Deepa Padhi – India
Discovering wings ...
Often I am asked why I bring in this “Women Empowerment” issue, which is essentially social and political, into Theo-sophy and the Theosophical Order of Service forum. What would be the theosophical perspective on women’s issues? My reply has always been that every being, whether male, female, or transgender, is first of all a human being, and therefore has a human right, which is gender equality. All acts of violence against women — domestic, public, and workplace — as well as empowerment of women are based on gender discrimination.
Every human being, irrespective of gender, has an intrinsic value independent of extrinsic values like profession, power, status, wealth, and so on. Every human being is complete. No one is superior or inferior to another. The first Object of the Theosophical Society (TS) clearly states: “To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood [sisterhood is included] of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” Theosophy speaks of the Oneness of Life. We are all like atoms, obeying the same law together. Our denying this law does not dis prove it, “It simply . . . keeps us miserable, poor, and selfish”, said a great theosophist, William Quan Judge, main co-founder of the TS along with Madame H. P. Blavatsky (HPB) and Col. Henry S. Olcott.
By treating women as if they were inferior to men, we are neither doing justice to the first Object nor to the fundamental teaching of Theosophy, which states that all human beings having the same spiritual and physical origin, are of one and the same essence, and that essence is One, Infinite, Pure Conscious- ness. Therefore, nothing can affect one nation or one human being, without affecting all nations and all people.`
As HPB said, “It is an axiomatic truth that by wronging one man [in this case a woman] we wrong not only ourselves but the whole of humanity in the long run.” A year before the death of HPB, in 1891, she was busy creating a Home in the East End in London for working women. She did not stop during her whole life, even for a moment, working against injustices in the world, one of which was, and still is, gender disparity.
Dr Annie Besant, another great theosophist, who, after the passing of Col. Olcott in 1907 was elected as second international President of the TS, was an acknowledged champion of gender equality, was the first woman to raise her voice against gender disparity and fight for women’s rights in India. During the 1908 international Convention of the TS, she constituted the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) as the right platform for putting into practice Universal Brotherhood by educating people on gender equality, oneness of being, and helping women discover their wings.
I would like to analyze the issue of “women empowerment” in three different contexts — why, what, and how:
- WHY is woman empowerment necessary? Women occupy more than half of the population of the world, and it is obvious that the world will not pro gress as long as women are not em-powered. This need arises due to ages of suffering as a result of women’s domination and discrimination carried out by men. Violence against women is unfortunately a universal feature. They have been the target of varied types of violence and discriminatory practices brought about by men all over the world.
The 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women includes a widely accepted definition of violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” A woman faces gender dis- crimination and violence “from womb to tomb”, as the cliché goes. Female feticide and sex-selective abortions are common phenomena. Female infanticide is the deliberate killing of newborn female babies. This is a cause of major concern in many countries like India, China, and Pakistan. Child marriage, genital mutilation, sexual abuse by strangers and family members, differential access to food, medical care, and education are very common in the rural areas of developing countries.
In adolescence, many times girls become victims of violence during courtship or dating, economically coerced sex, sexual harassment, trafficking, sexual abuse in the workplace, rape, murder, sex tourism, and so on. When a girl attains womanhood (reproductive age) she becomes the target of physical, psycho- logical and sexual abuse by intimate male partners and relatives, forced pregnancies, sexual abuse in the workplace, sexual harassment, honor killing, rape, nonacceptance by family members, there- fore becoming forced destitute, suffering from stigmatization, and so forth. In India, there are dowry deaths caused by the in-laws.
Even elderly women have no respite from being tortured. In India there has been the practice of Sati, that is, burning the wife along with the dead body of the husband. Although this practice was originally declared illegal in 1829, it continued mostly in rural areas. Fortunately these days this practice is rarely seen.
Abuse of widows includes forceful seizure of property, accusation of witchcraft, differential treatment in food and medical care, and so on. A lot of social and religious restrictions are imposed on them. These practices are seen more in India. There are examples of elderly mothers being driven out from their own houses by their sons and daughters-in-law.
There is no region of the world, no country and no culture in which women live free from violence. In Africa, when they are compelled to undergo genital mutilation or the sewing up of their genitalia, their mothers, with much pain in their heart, think that such an act is ultimately good for their daughters! Gender inequality is the result of tradition, culture, and social structure. When an unjust practice is tolerated and allowed to be perpetuated generation after generation, it becomes a mindset difficult to get rid of.
