By W.A Wijewardena –
An actress turned politician
Smriti Zubin Irani, now India’s Minister of Human Resource Development but in February 2014 just a politician from the Bharathiya Janata Party, had spoken at the International Women’s Conference 2014 held in Bangalore representing her party. Her topic was ‘Making a Global Connection’ relating to the empowerment of women throughout the globe.
This versatile speaker is no stranger to Sri Lankans. But she is known here not by her real name or for her political views. She is known here by her screen name ‘Thulsi,’ the quintessentially matriarchal role she played in the mega teledrama telecast as Mahagedera entertaining thousands of local fans for years.
Smriti Zubin Irani: Allow women to live their life with dignity and in peace
In her short speech, she delivered a very powerful message to an applauding international audience consisting of, among others, some of the former and current office bearing women politicians from the region.
The essence of her message was as follows: What women want is not the right to speak which they immensely enjoy. What they want is the right to be heard which is not there. Conflicts prevent people from connecting to each other. They arise when there is poverty, illiteracy and greed. Thus, if one wants to end conflicts, one should empower women because women would contribute to eliminate poverty and illiteracy and through it, moderate greed. But that cannot be done through legislations. That can be done only by changing oneself with the changes which one expects to happen in the world, a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. That change should come from within and not through impositions from outside.
Women should build courage to stand up to unreasonable treatments meted to them by modern societies. Quoting Kautilya from the Arthashastra, she said that it is not enough for a good leader to be victorious over his external enemies. A good leader should overcome his own burdens and flaws and be victorious over his internal enemies by reasserting the ideals of humanity in him. Her implication is that if women want to be in leadership, they should first win over the enemy within.
For the globe to connect and nations to be empowered, it is extremely ‘essential that women in those nations be educated, employed and treated as human beings’ she emphasised. For that, ‘every woman should be given the right to live her life with dignity, in peace and in a fashion that she can teach others of the value of treating everyone fairly thereby giving them equal opportunities’.
Global obsession for gender equality
Smriti has offered a view alternative to the global campaign for gender equality that demands that men and women should be treated equally and should not be discriminated on the ground of being a man or a woman. However, since men are at the top rung in society, the action plans have been directed not to make men equal to women but women equal to men.
Hence, gender equality is portrayed as synonymous with equality for women.
UN bodies and other international organisations too have taken gender equality in this sense. For instance, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation or UNESCO, while putting into practice a Priority Gender Equality Action Plan for 2014-21, has used the promotional tagline “Equality for Women is Progress for All” (available here ). Since women are at the bottom of the social, economic and political life in many communities, the action plan envisages bringing them to society’s mainstream to be on par with men.
Women are the best trainers of future members of society
Women’s contribution to society’s social, economic and political developments has been known throughout history. In addition to their direct participation in these activities, they have been credited for their role in developing the personality and the character of children so that they become achievers from early childhood.
Harvard University Psychologist David McClelland in developing his ‘need for achievement theory’ found that children get the motivation to achieve in life from the heroic stories related to them by their mothers and grandmothers. Children having gotten into a world of fantasies through these stories are resolved to act out the roles of the heroes in the stories which are related to them from a very early age.
But women should do ‘mothering’ and not ‘smothering’
However, McClelland warns that the very same mothers and grandmothers could destroy the motive for achievement in children too. That was by smothering them instead of mothering so that children are not permitted to make reasoned judgments through real world experiences. But, this applies only to a minority of mothers and by and large mothers are considered to be the best trainers of their children into what they become in the future.
Dangerous cry for equality between sexes
However, equality for women is a dangerous proposition for two reasons.
The first is that it leaves women in a state where they have to fend for themselves. The two sexes have been created with essential differences in mental traits, physical capabilities and ability to take pain in order to facilitate them to work for each other. Hence, in an ideal world, there is no competition between the two sexes where each sex is independent from the other. Instead, it is a world where the two sexes are interdependent for both survival and prosperity. It is cooperation rather than competition that will help them to attain the best for themselves.
Equality will also mean women being exposed to unfair competition
The second is that, given the essential differences in physical capabilities, the treatment of women equal to men in many activities will mean unfair competition for them. Suppose a woman has to run the 100m stint with a man. Even a woman with an average speed will not be able to compete fairly with a slow running man. If both are placed in the same competitive event, it will be unfair to the woman who has been, as economists would say, adversely selected for the competition knowing her chances of winning are fairly low.
There are many such activities where women cannot compete with men and men cannot compete with women. Take for example child-bearing. In that activity, even the most talented and capable man cannot compete with an ordinary woman.
Pinguttara: He treated women equally but was unfair
This point has been well illustrated in a tale in Ummagga Jataka, the story wound around a spy-and-escape tunnel relating to a previous birth of the Buddha. In this particular tale, a young man called Pinguttara completed his studies at the Principal Guru at Taxila and was about to return his home in Mithila. The tradition in Guru’s family has been to give in marriage the Guru’s daughter to his best student. Having completed his studies so well, Pinguttara qualified himself for the rare privilege. Though the daughter was very beautiful, and so she was called Princess in the family, Pinguttara did not have any desire for her. Consequently, he did not consummate the marriage.
