RENU GULATI, who runs Stree, a women’s empowerment organisation in Rishikesh examines what International Women’s Day means
UNESCO states, “The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on February 28 1909, which the Socialist Party of America dedicated in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York where women protested against harsh working conditions.
International Women’s Day, also known as IWD, was therefore borne out of the labour movement. Thereafter, it became an annual event recognised by the United Nations. In 1908, 15,000 women had marched through New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote.
Ever since, International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, focuses global attention on the status of women in the areas of gender equality, bias, stereotypes and discrimination. The purpose is to make the world more diverse, equitable and inclusive for women.
Employment is not necessarily the same as empowerment of women. Women ought to be given equal rights as men in employment, education and in voting rights, besides in every other walk of life.
In the main, particularly in western societies, such rights are already in place. However, there are societies where the laws are more supportive of men than women and the same also applies to religion. How did this happen in the first place? Of course, men and women are different, but nevertheless equal rights should be in place.
Let me begin by sharing my personal experiences.
I have been working with women’s rights for many decades first in the West and now in the East in the areas of law, abuse, employment, empowerment with skills development and in awareness of the pride of being a women. I was born and raised in the west, and yes, there too, I have witnessed and experienced the oppression of women but not in the same way as I have seen in eastern cultures.
Currently, I run a women’s empowerment organisation in Rishikesh, Stree and work to skill women, employ them and support them in every way possible. I do it because I feel a genuine need for women to be treated equally. That’s true for all humanity, and not just women. My organisation is based on Ayurveda, which is founded on the principle of ahimsa (non-violence); an interpretation of ahimsa is equality for all. At Stree, I have experienced a pattern of behaviour amongst many women based on the following pattern:
Initially, there is poverty that leads to employment by enhancing their skills; then, it moves on to greed, then wanting loans and more possessions to ruthlessness about how they achieve their ultimate aim. Somewhere, down the line, ahimsa is lost. When the women come to me, they are timid and kind, but when greed takes over, they become manipulative and greedy. Not all women are like this, but it is a repeated pattern I have witnessed in many. Is it because they need to survive in a ruthless society? Gratitude goes out of the window despite attempts at awareness sessions based on ahimsa and the fact that wealth is good when acquired through dharma.
Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t always turn out like this for everyone. So, then, what is the best way to ‘empower women’? I now prefer to replace the word with ‘employment’ for that is what empowerment has come to mean in the modern world.
Empowerment is based on fulfilling one’s innate potential which is borne out of dharma.
Women are the creative force of nature and are symbolised as nature or prakriti in the Samkhya system of Indian philosophy. The masculine force is purusha and is considered the unmanifest, from which all originates. Without purusha and prakriti, the cosmos would not exist as it was borne through the primordial dance (tandav) of purusha and prakriti. We are inherently a combination of purusha and prakriti, with women being made up more of the prakriti (feminine) energy, while men have a predominance of purusha (masculine) energy. It is like the Japanese tradition of yin, feminine energy, and yang, masculine energy. In yoga terms, the moon energy is feminine and the sun is masculine.
This is philosophical and one wonders how this applies in the practical world.
Let us look at some of the qualities of prakriti and how they relate to women:
Physically weaker than men
For me, women’s empowerment would be to bring these qualities out to their full potential. Women have a sensitive nature, but this does not necessarily mean that she cannot become a leader. In fact, her leadership is far more effective when she does her work through enhancing her innate qualities rather than by adopting purusha qualities. Indeed, the purusha qualities are important too, but if she does not use her prakriti qualities, she will end up disturbing her own balance
With the rise of feminism, her prakriti has been pushed aside which could result in disharmony and disease.
A woman is more powerful and fulfilled when she taps into her feminine qualities To keep the balance in nature, women are more fulfilled if they have a male partner by their side, for that is now nature meant it to be. But this is only when women and men nurture wholesome relationships between themselves.
On a final note, I want to stress that women are highly revered in many traditional societies though this is not always the case nowadays. Even the Bhagavad Gita says that where a woman is not respected, families and societies go to ruin. In simpler terms, let us acknowledge the truth of such sayings as ‘happy wife means happy life’ and ‘behind every successful man there is a woman’.
Renu Gulati is a lawyer from the UK and holds an MSc in Ayurveda from London since 2006. Based in Rishikesh, she consults, teaches and writes in the field of Ayurveda, internationally.
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Photo of rural woman on a farm by Kelly L from Pexels
Photos of women leaders, courtesy Women’s Web