Swarna Rajagopalan

A talk written for Stella Maris College, Chennai,
on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

What is International Women’s Day? If you were to believe Panagal Park, it is a day to offer discounts and special prizes to women customers. If you were to believe corporates, it is a day for roses and special gifts and possibly some awards. For some clubs it is an occasion to have a cultural programme, maybe even with a stand-up comic or MC whose jokes centre on hapless husbands and ridiculously aggressive women in their life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with post-graduate students, asking them how they would observe the day, and one of them said, she would help her mother with housework. Very nice. But just think. That she can only associate her mother, the most important female figure in her life, with housework. That she does not know her mother beyond her service delivery role in the household. That she thinks this is a special, noble thing to do and that sharing work in a household is not just normal.

Clara Zetkin would have been shocked at how Indian patriarchy has subverted her idea that a single day should be adopted around the world for the advocacy and lobbying for women’s rights. This proposal was accepted at the International Conference on Working Women in 1910. At that time, women were active campaigners in their own countries and transnationally on issues as vital as the vote, citizenship, equal pay, better working conditions and world peace. They were citizens in fact, if not in law, and this observance date was to be a mirror and a rallying point for their work.

What is citizenship? Instead of spending all my 20 minutes on a review of the academic literature, I refer you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which defines citizenship as the “relationship between an individual and a state in which an individual owes allegiance to that state and in turn is entitled to its protection.” The second sentence of the definitional paragraph states that “Citizenship implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities.”

Citizens enjoy all the rights a state can offer, along with its protection. What does this mean?

This Women’s Day, let us do something like a quick rights survey for Indian women. I will just list the rights and ask you a question about each of them. I want you to scribble down your answers in your notebook or notes app.

The Right to Equality:  On a scale of 1-10 where ten is the maximum, what is the equality score you would give women in India?

The Right to Freedom includes

  • Freedom of speech and expression
  • Freedom of assembly without arms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement throughout India
  • Freedom to reside and settle in any part of India
  • Freedom to practice any profession

Which freedom is most available to Indian women, and which one most imperilled?

Right against Exploitation: In which spheres have we most successfully eradicated exploitation of women?

Right to Freedom of Religion What does freedom of religion mean in the context of gender justice in India?

Cultural and Educational Rights Do these rights even matter for gender equality, and how?

Right to Constitutional Remedies Do most Indian women have access to justice?

And let us also briefly think about political and civil rights. How do women fare in electoral politics? How many women are nominated? How do the women manage to fund their campaign? Who is going door to door for them?

During the last election, a gynaecologist contested from our Assembly constituency. She did not campaign in our neighbourhood, no one saw, no one knew anything about her, so we voted in a guy who ended up at that resort with the other Sasikala supporters. And there are marvellous women who have come up from the Panchayats where there is reservation but no one wants to give them a ticket and let them rise to the top leadership levels.

Being a citizen also comes with certain obligations. The ones that the state is interested in are loyalty, obedience, taxation and military service. But citizenship is a relationship and a relationship takes two parties at least, so what about citizens? What else comes with citizenship and what should be the bare minimum we expect from each other?

You have rights, you have duties, you have agency. Citizenship is maximum entitlement, but it is also maximum agency. If you emigrate to the US or Dubai or Australia, you will have all rights as a citizen, but for the first generation immigrant, there is always an invisible limit to agency, I think. In this country, where you were born, agency is your birthright. And I am not talking about personal choices or free enterprise, or even the charitable edition of social work—I am going to talk about political activism.

This is your country, and you get to write the script as you want. You have a right to shape this country and change it. You have the right to change the world.

You are one of the most privileged groups of citizens I will address this year—you study in English at one of Chennai’s elite institutions and forevermore, when you step out, people will say, “Oh, you are from Stella Maris?” But frankly what does that really mean? Your dress is more stylish? Your English accent is better? You come with a nice social network? What difference does it make to the world? And let me not mince words: Nothing, unless you make that commitment now.

What does citizenship mean today for educated, privileged Indian women? So remember your answers to the survey questions now, and think about what they mean for you.

  • The duty to learn: You have access to learning and to information. You carry smartphones which can be libraries in your purse. You are learning how to learn. So, stay informed. Read the newspaper. Learn more about issues you care about.
  • The duty to listen: You have access to a cross-section of people in college and your circles, starting from Stella Maris, will only grow. Listen carefully to both what people say and what they leave unsaid. Consider that what they choose not to say may be what they think you should already know (so look it up and learn) or, more important, what they are afraid to say in front of you. Education should be opening your mind; only you can open your heart.
  • The duty to communicate and teach: You have words, in more than one language, and wherever life takes you, there will be people who listen to you. Share what you know, where you can, while also listening to what others know.
  • The duty to think critically: This is actually the point of higher education, and if you have been lucky enough to get some, you should be asking questions all the time—to learn and to hold accountable.
  • The duty to vote: This is the bare minimum exercise of citizenship. If you do not vote, quite honestly, I think you should not complain. If you don’t like the options, do something about it.
  • The duty to speak up: Speak your truth. Speak up when others need support. Speak up with something wrong happens. Speak up when you see injustice.
  • The duty to take action: Around you, countless small problems need solutions. Garbage is not collected. Someone is not able to send their child to college. Someone is looking for a full-time care-giver. Someone is lonely. Someone is being gaslighted. Are you the person who says, “Damn tough, man?” and moves away, shaking their head with temporary sympathy? Or are you the person who calls EXNORA or sets up a crowd-funding appeal or looks up and calls service agencies? Who are you? Find the thing you can do and do it, without expectation of reward.
  • The duty to resist: Do you obey unconditionally? Or do you try to understand before you comply? And if the regulation makes no sense or its problems outweigh its purported solutions, do you resist? Or at least rail? Being a citizen is also to take turns at the sentry post, to protect our rights and everyone else’s.

If you speak about your rights without doing your duty to society, consider that you might be exercising your privilege and not your citizenship. You are consuming what citizenship entitles you to, and giving nothing back in return.

So as I close today I want to remind you that citizenship is like everything else in life: Use it or lose it. If you are not a pro-active, engaged, thoughtful, critical citizen and you are willing to leave the tedious, troublesome work of citizenship to others, then you are complicit in the erosion of your own rights, whether it is equality, freedom of speech or privacy.

On International Women’s Day 2018, sitting in the elite surroundings of Stella Maris College, the choice is yours. Will you be a consumer or a citizen?

March 8, 2018


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