zenana became prevalent. Along with this came the recasting of gender power equations through Sati, exploitation of Devadasis in temples and polygamy. A far cry from the polyandry of Draupadi in the Mahabharata!

You know all of this, as also the reform movements and attempts at harmonising society in 19th and 20th century India. However, I would like to draw your attention to three themes that had emerged, which have lasting impacts in contemporary India.

  1. Seclusion of women, leading eventually to half the population being subordinated and losing its voice in the social and public space.
  2. A sense of respectability and security, which created rules for the behaviour of women in society and families that men never seemed to need to follow.
  3. The apparent willingness to cut off women from families, to kill as infants, and reject them as widows, thereby creating a strongly dominant patriarchal culture.

I will return to these themes in the context of how they impact working women and family relationships in modern India.

The principal familiar roles of women in Indian society continue to be: procreation, child rearing and home management. A man is considered to be the breadwinner for the family and is supposed to manage its relationship with the outside world.

The patriarchal nature of society, gender-based division of labour, discrimination in resource allocation and remuneration, meagre assistance by community development programmes, the notion of women’s income only as a subsidiary contribution, the predominantly male inheritance system. These and other aspects have perpetuated male dominance and chauvinism in Indian society.

Where there is disposable income, such as in most of the upper and middle class families in both urban and rural areas, the subordination of women is nearly complete.

However, where economic imperatives require a woman to work, families are quite willing to forget about the need to protect and seclude women. Subsistence level families and the unorganised sector see a dominance of women in the workforce. According to ILO statistics, of all workers belonging to the informal or unorganised sector, 90% are women: 80% in agriculture and allied activities, while 10% are in other activities.

As we move into the organised sector, the participation of women in income generation for the family has been increasing over time. However, representation in decision-making and collective bargaining is negligible. Women members are 7.5% of all trade union workers, and only 1% of all trade union executive members are women.

Things superficially seem to be changing in the middle class and the upper middle class. Women in India now participate in all activities such as education, sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, and the corporate world.

Some examples from this campus. Indira Gandhi, who served as Prime Minister of India for an aggregate period of fifteen years is the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister. She is also an alumna of Oxford University of course and was at Somerville!! (Somerville has had several prominent Indian women, including the former PM and also the lawyer Cornelia Sorabji).

The Constitution of India guarantees:

  • to all Indian women equality (Article 14),
  • no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)),
  • equality of opportunity (Article 16),
  • equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)).

In addition, it allows special provisions to be made by the State in favour of women and children, renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women, and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

The legacy of women’s participation in the Freedom Movement and an inclusive Constitution led to India having a long-serving woman Prime Minister, a lady President and 15 women Chief Ministers of states (including 3 who are presently serving). While a few were the daughters, wives or mentees of political figures and may have benefitted from their family legacy, most of the fifteen had to fight their way to the top and struggle to hold their positions against often cynical and sometimes derogatory gender attacks.

Indian women got the right to vote at Independence, at par with men. Very different to several Western countries where it took decades or centuries after their Independence for women to be equally enfranchised. Yet, the attitude of the generally male political class has been to exclude women from positions of representation and power.

The corporate world has been largely male dominated as well. Just as the proposed Bill for reservation of women in Parliament is yet to see the light of day, the requirement of the Companies Act in India to have women on the boards of companies has not made a major difference to the representation of women in senior positions in companies.

One sector stands out for having smashed the glass ceiling and allowed professional women to rise to the top. The financial services and banking sectors in India are dominated by women and a partial listing of these women CEOs would exemplify my point.

  • Arundhati Bhattacharya – State Bank of India
  • Chanda Kochhar – ICICI Bank
  • Shikha Sharma – Axis Bank
  • Naina Lal Kidwai – HSBC
  • Kalpana Morparia – JP Morgan
  • Usha Ananthasubramanian – Bharatiya Mahila Bank
  • Archana Bhargava – United Bank of India
  • Vijayalakshmi Iyer – Bank of India
  • Aisha de Sequeira –Morgan Stanley Investment Banking
  • Vishakha Mulye – ICICI Venture
  • Kaku Nakhate – Bank of America Merrill Lynch
  • Vedika Bhandarkar – Credit Suisse
  • Renu Sud Karnad – HDFC
  • Shubhalakshmi Panse – Allahabad Bank

These women, however, are outliers in their success. While there is a generation of Indian women coming up the ranks, the social attitude to the role of women lags much behind the law. The attitude which considers women fit for certain jobs and not others, causes prejudice in those who recruit employees. Women find employment easily as nurses, doctors, teachers, and secretaries or on the assembly line.

