Indian women are described by many other developing countries as emancipated to a large extent and progressive in outlook.
In the political field, in the services, and in schools, colleges and universities women serve along with men and have generally distinguished themselves. Scores of women in this country hold position of responsibility and are to be found in many professions where they were seldom seen before.
Politics and legislates are, however, dominated by men, there being only a sprinkling of women. Strangely, there are not many women legislators even in the advanced countries of the world.
In the American Congress, in the British Parliament and in the Japanese Diet, for instance, the number of women is small.
In Japan, in particular, their tally is unusually small; somehow the Japanese, though a highly advanced nation, are basically conservative in this sphere. Japan is referred to as "a Man's Land". Britain has had a woman Prime Minister but, according to the most progressive American and Japanese groups, it will be many decades before their country has a woman President or Prime Minister. The American Presidency, like the French, is regarded as an exclusively male preserve.
There is no legal disqualification in this regard, but practice matters much more than theory. In almost every country (except the distinctly Islamic ones, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran) man and woman are equal in the eyes of the statutes. But equality in law is not always translated into practice, with the result that in most countries women remain confined to the home. The extent of this concept varies from country to country.
Men work in offices, factories and other institutions. They are the wage earners, the masters of their households. When India became independent, women came into their own as equal partners of men. The Constitution clearly provides equal rights for all, irrespective of caste, creed or sex.
Article 15 lays down that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of sex and it adds that "nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women".
Even now women are regarded as an expendable asset. Although equal pay for men and women for the same type of work was recommended by the International Labour Office way back in the 1950s, and India, as one of the original members, ratified the recommendation in 1958, wage differences, along with other economic and social disparities as between men and women continue.
A few progressive organisations observe this law, but many do not; prosecutions are few and punishment to offenders is rare. The law also seeks to ensure equal opportunities in employment, except where the nature of the work is arduous and does not suit women. But in most cases women are confined to minor duties, clerical or secretarial work; and posts of high responsibility are seldom given to women. There are a few exceptions. Mumbai leads in this arena; several women there have become senior executives and chair-persons of companies.
But the unequal treatment given to women is evident from the cases in the courts. For one thing, the general ignorance of women about their legal rights and privileges makes it easier for men to exploit them or deny them their due. For another, in the legal world it is noticed that the woman's place is secondary. There seems to be an inbuilt bias against women in the country.
Apparently, there is male chauvinism in India's judicial set-up too. Court battles are long, expensive and cumbersome. Women cannot cope with the stress and strain of repeated court hearings and the searching cross- examination of lawyers. Consequently, the principle of equal justice for man and woman is for all practical purposes a myth. Culturally and traditionally also, women are averse to fighting legal battles. The few women who have carried on legal cases against men for long periods are generally derided in society and disliked even by their own sex.
Some advocates of women's cause have also pointed out that there is a sex bias in school text-books also. The general impression is that a girl is inferior to a boy, that the birth of a female child is not welcome even though the country and its people are now enlightened and not regarded as so backward as they used to be.
Obviously, women's problems can be solved only through the collective efforts of every Indian citizen. Inequality lies at the root of these problems. The widely prevalent impression still is that the mother is supposed to cook, wash and look after the children and the home, and the father is head of the family, bread earner, and hence supreme.
Women's organisations in India, like their counterparts in other countries, are struggling for reforms in the laws of the various communities, so as to eliminate discrimination and injustice and ensure equality in all areas. Anomalies continue to exist in the laws. The government acts very cautiously in this matter, so as not to displease the conservative sections of society.
So, it waits until the demand for change is voiced by the vast majority. This takes time. Traditionalists and fundamentalists among almost all communities wield considerable influence and power. Some of these sections are virtual "vote banks" for the ruling party.
While in India women are coming into their own, even though very slowly, women in Pakistan are greatly handicapped. Islamic laws do not permit equal status to women; a woman's evidence is regarded as worth only half that of a man, and even otherwise a woman's word or statement is not accepted as the whole truth.
A deplorable aspect of the situation in India is the increasing number of crimes against women, especially assaults and bride burning.
In sum, there has been very little improvement in the status of women in more than 50 years of independent India; in some respects (dowry deaths). The position has deteriorated. This is a standing shame for the country and a sorry reflection on the people's sense of human values.