You Decide My Worth, Not Me!
What is the worth of a woman? Is it her family, her ability to reproduce, or how good of a wife she is? Whichever one it may be, we all can agree that a woman’s worth is not related to her personality or intellect.
As a society, we don’t look at a woman as an individual and hence she is directly related to the things that surround her. How many times have we heard the phrase “she is so and so’s, wife”? Why do we always need to attach a man’s name to a woman’s? Why do we always need to associate her value with the number of children she’s borne (or has not borne)? Is she not equipped to just be who she is, rather than whose she is!?
The very first thing that decides how much a woman is worth is something that is even beyond her control, it is the caste and class of the family that she is born into. It doesn’t matter what level of society a woman comes from, she will always be looked at as inferior when compared to a man. Being a Dalit woman or a woman from the Adivasi community is even worse. A Brahmin woman is still seen to have some amount of privilege. A Dalit woman is seen to be the scum of the earth and the lowest of the low. According to the Brahminical Patriarchy view, rape is considered to be “stealing the honour” of a woman. But for a Dalit woman who is looked at as devoid of all honour, the dominant class men assume autonomy over their bodies thereby nullifying the act of all its cruelty. According to India’s Spend analysis of crime rates in the country (2019), cases of assault and rape against Schedule Caste Women have increased by 20% and 37% respectively since 2015, with abysmal numbers even making it to the judicial system and almost none bringing any form of justice to the victim/survivor. Thus, caste has a huge impact on the way society acknowledges a woman’s value.
The next parameter is that of religion. Women in certain religions aren’t considered to be worthy opponents to a man. For example, Muslim women in India are currently fighting for their share in property also known as the Sharia Law. The law does not give the woman her proper right over her husband’s property. The Muslim Personal Application Act, of 1937 states, “If a man/woman dies leaving behind only daughters, a share of his properties shall go to his/her brothers and sisters depending upon the number of daughters,” (source: Outlook, 18th April 2023). So, Muslim women have to take a call of whether they want their complete share in the property and lose all connection with their families or capitulate the property to have family ties. A woman has to always be the one who has to make a sacrifice and choose whether she should fight for what she deserves or just brush it off to be accepted by society. But haven't women already learned even in the womb? A report of repute cites a million missing girls in just a decade in the name of female foeticide and infanticide! The fights start early.
Furthermore, in a country like India where the majority of the population is Hindu, a woman from any other religion is again not looked at with the same amount of respect. A Hindu woman will always have the upper hand in any situation especially if she is Brahmin as well.
The next of course is the marital status of the woman. From birth, a woman is looked at as a “paraya dhan” meaning that she is never considered as part of her maternal home, but instead, as one who will eventually leave for another home. Every milestone for a girl is married and every attribute is measured for her marketability in marriage. “Too short - no eligible”, “too tall - not eligible”, “too learned - not enough men to marry off to”, “too opinionated - no in-laws will accept” and so on. Women are expected to take their husband's family name and are asked never to return to their maternal home until she is on their deathbeds. In Virginia Woolf’s book, Mrs. Dalloway, her first name is never mentioned throughout the book. The title suggests that she is married but readers are never made aware of her full name, symbolising the fact that a woman’s identity is her husband. In earlier times, dowry was the customary practice, and in today’s times, it takes new names of “maternal gifts” Many stoves burst and many walls echo the loud cries of young girls - all in the name of dowry even today. In just one hospital in Bangalore there are a hundred cases of severe burns cases admitted every month with 70% of them being abetment to suicide by women. This is despite dowry being a punishable offense according to section 398B of the Indian Penal Code.
An unmarried woman is seen to be spinsterly; that is overtly sexual or overly celibate as compared to a woman who is married. She will be seen as the type of person to have many liaisons with many men and one who sees her body as an object. Whether this may or may not be far from the truth no one cares but that still doesn’t stop society from attaching her to their labels. Her character is easily questioned and still more swiftly judged.
Feminism in India in an article written by Anjali Chauhan on June 26th, 2021 stated “A woman once married becomes a source of pleasure and service to her husband and in laws. She is not expected to leave the husband at any cost. From childhood, she is taught to internalise these values of pativrata and sanskar… This invisible hand of oppression under the garb of tradition, culture, and dharma, and women become repositories of family honour. One of the main pativrata dharma of a woman is providing sex and pleasure to the husband.”
One can also say that the more norm-conforming a woman is the more she is praised. A traditional wife serves her husband, does the household work, and looks after her children. Her entire purpose is to just support her husband and is not equipped to have a life beyond the household. This is so powerfully brought out in the Bollywood film Thappad where Tapsi Pannu’s character realises very late in life that blue was not even her favourite colour but only that of her husband. A woman who follows this ideal setup is appreciated and seen as fulfilling her life’s goals. Any woman who wants to pursue a career and make a name for herself is met with criticism and is constantly questioned about her decisions and made to drown in guilt. According to society, it is seen as non-conventional for a woman to want to be independent as she is meant to be at home being an obedient wife and a doting and available mother.
A woman’s ability to reproduce is seen as her only accomplishment in her life. The obsession of society to glorify what it means to be a mother is another blow to the empowerment of women. Yes, giving birth to life is a miraculous thing and it should be celebrated but this should not become the sole identity of a woman.
Especially since there are some women due to their reasons choose not to become a mother and others who biologically cannot reproduce. Hence it is unfair to say that being a mother is her only great achievement in life. Her decision of not wanting to give birth to a child is condemned as unnatural and unwomanly. A woman’s merit is then based on the number of offspring she can produce. A working woman is expected not only to earn an income but also to complete her household duties. She works all day at her workplace (probably even getting paid lesser than her male coworkers for the same job) and then she is supposed to fulfill all the obligations that come with being a good wife and mother.
The other thing that decides what a woman is worth is the way she presents herself. If a woman is seen wearing traditional Indian attire she is automatically dubbed as the “sati-savitri” and “sanskari”. These are the women that are seen to be treated with relatively more respect as they are embodying true Indian values. On the contrary, if a woman is seen embracing her body and wearing short skirts and dresses then she is deemed as “unchaste”. These are the women that are known to be a menace to society and bring shame to their families. There is a clear difference in the way women are treated just simply by what they’re wearing. People view a woman with respect and some amount of dignity if she is seen in a kurta whereas in a dress she is quickly dismissed and is made to feel like a debauched creature.
The constant angst faced by a woman is that she always feels the need to have to prove herself to society. The battle of having to prove to the world that she is more than just her body, motherhood, relationships, and her career paths. The vultures of society swoop down upon her making her feel insecure and lonely. She can turn to no one. She is always associated with the things that are tiny aspects of her identity. These tiny aspects are then made to be her whole identity. We as a society must learn to recognise them as more than just material beings but as individuals instead.