In 2014, I was invited to give a talk on “Gender Issues in a Changing World” in the TOS International Conference at Adyar, Chennai, in which I mentioned gender equality and also suggested a change of the expression “Universal Brotherhood” into “Universal Humanhood” or any other substitute that would be gender-neutral. After my talk, one of my European friends came up to me and said: “Bravo Deepa! Being an Indian woman how could you dare to talk in favor of gender equality, which goes against Indian tradition?” “Of course, I am proud of my country and its healthy traditions, but not of certain practices in the name of tradition based on superstitions, prejudices, and the superiority complex of men”, was my reply.
In the Vedic period, that is, from 1500 to 500 BCE, women used to enjoy high social and religious status. The Rig Veda says: “The home has verily its foundation in the wife.” In the Yajur Veda women are eulogized with ten names in their praise. Women’s education has been highly appreciated in the Atharva Veda.
Many learned women like Maitreyi, Gargi, Lopâmudrâ, Ghoshâ were there during the Vedic period. Unfortunately, the post-Vedic period saw the decline of female education. During the Buddhist age, women were again encouraged to read and write, as illiteracy was considered a crime in Buddhism. When Manu-samhita (the code of conduct for men and wo-men) was composed in 200 CE, the prescribed duties of women went against their independence and education. The marriageable age was lowered from 16 to 9.
My mother used to tell us about the status of women in the early 20th century. She was married at the age of 11. In spite of the Sarada Act for the prohibition of child marriage, people used to practice child marriage secretly for fear of being socially outcast. At that time, the child bride was not supposed to speak to any elders in the in-laws’ house and very little to her husband. She had to express her needs through sign language. Girls were not supposed to laugh or talk loudly.
- What is women empowerment? Mahatma Gandhi said: “Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details in the activities of man, and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him.” This explains the basic rights of women. Women empowerment is a process of becoming conscious of their rights and responsibilities. Empowerment of women is not a war, and certainly is not against men, for supremacy. It is an inward journey to discover woman’s true self with all its potentialities. As men and women are the two sides of a coin, women empowerment is necessary along with that of men for the growth and development of family, society, and nation.
Dr Besant had once made a statement that India could never become great again unless women and men “walked side by side and hand in hand”, just as a bird could not fly high “with one wing broken before it starts upon its flight”.
- HOW can the constraints of girls and women be addressed? Some of these constraints are:
- Lack of Education: This is because of lack of awareness of illiterate parents. Early marriage is also part of why drop- out rates are high, as girls get married at an early age. Parents consider daughters as a burden and a great responsibility, because of which they want to get them married at an early age. Other impediments to the education of girls are the financial constraints of parents. In the lower strata of society, parents do not send their daughters to school, as they help them in the household work. Many parents also feel concern, and rightly so, for the safety of their daughters in schools.
- Lack of Initiative and Motivation: As job opportunities are not available for the majority of girls, there is no initiative to pursue studies beyond the school level. Yet it is a good sign that almost all countries in the world, to some degree, have legal provisions for support by social infrastructure and economic activities, to mitigate the above constraints.
Education has the highest empowering role for girls and women among other factors, as it refines the sensitivities and perceptions, which help in building their own personalities as well as providing confidence. It draws out the best elements in children to the fore. Development means bringing out what is latent. People are said to mature and develop when they advance through successive stages to a higher or more fully grown state, physically mentally, and intellectually. There- fore, any empowerment without education is hollow and unsustainable. Inclusion of “Gender Equality” or “Women Empowerment” in the school syllabus is absolutely essential. Every child, boy or girl, should know that they have equal rights, as both are human beings and both should be respectful to each other.
A young girl from Pakistan, Malala, fought for the right of girls to education and has shown by example that girls can undertake the task of improving their own situations. She could achieve this under the most hazardous circumstances. She got the Nobel Peace Award in 2014 for her ceaseless efforts to fight for girls’ education. Malala symbolizes the rights of children and empowerment of girls.