Even when well-qualified women are available, preference is given to a male candidate of equal qualifications. A gender bias creates an obstacle at the recruitment stage itself. When it comes to remuneration, although the law requires equal pay for an equal role, it is not always practiced. The inherent conviction that women are incapable of handling arduous jobs and are less efficient than men influences the payment of unequal salaries and wages for the same job.

A woman could still deal with these problems if she had control over the money she earns. In many families, her salary is handed over to the father, husband or in-laws.

Exploitation is rampant. Working women are often subject to sexual harassment even while going to work in the over-crowded public transport system. At the workplace, a woman experiences sexual harassment from colleagues and her superiors. When a woman is praised for her work or promoted on merit, her advancement is often attributed to sexual favours. Women bosses are often the worst offenders, as they wish to be seen as being gender impartial and they go out of their way to be tough with other women who report to them.

The public discourse on women, family and society is changing. Women are encouraged to have courage and stand up for themselves. Recent developments in India and the discourse in public media show a change. Harassment of women, physical and mental, power equations and family oppression are no longer tolerated.

The debate in Indian media has begun to focus on the New India and the paradigm shift where women have found their voice, are refusing to be wronged, and are encouraging other women to speak up. Women can no longer be suppressed. The hypocrisy in society, once exposed, cannot be brushed under the carpet and money or prior reputations are not respected when even prominent members of society are seen to do wrong.

Along with this, women are being able to express their ambitions through increased access to education, qualifications and an increasingly global job market.


However, women in India generally are still exposed to numerous social issues. According to a global study conducted by Thomson Reuters, India is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women.

And many of these social issues are rooted in the attitude of one’s own family.

So, what do families do?

Dowry, traditionally an upper caste Hindu practice of the bride’s family offering wedding gifts to the bridegroom’s family, is now widely practiced by all religious communities across the country, despite the law that prohibited dowry as far back as 1967. However, this is still the family you marry into, your in-laws.

What about your own family and the society around you?

Firstly, as a woman, you are lucky indeed if you actually survive and are not killed off in infancy.

There is no good reason to suppose fewer girls are born in India than boys. Yet they don’t survive. There is selective abortion of female foetuses, despite a law preventing pre-natal diagnostic testing. Sometimes, girls are abandoned or killed as infants of a few hours or days old. By their own families. And often by their own mothers.

One would expect that a rapidly modernising India would see an improving gender ratio, but the reality is shameful. The 1981 Census of India showed 962 girls for every 1,000 boys as the Child Sex Ratio. By 1991, it had dropped to 945. Further down to 927 in 2001 and an astonishingly low 914 in 2011. A drop of 48 girls per every 1,000 boys in thirty years!

And here comes the truly shameful part – it is not the poorest and least literate areas and communities that are killing off their infant girls; in fact the reverse is true.


So, you as a girl survive through infancy. What next? If you are truly unlucky, you might meet your local government in the form of a Khap Panchayat while growing up.

A “Khap” is a cluster of villages united by caste and geography. It was started in the 14th century by upper caste Jats to consolidate their power and position in the local community. Girls are made to behave in a manner that is determined by the Khap. Boys can do what they want to. If girls object, they are beaten or abused. Worse still, they are killed off, often by their own family at the behest of the Khap Panchayat, in order to keep the village honour.

And what would the girl have done? Perhaps worn a pair of jeans … or spoken on a mobile phone. Or, in one truly bizarre case, eaten noodles! For this, censure, beatings and abuse are enough. If a girl chooses to marry without permission or takes up a job when the family or village does not want her to, she is simply killed off.

