Some wonder why International Women’s Day should be observed on a single day of the calendar year. Despite President Barack Obama’s declaration of March as “Women’s History Month”, the question persists. Why demarcate a single day or month for a cause? Surely that is patronising to women?
Certainly, in an ideal world, every day ought to be a celebration – not of any segment of society, but of all of humanity. However, in a still-unequal world, a month that celebrates women’s achievements is an important reminder of the need for a more gender sensitive and equitable society. Much may have been achieved, but inequalities persist in fields of business, politics, health, education, arts and entertainment, and violence towards women remains a relevant issue worldwide.
Technology may have done much to level the playing field. Physical strength is no longer the index of success in the world. We no longer live in times where might is right and brute force is supreme. This has done much to create a meritocracy where women have attained positions of excellence in diverse fields. However, much is still to be achieved. It is incredible that in the 21st century gender discrimination is still an issue.
In terms of spiritual attainment, the gender issue has always been irrelevant. The history of this subcontinent is replete with examples of great women mystics – AkkaMahadevi, Lal Ded and Andal to Mirabai. Indeed, the yogic tradition is based on a fundamental assumption – biology is not destiny – which renders every argument based on physical superiority, utterly superfluous.
However, while modern society may pride itself on replacing the law of the jungle with so-called civilised conduct, the fact is that human civilisation still views economic success as the primary marker of human achievement. This is a myopic view. To replace the law of the jungle with the law of the marketplace, physical bicep with economic muscle, is a brutish and impoverished way to live. Art and aesthetics, beauty and subtlety, love and spirituality can never flourish in such a world. The value of motherhood, nurturance, gentleness and the tremendous importance of work in the home will be trivialised. In our bid to banish discrimination, we will banish diversity as well. Equality does not mean standardisation. Equality of opportunity means expanding the spectrum of choices available to women, not narrowing them according to a tunnel-visioned notion of success.
Swami Vivekananda said that if we offered education to all and left women to themselves, they would work out their own destinies. “All the mischief to women,” he said, “has come because men undertook to shape the destiny of women.” He reminded us that being female was not a handicap, and to over-emphasise differences between genders is a form of paternalism. While redressing the balance, it is important not to divide a single species into two. As members of the human race, we need to move towards an inclusive universality, not a reverse biological bigotry.
This month we can begin by reminding ourselves of the many ways – from the tangible to the subtle and intangible – in which women we have known have enriched our lives. In that simple act of gratitude, we can perhaps take a small step towards a more equitable world – one that offers equal opportunity for everyone to express their own uniqueness.
(The writer works with Isha Foundation, India)