Social empowerment helps women to go beyond the traditional patriarchal taboos and social obligations. This gives them self-confidence and self-worth. Social empowerment is based on the concept of equal treatment to both genders in society. In India girls are taught to keep quiet and accept what a man — her father, brother, or husband — says even if it is wrong. Hypocrisy is at the root of this mental make-up. If coming home late at night is not allowed for girls, it should not be allowed for boys either. When women are socially empowered, they are free to express their ideas, views and suggestions. A woman can achieve her passion and excel in any field she likes. Social empowerment enhances the ability to have a voice in decision- making processes like career, marriage, and pregnancy.
A change in the mindset of men and women is of great importance. Patriarchal and matriarchal societies should merge into an equal society. This would be possible if man becomes aware of the fact that men and women are like the two sides of a coin, one side cannot be bigger (superior) or smaller (inferior) than the other. Human rights include the rights of both men and women.
It is said, women are the enemies of women. Women as mothers-in-law, ma trons of brothels, and abettors in kidnapping and abduction cause violence against young girls and women. Younger women also ill-treat aged mothers-in-law and dependent widows, driving them to hunger and solitude. These practices should end. Empowering women should start with women by women. Women need to show their support for other women around them and create a team to com- bat violence from the opposite sex.
In developing countries, more women than men live in poverty. Economic dis- parities persist partly because much of the unpaid work within families and communities fall on the shoulder of wo- men. There are slums in India where one finds women working but men just whiling away their time. The wives earn but men snatch the money and spend on liquor. This is prevalent more in tribal areas in India. In one such area, women collectively attacked the liquor shops and were successful in their mission as they received the support from the government. Thus began the idea of the “Pink Brigade” in India. Women experience barriers and discrimination in almost every aspect of work. Employment opportunities and security need to be im- proved. The key is skill-based education for young girls and women and their gainful employment in the economic sectors, both public and private, and also respectful conduct at the workplace. Innovative approaches and partnerships are necessary to scale up women’s eco- nomic empowerment.
Political empowerment of women is crucial to the development and progress of the nation. In many countries, women remain acutely underrepresented in decision-making positions. In politics, women’s participation is increasing but at a slow pace. There are examples of wo- men political leaders who had to struggle for their existence in the field of politics, facing gender discrimination and other oppression, but due to their strong determination and courage, they came out with great success.
Not only in the field of politics, but in every field, a woman has to face challenges to show her talent. Gradually the mindset of people is changing and they are realizing the fact that women are efficient administrators, excellent managers, and committed and sincere workers as well. To be successful, the important factors are intelligence, intuition, sensitivity, and patience, which women have in abundance.
Spiritual empowerment is the basis of all the other kinds of empowerment discussed above. We live in two worlds —the outer or physical world and the inner, spiritual world. If the inner world is strong, it can manage the outer one. But if the inner is weak, it cannot handle the outer. Spiritual empowerment means being aware of one’s inner self with all its potentialities. For spiritual empowerment, no external agencies are necessary.
Today, women are empowered externally , but internally there is spiritual bankruptcy. This is the basic cause for divorces, mental diseases, suicides, frequent break- up of relationships, not being in good terms in the office, and so on. Spiritual empowerment does not mean attaining self- realization or sainthood. It is knowing who we are and remembering our divine origin irrespective of gender. All is One.
In educational, political and professional careers, equal opportunities will definitely make women more efficient, affluent, competent, independent, daring and accomplished, no doubt, but these cannot make them truly empowered unless their inner divine qualities are unfolded — qualities like patience, tolerance, courage, determination, self-confidence, creativity, sensitivity, and empathy. These are necessary for a woman to be truly empowered.
The UN theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is: “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World.” Woman has that inner strength to accept challenges, ignore dis- crimination and opposition, and rise above as change-makers to build a new post-Covid world of equality and peaceful coexistence of all human beings, irrespective of their physical appearance. Women are symbols of silent power (sakti). They have the amazing power of holding everything in balance, the outer and the inner, family and society, house- hold chores and official work. This is their uniqueness. Also, they are the embodiment of love, compassion, and empathy.
What a woman needs is to spend some time with her own self and try to discover her hidden wings, which she was not aware of all these years. It is like searching for a necklace that is around her own neck. This would make her realize why she has been crawling for so long when she has such beautiful wings to fly freely in the vastness of the sky!
This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 143 NO. 1 OCTOBER 2021
The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.
To read the October, 2021 issue, click HERE