Kin relationships provide a method of passing on status and property from one generation to the next. Consequently, they form social groups of cooperation and conflict. Indian society is a patriarchy, which usually thinks that men should dominate everywhere. Most property and other resources are controlled by men and are passed on from father to son. Even though women in India now have legal rights to inherit property, customary practices, social sanctions and emotional pressures prevent them from acquiring control over these assets. The subservient role of daughters in the family is a culturally specific form of patriarchal bargain: to accept gender equalities with the inherent psychological implications in exchange for a security blanket that, in practice, means little.


It is convenient for the upper class society circles in metropolitan India to claim that such attitudes are prevalent in the medievally-minded Khaps of north India. The truth strikes closer to home.

My novel, Daughter By Court Order, is the story of an educated woman from a prominent family fighting against power, money, deceit and treachery for her right to be recognised as a daughter.


In most Indian families, women do not own any property in their own names, and do not get a share of parental property. Due to weak enforcement of laws protecting them, women continue to have little access to land and property, as is highlighted in my book.

The general law relating to inheritance and succession is the Indian Succession Act, 1925. Under this Act, every Indian is entitled to equal shares on inheriting the property on the death of a person. However, the majority of Indians (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Muslims) are governed under separate laws of succession. The book deals with issues of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and the role of the ‘joint family’ or the ‘Hindu Undivided Family.’ In an extremely important development, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, was passed to remove gender discriminatory provisions in the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and to give equal rights to daughters in Hindu Mitakshara coparcenary property as the sons have.

The book has shown the power of the judicial system working at its best to support the protagonist, Aranya, in her fight for her identity. However, this is not always the case. Legislation cannot be the sole focus for social change, because the advantage of favourable laws can only be appreciated in the context of other socioeconomic empowerment. Equally important is widespread legal literacy. More women need to be empowered to address their feats of coming up against existing power equations and privileges of the feudal structure in India.


Violence against women through the traditional power equations of husband and mother-in-law are common in India. Less often spoken about, but also prevalent, is the violence between women within a family.

One of the last cultural taboos in India is: what happens when a woman does not or cannot love her own child, particularly her own daughter?


“Mere paas Maa hai” (or “I have my mother by my side”) from the movie ‘Deewar’ remains the most quoted dialogue from the Indian film industry. For decades, Bollywood has doted on its mothers. The mothers who sacrifice all for their children.


Spoken in hushed tones, therefore, are the situations of children where their own mother abuses them. The abuse is sometimes physical, but usually takes the form of dominance, humiliation, isolation, threats and intimidation; followed by denial and blame when confronted with the issue. There is a preference for sons; daughters are viewed as inferior. Mothers who bear sons enjoy an elevated status within the family. This encourages a particularly close bond between mothers and sons, at times almost obsessive.

Not all mothers are loving and kind. The fact is that many people, not only as children, but also into their adulthood, experience ongoing emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of their biological mothers.

An estimated 56 percent of all abusers (physical, mental and sexual) are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common form is psychological. “It happens a lot,” said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. “Neglect and emotional abuse are every bit as damaging as sexual abuse.”

Numerous studies have shown that maternal behaviour like constant criticism, withholding affection or humiliation can take a toll on children, adversely affecting their academic achievement, social growth and self-worth.

The situation in India is even worse. UNICEF estimated that up to 50 million girls and women are ‘missing’ from India’s population because of termination of the female foetus or high mortality of the girl child due to lack of proper care.

Sometimes mothers are purely mean, evil and manipulative. Mothers can sometimes be jealous of their child, especially their daughters, and may do things to minimise, discourage, or even undermine and/or discredit the child in the eyes of others.

No one really knows what happens behind closed doors, even with mothers toward their daughters. It is hard to believe and painful to accept, but we must recognise that it does happen.


So, to finally bring it all together. India continues to be paradoxical in its treatment of women. But increasingly, women are standing up and taking control of their own lives. And that is the beauty and positivity of India … it is still possible for a woman to shape her destiny. For there is enough support that can be found through civil society, courts and the depth of individual courage to make me grateful that I was born in India. And that is also the message of my book … a message of courage and hope.


Thank you.