A Tale of Two Discriminations

A Commentary on the Political Economy of Women's Human Rights

The evolving socio-political and economic climate globally is creating several paradoxes for women’s movements. On one hand, women seem to be enjoying their rights on an unprecedented scale; on the other hand, there are several instances of how their rights are being undermined in an insidious manner. In this piece, I take two examples of seemingly different contexts one rural and the other urban in order to highlight this process within the context of India.

Women in Farming Shrinking Spaces

The last 50 years or so has seen tremendous shifts in the agricultural landscape of India. The first major shift was the advent of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s. This event resulted in a technology-driven agriculture and the adopting of high-yielding seeds and chemical inputs in order to maximize food production. This  resulted in  singular focus on  rice  and  wheat  to the exclusion of hundreds of varieties of millets that were an integral part of  the  agricultural landscape  of India for centuries.

The other significant event was when the economy as a whole took a turn towards the market, liberalizing several sectors, including agriculture. After 1995 when India signed onto the World Trade Organization (WTO), India has steadily pushed Indian agriculture into the embrace of the world markets. Import restrictions have been lowered, quantitative restrictions (QRs) have been dismantled and there  has  been  considerable  ease  of  importing,  and  in  some cases, exporting, agricultural produce.

Both these developments changed the agri-scape of the country, with more and more farmers growing crops that receive subsidies and input support from the government or that fetch a higher price in the market, not necessarily those that feed them. The field was decisively tied to the market.  This shift is evident because in these years, the area cultivating food crops like millets and pulses has crashed significantly, while those cultivating cash crops have grown exponentially. This trend has had a detrimental impact on the role women play in agriculture. Traditionally, women have been the repositories of much knowledge on the cultivation of food. They have, for generations, been the keepers of seeds; they possess intricate knowledge of how these seeds can be preserved over long periods of time for future useFurthermore,  they have knowledge of  various other aspects of  food  cultivation,  including on when to  sow, how to  sow, and  which technologies  and  inputs  to  use  in  order  to maximize production even in the most adverse agro -climatic conditions. However, when India focuses on intensive agricultural practices, the women’s knowledge systems become redundant and women are gradually sidelined in the agricultural process. Today, women are not even considered farmers, merely farmers’ wives.

On its face, it seems great that India has managed to transition from a food deficit to a food surplus nation, but this transition has come at a tremendous cost. The women farmers of this nation have had to bear that cost. Paradoxically, it appears that women are in a much better position, as they do not have to undergo drudgery on the agricultural fields and they are earning higher wages as agricultural labourers. While that may be partially true, the role of women has been reduced from decision makers to mere implementers who only do what their husbands tell them. This is the most important shift, one that significantly undermines women’s social, economic, and cultural rights.

Women in Corporate Offices Fighting for Identity

The other example that I would like to present is that of women in for-profit companies, in order to highlight how the present-day political economy undermines women’s rights even while appearing to afford them greater freedom. The opening of the Indian economy, to quote many economists, unleashed the entrepreneurial potential of the Indians. It  led  to  growth  of  the private sector  in  the  country,  and  undeniably resulted  in  the  proliferation of job opportunities in a variety of  sectors.  With this, more and more women have started taking up jobs in these sectors. The explosion of opportunities frequently clashes with entrenched traditional ties. When women work in the corporate sector and interact with their male counterparts in a friendly way, they are perceived as ‘available’; when they object to any sexual overtures that their male counterparts may make, they are seen to be playing truant. Despite the presence of a law addressing sexual harassment at workplaces in India, despite many companies being mandated to have sexual harassment committees in order to address the grievances of women, most women are questioned for inviting unwanted attention from males. In other words, rather  than taking action against the man who has committed sexual harassment, the whole effort aims to prove how the woman gave the ‘wrong signal’ and that the man only  did what he was naturally programmed to do-make his move. This is a clear case of deeply embedded patriarchy rearing its head in a modern workplace in order to ‘put the women in her place’. These instances are numerous, from male politicians circulating morphed porn cds of their female rivals to corporate honchos using their position of power to harass women and then getting away with it by saying that their actions were misunderstood or by blaming the woman by asking uncomfortable questions to her. This is a clear violation of the basic right to life and dignity of women.

Whose Rape is More Important?

The third instance I want to highlight has deeply cultural connotations. India has a high rate of crimes against women, with rape being one of the commonly used tools to assert patriarchy. It is estimated that, on average, one rape is committed every seven minutes in India. But the question is, whose rape gets the attention of the nation? The Nirbhaya rape case wherein a young woman in New Delhi was brutally raped and thrown by the roadside rightly caused national outrage. Politicians, media, and the public came together to demand answers from the government and a visibly shaken political establishment came together in order  to  pass  the Nirbhaya Act in record time. However, at the same time, there were a number of other equally brutal rape cases in other parts of the country. A case in point  is  that  of  Soni Sori, a young tribal woman in  Dantewada, Chattisgarh  who was sexually assaulted in custody by the Police. While the details of this case were equally brutal, it barely caused a blip on the national conscience. It did not attract the attention of the national media, nor did it cause people to come out onto the streets. This case clearly highlights the innate class bias prevalent in India and how this bias determines which crime against women actually becomes ‘news’. This also betrays the fact that, while certain women can access justice by occupying the airwaves, others less fortunate who belong to the poorer sections of society cannot access justice. Thus, the right to Constitutional remedy guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and the right to legal remedy guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are clearly violated.


The above instances also highlight how intricately questions of gender, caste, class and location (rural/urban) are tied together and how each of these factors adds an additional layer of discrimination for women, thus making them experience multiple levels of discrimination. The fight for women’s rights today has to contend with new arenas and newer forms of discrimination. The corporate sector, cyberspace, and new work areas are all the sites of this battle.

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