Looking out of my office window, when I behold the bright and happy faces of my girls as they merrily chatter on their way from their hostels to their classrooms, I cannot help but think that our venerable founder of Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, in her heavenly abode, must be delighted to hear the grounds of her palatial campus ring with the sound of girls being educated.
This is the India of 2018, when the right to education is a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone in this country, irrespective of gender. However, was this the happy scenario one hundred years ago? It dismays me to discover that this was not the case. The great human tragedy that was the first World War, was drawing to a close by November 1918 and the death toll of young men who succumbed in that endless conflict was, indeed, a great blot on human history. Mercifully, women hardly played a part in that disaster as manliness and male domination was the order of the day. The one bright spot in those dismal days of 1918 was that women had finally been granted the right to vote in Britain, and would no longer have to chain themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace to protest against the violation of their equal rights. Though in the far-flung regions of the British Empire that joy of equality was hardly noticeable.
The hundred years that have gone by in the life of the girl has seen myriad changes. Many rights that women take for granted today were denied to their counterparts a hundred years ago. From everyday things like opening a bank account on their own or applying for a loan, to the denial of fundamental rights, such as the rights to equal pay and holding property on thesame terms as men, were non-existent for girls from any strata of society. When it came to career choices there was hardly much to choose from and most girls could at best look forward to a happy marriage, a comfortable home and a caring husband. However, if the latter did not work out, there was nothing she could do, as it was difficult for a woman to obtain a court order against a man.
By 1918, in developed countries, girls could look forward to attending school to learn the “three R’s”: Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, along with “women specific” tasks such as needlework and sewing. In India, schools for the affluent Indian and Europeans had been established, mostly by missionaries, but credit must be given, when talking about girls education in this country, to the work of Jotirao Govindrao Phule, a social activist, who, along with his wife Savitribai (reported to be the first lady teacher in India) opened a school to educate underprivileged girls in India. Flash forward to 2018 and we see a different picture altogether. Women have attained high rank and great honour in their professional lives. From the battlefield to the boardroom, women have made their assured mark.
Today, most girls can dare to dream and know that with hard work and dedication, their dreams and aspirations will bear fruit. However, I use the word “most” intentionally, as there are still places in our country where social evil raises its ugly head against the female gender. Instances of child marriage, dowry, denial of inheritance and even the entry into shrines and temples are blatant injustices that need to be confronted.
The difference between the ‘emancipated’ and underprivileged women has increased over the last hundred years. Back then, dis-empowerment of women was more universal than it is now. The difference therefore is more stark today. But what is still universal is the crime against women. In this, the haves and have-nots are equally victimised. The difference is only in the reportage of the crimes.
Laws, worldwide, have certainly been changed in favour of women. In India itself, the laws against dowry have helped end the horrible deaths at the altar of this evil even though the evil itself lives brazenly among us. Similarly divorce laws finally give a fair chance to women for breaking out of the shackles of exploitative and abusive marriages.
The opening of the Indian economy in the Eighties drove the most significant nail in the coffin of suppression of women. Suddenly, opportunities for women to become equal bread-winners presented themselves. The families that availed the opportunities had obvious benefits and a lifestyle that everyone else wanted a share of! Matrimonial classifieds suddenly looked upon the ‘working woman’ as a prize catch! The gold-rush for women to get jobs gained a frenzied pace.
Sadly, however, the new dimension of the woman’s persona came with its own burdens. She now had to balance the expectations of home with the work place. ‘Multi-tasking’ was a new term that was coined to define the expectations from a modern woman. Her new identity saddled her with new responsibilities without giving relief from the traditional role of serving the family as a ‘house wife’. The cracks have begun to show. Many women are beginning to return to the traditional role in a new avatar as ‘home-makers’. The stay-at-home-Mum is far from rolling in luxury. She is required to do far more today than ever before to enable her family to keep pace with the dizzying pace of the 21st century.
On a positive note, though, when each successive batch of girls pass out from the portals of Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, it heartens me to dream as well – to dream that many of them will be the harbingers of social change. One cannot but see the obvious confidence among girls which was so rare even a few decades ago. Living in the shadows is not for the girl of today. She has stepped up to take her place in the sun. Sometimes I say to my students, only half in jest, that there is a big bad world outside and I used to fear for my school-leaving batches. But today when they step out, I fear for the world!
So, when 2118 comes around, one can be certain that people will look back, the same way as we are doing today, and marvel at the progress made by the girl child in 100 years.
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