Just last month, our infamous Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, became yet another blemish on India’s already spotted record of politicians who need to think before they speak. As if his views on promoting yoga and ‘good values’ as reasonable substitutes for sex education wasn’t enough, he’s gone ahead and stuffed his second foot into his mouth by making his ill-conceived views about women’s bodies public. While we’re impressed with the flexibility of his jaw muscles, it’s clearly not a required qualification for his job.
On August 30, Dr. Harsh Vardhan stirred up women’s rights activists (and people with brains, everywhere) by referring to a woman’s body as a temple, stressing it’s importance from the nation’s point of view. He was speaking at a Delhi women’s college and addressing the rising incidence of illness in young urban women when he said, “As a medical man, I am depressed by this new trend as reported to me by many reputed obstetricians and gynaecologists.”
This was in reference to the increase of Polycystic Ovarian Disease and other conditions associated with fertility, a legitimate concern, but then he went on to say this: “A woman’s body is a temple, extremely important from the perspective of a nation’s future. Building a new generation of healthy women has a salutary effect on family, society and nation because each woman multi-tasks as professional in her chosen field, mother and teacher of her children, and, above all, custodian of collective values.”
As expected, the twitteratti and women’s right activists were, rightfully, far from pleased at Vardhan’s patronising choice of words. It’s clear Dr. Harsh Vardhan believes in his statement and thought it would be met with wide-seated approval, but herein lies the deepest roots of patriarchy in this country. Putting women on a pedestal to fight age-old discrimination is not solving any problems, here’s why.
I. It equates women’s role in society with their own fertility.
As if women didn’t already have enough pressure on them, equating their worth with their fertility is just an additional blow. Treating their womb as sacred is only taking away their own rights over their body and you can just imagine what happens if a woman was either to decide not to have children or worse still, was unable to do so.
Reproductive health needs to be viewed as a shared responsibility between both genders and certainly not the make-or-break factor of their lives and roles in society. Moreover, this stigmatisation of infertility has been directly linked to lowered self-esteem in women across the country, regardless of economic background.
II. Subliminally suggests that women are not in control of their own body.
As Kavita Krishnan, All India Progressive Women Association’s Secretary, summed up aptly in a statement, “It is portraying a woman’s body as a reproductive machine. When you start equating a woman’s body with a temple, the emphasis is not on her control over the body. Then it is an abstract place that other people are supposed to protect and worship at.”
More importantly still, why is there a need to demarcate women as ‘holy’ or ‘special’ to receive the same basic health care as other (male) citizens of this country?
III. Multi-tasking and fulfilling several roles is being touted as ‘glorious’ for women.
Countless studies have proven that having such exalted expectations on women actually has an adverse impact on both women and their careers. A report by global research film, Nielsen, found that 86% of its Indian respondents said they felt stressed almost all of the time because they didn’t have time to relax while another recent study showed that most urban women rarely reach the top of their career potential, or even their goals because of societal obligations and expectations to solely bear the burden of looking after their families.
Nielsen branded India’s women as ‘the most stressed out in the world’ and let’s not forget that this is directly linked to the same rise in the incidence of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome across urban India that Dr. Harsh Vardhan would have us believe is the cause of his concern. Sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan believes the missing link is reliable social support and a physical infrastructure (think crèches, more household help, family support etc.). “Indian society hasn’t kept pace with social expectations at homes not changing enough. It is this contrast, this conflict, that is causing the stress,” he says.
We have to realise that many of these women are the first generation in their families stepping out to work so there needs to be a huge shift in ideology if we’re going to help them, and society as a whole, make this transition. Neither glorifying or vilifying them in the manner we’ve become so accustomed to hearing is doing anything but increasing the gap we’re working to fill.
Conclusively, all the anger about India being one of the worst places to live for a woman is only becoming more and more justified. The only people who have the real power to start changing the narrative, the ones we literally put in power to do the same, seem hell bent on taking four steps backward for each one we take forward, and it’s time to put our foot down.
It’s time to change the narrative.
Words: Mandovi Menon