Blogs by Mary Terzian
Interview - Shobhan Bantwal
10/9/2008 10:54:21 AM
Interview about Shobhan's second book, THE FORBIDDEN DAUGHTER". Shobhan is a young Indian writer. She is widely published. The book is woven around the hot-button social issue of vanishing girl children in contemporary India. I have the pleasure of interviewing her.
Is there a movement in India about “Women’s emancipation?” and if so who are the in charge: Women or men?
There are small groups, mostly led by female politicians and/or social workers, who organize marches and rallies to bring the government’s attention to the plight of certain women, but they do not make much impact because most women are afraid to come forward and join such causes. The reasons are numerous, from family honor to protecting the children and fear of repercussions.
Is there an opposition to a “women’s emancipation” movement by religious leaders, men in power, teachers and influential politicians?
I personally do not know of any formal opposition, but resistance comes in subtle ways through family, the community, and sometimes religious groups. In a male-dominated society, men are bound to be reluctant to cede control and let women have more freedom. The Indian constitution guarantees women equality of opportunity and wage and disallows gender bias by the state. Nevertheless the level of progress is not as wide or as quick to meet the expectations of the constitution.
What resources exist for women who are oppressed, threatened or helpless, financially, and emotionally, to find temporary relief and redirection?
There are shelters to assist women in distress, but few victims seek their help. Again, seeking assistance brings the family under public scrutiny and most women tend to avoid it, consequently suffering their plight in silence. Bringing shame and dishonor upon the family and community are considered serious violations of the social code. The long-term consequences can mean children in the family could suffer the negative impact many years later.
Presumably the well-to-do Indian girls could somehow get a better education or resort to books and magazines to learn to deal with abuse, although family influence could be very powerful. How are the poorer classes reached – through community resources, women’s groups or no assistance at all?
Although limited, there are some community resources, but most poor women suffer in silence because of their economic plight. In most circumstances, the inability to support one’s children becomes the prime consideration for women who have no jobs and/or education to become self-sufficient. Community resources can rarely support entire families or put the women in occupations that are sufficient to feed an entire family. Even amongst the well-to-do, despite wealth and education, there is a level of domestic violence that goes undetected—perhaps even more so because of the social, economic and political influence wielded by the men in the family.
Presumably there is legal protection. Is their financial aid for the poorer communities to take advantage of legal aid to pursue their claim against abuse?
The laws (Protection from Domestic Violence Bill 2001 and Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005) allow for something called protection officers to be appointed in each state, whereby the officer gathers information surrounding a reported case of violence and if there is sufficient cause, helps the victim to file an application in court to bring charges against the perpetrator. The courts are also empowered to issue protection such as restraining orders to protect women victims. And yet, the courts are so mired in endless bureaucratic procedures and corrupt officers that their ability to serve justice is limited.
Financial aid is also currently available through non-profit organizations and government entities, but again, not many victims come forward to take advantage of it for all the reasons quoted above.
Have any school programs been instituted to promote the image of women? Are these taught both to girls and boys?
As far as my knowledge goes, there are no standard programs in schools that promote the positive image of women. In fact, many schools are still segregated by sex – separate schools for girls and boys. It is mostly in college that co-education becomes the norm, by which age most boys and girls have become entrenched in certain ideas and value systems.
Tradition has such a strong hold on the family and community that it is hard to break. Unless a change of image is enforced, families will hold on to old concepts, even if they believe them to be unfair. Public opinion matters. How is opinion handled in the public media?
The media in India is surprisingly very outspoken about issues such as women’s rights, domestic abuse, etc., since the country is a democracy (the world’s largest democracy) and free speech is allowed. Public opinion is also broadcast in the form of letters to editors and editorial pieces. However, when very few cases are reported and documented, the statistics are not large enough or sensational enough to garner media attention. Very few cases of dowry abuse and/or other types of violence against women end up in the courts because of small technicalities, and/or the lack of documentation and reporting.
Are there women reporters and what are their chances of being published in reporting abuse cases? Do the judges allow abuse cases to be tried in their courtrooms? How does the un-defended, who does not have a penny to her name, contest her case through the different levels of law to reach an equitable settlement? Are there outreach programs to the trodden? What is the aftermath for the abused after they make their case public?
There are a large number of women reporters and high-placed editors in India, and well-published ones, too. Being able to hold high-profile jobs and occupations has never been an issue in India. Even as far back as the mid 1960s, when the U.S. could not even dream of putting a woman in the White House, India had a female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. There are large numbers of successful women in the political, medical, engineering, scientific, teaching, and entertainment fields.
Nonetheless in a society like India, a woman plays two distinct roles, one as a working woman and the other as a daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. What takes place in the privacy of her home is never discussed with the outside world. The sanctity of family is taken very seriously.
A few lucky women manage to get help through non-profit and government organizations and have their cases heard in a court of law. Some of them can escape from violent domestic situations when justice is served. But the aftermath can be difficult because divorced women or those who abandon their spouses are often denigrated as rebels and rabble-rousers. They can be treated as social outcasts. Large cities have to a great degree made it easier for women to relocate to another area of the city and leave their old identity behind, but the social stigma is hard to discard in smaller towns.
Does the author stand a lot of castigation for handling taboo subjects he/she chooses, such as women’s abuse? After all, he/she is sowing the seeds for discord and rebellion.
Yes indeed, I do receive a fair amount of criticism for portraying the darker side of Indian culture and for perhaps sowing the seeds of discontent among women. But I feel compelled to bring such social issues to the forefront by writing about them, even if they are entwined in fictional drama. So far, my books have been published only in North America, so the readership in India is limited to the readers who are able to purchase my books online and through large city bookstores that sell them in limited quantities.
Are women treated in India on an equal basis as men in the business world?
The last twenty years have seen an unprecedented increase in women professionals entering the business world. To a large degree they command respect and even equal pay in some instances, but whether they are treated as equals in the true sense, I cannot say with conviction. I believe women still find it difficult to hold their own in India’s male-dominated environment.
For a country that does not hesitate to elect women presidents, does it make sense to treat women as chattel? Is such treatment prevalent among the well-to-do classes as well?
The treatment of women as “chattels” encompasses all of society, irrespective of class. But as I said earlier, with upper and middleclass Indian women acquiring higher education in recent years, the term chattel does not hold ground all that much anymore. Economic independence has led this class of women to become stronger and stand up for their rights. The percentage of women who are bold enough to take this stance is still very small, but it continues to rise steadily every year, so perhaps there is hope.
Thank you, Shobhan, for an interesting interview and for your courage to expose abusive practices. Public awareness is the first step for the solution of a problem and you have done a great service to the women's cause by writing The Forbidden Daughter.
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