According to a study con¬ducted by a United Nations Commission (1980), women form one-third of the total world labour force and do most of the unpaid work. But they receive only ten per cent of the world income and own less than one per cent of the world property. Fredrick Engels in his The Origin of the Family. Private Property and the State claimed that private ownership of pro¬perty is the root cause of all the disparity between women and men. In primitive society, productive resources were com¬munally owned. Both man and woman ‘…owned the tools he or she made and used; the men the weapons and the hunting and fishing tackle, the women, the household goods and utensils … whatever was produced and used in common was common property: the houses, the garden, the long¬boat.’ This theory is too simplistic as sex discrimination exists even in countries where everything is owned by the State. A patriar¬chal structure of society which results in a ‘corresponding gender relations based on power and control’ is ‘intensi¬fied’ in a set-up where private property exists but does not originate from it.
Women’s Oppression, the first publication of the Research Group on Women’s Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, is a collection of eight essays that throws new light on var¬ious aspects of sex discrimi¬nation. Except for one essay, which deals with women in Africa, the rest dwell on the roles played by women in a ‘justly organized society’, a phrase that radical feminists would object to. To quote Dr. Susheela Kaushik ‘…the concept of equality could only describe the minimum politi¬cal and social conditions, which women and men require to be able to live with dignity.’
The first essay by Dr. Bikram Nanda and Anjana Mangalgiri traces the relation between patriarchy and women’s oppression, holding the former (and not private property) res¬ponsible to a large extent for the latter. The same topic is taken up with special reference to Marx and Engels by Manoshi Mitra. An observa¬tion made by her that women’s issues are rarely taken up by trade unions, because ‘male workers and activists see women primarily as house¬wives, as providers of goods and services to the family and of inferior status’ is signi¬ficant.
While Saguna Paul goes into the economic aspects of women’s oppression, which s a general study, Dr. K. Munil Manohar makes a special study of women in rural Indie, classifying them according their economic standing arc studying their control (or lack of it) over property, produc¬tion and reproduction. Dr. Usha Nayar’s paper on the patterns of women’s education in India, substantiated by statistics is very revealing and the conclusions should be studied by educationists if they want to improve the edu¬cational set up of the country as a whole.
The political profile of Muslim women by Archana Chaturvedi indicates changes and break¬ing away from traditions—a healthy sign in a community, which has been in purdah for too long. The concluding essay by Dr. Neera Chandhok, which studies oppression of women in Sub-Saharan Africa offers a comparison with an¬other Third World country, to its disadvantage.
Women in Focus is a mono¬graph from the Centre for Woman’s Development Studies a joint venture of Kumud Sharma with Sabha Hussain and Archana Saharya. The study takes up the case of women as a community in search of equal roles, trying to find an answer to the question: ‘In a country, which could accept women so readily in positions of high power and dignity, why is it so difficult for the majority of women to exert any influence on discus¬sions that affect their lives?’ posed by Dr. Vina Majumdar in the foreword.
The idea of a study of the sort originated from a slide-show organized by the UNICEF on ‘A Balanced Portrayal of Women’ with a view to making teachers aware of the sexist biases in class-room teaching. Along with ‘the broader aspects of sex role differentiation and its struc¬tural correlation’, the essay is based on area studies in two small towns and villages in U.P. and it is ‘basically diagnostic’ in nature.
The findings and analyses set one thinking. Categorizing sex inequality as structural and ideological, one of the essays points out that employment by itself ‘does not improve women’s perceptions of self-worth without ideological mobilization’ and adds that all traditional, social and cultural values are not neces¬sarily ‘obscurantist’ and need not be discarded, as some can be used to promote the goals of development.
Shattering the myth that women work out of choice (one recalls a gentleman getting agitated about how a woman displaced a man, when she entered the job market) the study makes it very clear that ‘women at the subsistence sector have no choice but to work, yet their job options are severely restricted, as they are either non-entrants or drop¬outs from school. They create a demand for their own labour and sell their labour power under the most exploitative conditions’.
As an example (among others) the book cites the case of a group of spinners, who worked under the worst of conditions and were constantly exposed to severe health and occupa¬tional hazards. Their condi¬tion is described thus: ‘25 women were crammed into two narrow passages near open drains. There were no provisions for either electricity or ventilation. Though drink¬ing water was provided, the tap was inside a stinking toilet. The wash-basin outside the toilet could not be used at all, as it was covered with grime and swarming flies’. But the adjoining room, that of the supervisor, was ‘well ventila¬ted, neatly arranged and car¬peted.’
Such badly paid menial work, done because there is no choice, has contributed nothing to improve a woman’s position in society by way of authority or status. On the other hand, the strain and hardships invol¬ved, overwhelmed the women. The book provides profiles of women from a cross-section of society in the areas covered by the study.
It is heartening to see so many meaningful studies on women being brought out. But whether they would achieve something in terms of actual benefits for those in the lowest strata of the labour market remains to be seen.
Purabi Panwar is a regular reviewer of books on literature for various journals. Works at the College of Vocational Studies, New Delhi.