Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Monday, Dec 04, 2006

Metro Plus Kochi

Virginia Woolf revisited

For all the much-vaunted freedoms, Indian women
are still seeking their niche

In the autumn of 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered an essay full
 of thought-provoking, even groundbreaking ideas underpinned
 with wry humour, to the students of the Girton College for
 Women at Oxford. It was a rambling discourse but it was by no
 means hard for the listeners to pick out the many nuggets 
of wisdom it contained. Ruing the fact that women have, for 
far too long, been subjugated intellectually, emotionally 
and of course physically, by men, Woolf proclaimed that the way to 
a woman's true emancipation lay in a room of one's own and an
 independent amount of 500 pounds a year to live on.

Right to vote
In 1928, women had been given the right to vote for about
 eight years; however, convention dictated that they keep to 
the demure and narrow path, better seen not heard. Woolf
 talked of being stopped at the door of an Oxford library
 because women weren't allowed into those hallowed precincts
 sans written permission or the presence of a male `guardian.`
 She got in, eventually, lunched well as a guest of one of the 
aforementioned males at one of the colleges, contrasting it 
sharply with her meagre meals back at Girton. Women 
scholars, it would seem, ate more poorly than did their 
male counterparts. Small differences but stark ones.

Virginia Woolf talked evocatively, movingly of `Judith,`
 Shakespeare's fictitious sister. Woolf gave to Judith all
 the inherent talent and genius of her brother but said she
 was most likely to have suppressed that talent... she was 
but a woman, you see. If Judith had fought fate and taken
 the high road to London pretty much as her brother had
 done, she would have, in all probability, come to a 
less- than- glorious end, of course. Woolf has us 
imagine Shakespeare's sister with child, hungry, 
helpless, hopeless, and eventually killing herself.

1928 to 2006. From having to found her own Press 
(Hogarth, wIth husband Leonard) to Kali for Women 
in India; from Woolf (Virginia) to Wolfe (Naomi); 
from being refused permission to enter a male 
domain such as a college library to the opening of a
 Women's Library in London a few years ago, women 
have come a long way. Or have we?

Not in India, they haven't. Thanks to the strong winds 
of liberalisation that have blown open a few doors, 
things have become easier in some ways for women, 
at least in urban India. (Out yonder, beyond the reach 
of MTV and FabIndia, lies the heartland where men 
continue to draw up the Masterplan for living and women
 fall into line). Back in Urbania, we have a generation 
of women who do everything their brothers do. They
 attend the same business or management colleges, 
manage fiscal portfolios with facility and can close 
deals with the same acumen traditionally credited to men.

A room of their own? 500 bucks a year? Ah, we have a
 home of our own, and much more than Rs 500 a
 year, these women exclaim. That may well be but
 three-quarters of a century later, more women than 
there should be are still looking for that room of their
 own and the economic independence that follows.

Of course, the Indian woman circa 2006 AD, has more 
than Rs 500 a year; the point is, she has learnt how to
 stretch that amount for double that period of time. 
She does stow away some bit for herself but that 
happens only once in a rare while, the rest goes
 into the family kitty, maternal or matrimonial. Of 
course she has a room of her own; only, she shares
 her bedroom with her husband, her den with the family
 (it has the TV there, you see), her study with the kids. 
She shares the PC; she may have a car of her own
 but she uses it more often than not in running 
household errands and for the school carpool than
 for her personal needs.

Scene in India
Freedom? Not in India, not as long as they are still
 fixing a dowry price on her head in Punjab, raping
 her in broad daylight in Delhi. Not while they are still 
attempting to burn her in UP, sell her in Orissa, forcing 
her to don a burqa in Kashmir. Not while they are 
ripping her foetus from her womb in Gujarat, forcing
 her to ascend the pyre of her dead husband in Rajasthan,
 not while they are still harassing, exploiting and
 torturing her in Bihar, Kerala, Andhra, Maharashtra,
 Bengal. Not as long as they are attempting to kill her
 minutes after she is born in Tamil Nadu.

So, if Virginia Woolf was with us today, taking in all the
 new-found freedoms of women, she would still say 
what she said 75 years ago: women need a room 
of their own. With all the freedoms that come with it.



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