WOMEN PLUS – Anwesha Hazarika, [email protected]

The understanding of gender equality seems like a paradox in the Assamese society.
"In many families, the right to have a choice while marrying someone is annulled. Assam seems to have a liberal, open-minded society but even today, a girl’s partner is chosen by her parents. The Assamese society frowns upon a girl’s liberty to make her own life choices freely, or even to decide to stay unmarried."

A precise knowledge of what the term ‘gender equality’ means in today’s social context is quite significant. Generally, when we discuss the rights of a specific gender getting violated because of certain heinous crimes, we demand for justice through hartals, sit-downs, and protest marches. Of course, these are some vital steps that we, as responsible citizens – take to build an unprejudiced, gender-equal society.

It is believed that the North-East is matrilineal in its societal orientations and so women here have equal opportunities as men. Assamese people are considered to be liberal towards women belonging to different affiliations. It’s true to some extent when we think about the rights that our Constitution grants us, women, be it socio-political, economic, cultural, or religious. Women here feel blessed to be part of such a progressive society which seems to be a safe abode for them.

But a few observations need to be made here. When we talk about women’s rights, we merely confine the discourse to crime and exploitation against women and how we can curb such cases. But we rarely speak about the rights of women in their immediate environment – their position in their homes, in their neighbourhood, in their places of employment, and also, most importantly, by themselves on themselves.

In many families, the right to have a choice while marrying someone is annulled. Assam seems to have a liberal, open-minded society but even today, a girl’s partner is chosen by her parents. The Assamese society frowns upon a girl’s liberty to make her own life choices freely, or even to decide to stay unmarried. Many times, a young girl’s future prospects are ruined by marriage proposals brought in by matchmakers at an early age. Ambitions get clipped and the right to liberty, freedom of choice are violated indirectly or unknowingly.

The licence regarding what to wear is another hassle. The dress code for a female teacher is not less than that of a duty-bound soldier in uniform. Sari or mekhela-sador is the mandatory dress code even though it has nothing to do with education. If a child is taught or trained to respect the rights of women from a young age itself, they will never judge the teacher by her dress code.

How to sit, where to go, whom to hang out with, what to study — these decisions are not taken by the woman. There will be a gazillion suggestions regarding which career to pursue, and which women-centric subjects will demand less work pressure. Her guardians and teachers will always make her toe the line. Body-shaming is widely prevalent in the Assamese society too, where women are constantly taunted for their body-sizes. Insulting comments passed by fellow family members, neighbours, teachers, are disheartening, as it reduces a woman’s right over her body.

After all, the agency of women is at stake. These aspects need to be addressed and the voice needs to be raised by women themselves as self-sufficient beings, whenever they encounter any such unpleasant circumstance.

The right to choose one’s livelihood is definitely preached in our society, but the absence of dignity of labour paralyses women and the scepticism of parents over sending their girl child into demanding professions is more than evident. So, women being confused about their career choices is not surprising. Not every woman wants to stay within the four walls of the house and serve her husband.

Bob Marley once said, “Before you point your fingers, make sure your hands are clean”. A society cannot succeed without ensuring a fresh breathing space for women. The oft quoted dictum of “live and let live” is very important in today’s world – where acceptance and tolerance towards ‘difference’ must prevail. The patriarchal elements of a society may not consider a rational approach towards life as their cup of tea. But breaking and deconstructing social norms is what today’s women must take into their own hands and the society has to accept it as the new normal.