Home / Opinion / No disruption for patriarchy

Perhaps we should have heard more about Saalumarada Thimmakka, the 105-year-old woman who figures on BBC’s 2016 list of 100 amazing women for having planted 300 trees on a 4km stretch of road between Kudur and Hulikal in Karnataka in response to villagers who had berated her for being childless.

Or perhaps we should have known more about Mumtaz Kazi, who made a fleeting appearance in the newspapers in April at the inauguration of Mumbai’s first air-conditioned local train. As Asia’s first female diesel engine driver, Kazi showed no sign that she was aware that she had made history. In that picture, she was simply a woman doing her job.

History was also made when Air India put women in charge of operating the world’s longest continuous flight, the 17-hour-long, 14,500km distance from New Delhi to San Francisco on 8 March. Led by captains Kshamta Bajpayee and Shivangi Singh, the all-female crew included cabin crew, check-in staff and, even, air traffic control.

It’s easy to forget just how much we have to celebrate in a year when headlines were dominated with so much to be pessimistic about; a year when a man facing allegations of sexual harassment won the White House, defeating a woman who, had she won, would have made history as the first female president of the United States; a year when same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults is still a crime not just in India but in 76 other countries; a year when racism and xenophobia were captured in that distressing photograph of armed French police demanding that a woman remove her burkini.

Commentators who have labelled the year about to end as one of disruption—Brexit, demonetization and, of course, the US election—tend to overlook how the status quo sadly continues in one area, and that is patriarchy.

Uninterrupted, we continue to live with the routine reality of sexual assault, trafficking, falling sex ratios, wage gap and education disparity.

But change does not always come as a loud, dramatic disruption. Change is also a process—slow, gentle, unseen, comprised of a multitude of tiny everyday rebellions. The glass ceiling did not come crashing down, but countless fists have nevertheless pummeled at it.

Who knows the effect of these tiny knocks and how much they have succeeded in weakening it?

All over the world, we saw the strength of those collective knocks. In Lebanon, thousands campaigned against a provision in the law that exonerates rapists if they marry their victims. Early in December, the country’s parliament agreed to drop the provision.

In Iceland, the best country to be female according to rankings by the World Economic Forum, thousands of women one day in October left their workplaces early at 2.38pm. Why? Because gender pay disparity means that, in an eight-hour workday, women essentially work without pay from that time.

In India, women fought for their right to enter temples and dargahs. At Shani Shingnapur and Haji Ali, doors opened miraculously. In the coming year, the Supreme Court will decide whether Muslim women are being denied the fundamental right to dignity and equality as it hears a petition asking for a ban on practices like triple talaq. Regardless of the verdict, there are reports that the clergy has taken note by setting up helplines and appointing women to boards.

In a year of exhausting divisiveness, it is important to remember that there is something still worth celebrating. Maternity leave for women, crèches at the workplace, a comprehensive anti-trafficking bill and a new recognition of transgender rights are all victories here in India. Not perfect victories, but significant stepping stones towards the goal of gender equality.

The point about success is that it tends to multiply. So, when a P.V. Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik, Deepa Malik and Dutee Chand come back from the Olympics, what they bring back are not just medals (and not all did) but dreams.

Their gift to young girls in slums, towns, cities and villages is possibility. Defying social prejudice and parental opposition—nice girls don’t play—a new generation of empowered girls is breaking barriers through the simple act of kicking a ball or wielding a bat.

The first day of 2017 already dawns with its first victory. When the Indian Navy’s sailboat, Mhadei, docked at Cape Town from Goa to participate in the iconic Cape2Rio race that starts on 1 January, it was, quite naturally, steered by an all-female crew.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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