Since Pinguttara could not say no to his Guru, he set forth the homeward journey with his newly married wife. On the way, he was all the time scheming how to get rid of her and the chance fell upon him when they were close to Mithila. They were hungry and Pinguttara having spotted a wood-apple tree full of ripe fruits climbed the tree and started to eat wood-apples having seated himself on a branch. Princess who was also hungry asked him to pluck some wood-apples and throw them down to her. Pinguttara’s immediate reaction was a verbal outrage that carried a selfish tone in it. He shouted at her: “Why? Don’t you have hands and legs? If so, get into the tree and pluck wood-apples by yourself”. Princess had no choice but to climb the tree and when she did so, Pinguttara hurriedly climbed down and blocked the trunk of the tree with thorny bushes so that Princess could not climb down and follow him. He immediately fled the site leaving her behind on the tree.
Ignore interdependence between genders and reap losses
In this tale, Princess was treated as equal to a man but that treatment was unfair since she was not expected to climb a tree like a man and fend for herself. She was not treated with equity and her dignity was compromised by her husband. The interdependent relationship which would have helped both of them to prosper had been broken by her husband abruptly and she was left to die all alone on the tree. But fortunately, according to the tale, King of Mithila was passing by and having seen the beautiful girl on the wood-apple tree, got his aides to get her down from the tree and made her his First Queen having named her Udumbara Devi – the queen found from a wood-apple tree.
Pinguttara, finding it difficult to get a suitable job for his qualifications, was condemned to work as a labourer in the construction of roads in the city. This tale ends up in a situation where the woman becomes better off while the man becomes worse off by the man’s neglect of interdependence with the woman. But the core of the tale is that pursuing gender equality as a goal is dangerous for women and neglect of the interdependence between the two sexes is bad for both.
What women need is equity supported by opportunities
What should be pursued by women is not gender equality but gender equity. Gender equity is exactly what Smriti had given as the concluding remarks of her speech: That is, women should be permitted to live with dignity, in peace and they should be afforded with opportunities for advancement. Give them opportunities, then you do not have even to show them the path. They will rise up and walk along the path without any support from outside. But there can be some women who cannot walk along the path on their own due to other deficiencies. That is not peculiar to women and there could be men too who would fall into that category. Both these men and women need special attention and that is outside the debate on gender equality.
The experience of the Isuru Project
This writer got personal experience in the value of empowering women when he was the Director of the Small Farmers and the Landless Credit Project, called Isuru Project in Sinhala, during 1992 to 2000. This was the first ever microfinance project for poverty alleviation in Sri Lanka and it was implemented by the Central Bank on behalf of the Government.
The project, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development or IFAD and the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA, was a pilot project implemented in four districts – Kandy, Puttalam, Galle and Matara – which had the highest incidence of poverty in late 1980s.
Empowering women through minimum quotas of opportunities
One of the objectives of the Project was to empower the poor rural women and help them to join the mainstream of the economy by undertaking income generating self-employment projects. There was a fear harboured by the two donors that when the project was introduced, men would grab all the opportunities for them and leave the poor women behind. Hence, a condition was imposed on the project management that at least a third of the people to receive assistance from the project should be women.
The idea behind the imposition of a minimum quota for women was that in a society driven by men, women’s rights had to be protected by rules and regulations, a notion which was dismissed by Smriti in her speech.
Give opportunities to women and they will do marvels
Pretty soon, women proved that the donors were wrong. Within two years of the commencement of the project, women’s participation increased to about 65 to 78% of the total number of participants. They were keen on empowering themselves by being ready to go through the tedious process of social mobilisation compulsorily implemented by the Project to help them to become good borrowers, efficient entrepreneurs and self-supporting members of social groups. They dominated the project, making men a minority group.
Women proved to be better learners and more disciplined
Unlike men, they had the discipline of attending the group meetings regularly and on time. They were good savers – the weekly compulsory savings as well as the additional voluntary savings – because they knew the value of savings to keep themselves in support in needy times.
They were quick learners – the skills which they needed to do banking with a formal bank, undertake a microenterprise project, keep its accounts properly and attend to quality, marketing and legal matters relating to the products they produced for the market. The most important self-development was the competency they had acquired in speaking-up without offending their listeners in public forums.
Women’s active involvement in the project activities was due to the fact that they had the best of the family at their heart: the health of family members, education of children, improvement of housing conditions and accumulation of assets by the family.
Impact assessment: Women managed to cross the poverty threshold
The Impact Assessment Survey done on the Project in 2005 revealed that about 63% of the beneficiaries had escaped poverty and about 66% of beneficiaries had improved their living through the project activities.
Women’s leadership abilities were shown by the fact that when the individual Isuru societies were converted into limited liability district associations, it was women who were elected by the membership for all the top positions in those associations. Thus, there was no necessity for taking these women to prosperity by holding their hands. They were just given opportunities and they stood up to the challenge by going through the process on their own.
Equity, not equality that matters
What matters for women is therefore not gender equality but gender equity. They should be treated as human beings and should be allowed to live with dignity and in peace with opportunities for self-development.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org