Open Windows

is the biggest form of the greatest
subjugation of women.

In Conversation


Social Activist, IN

April 4th, 2011


Social activist and rights campaigner Dr Mohini Giri has dedicated five decades of her life addressing women's issues and fighting for gender justice. Dr Giri is the Founding Chairperson of the War Widows Association and a founding trustee of the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia.  A recipient of India's third highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, Dr Mohini Giri speaks on marginalised women, and the inequality women face in India.


You have been working with women in India for five decades, actively addressing issues and demanding reform. Do women in rural and urban India face different problems?

As far as women are concerned, all issues relate to all of us, whether women are in urban areas

or rural areas because patriarchy is all-pervading.

The patriarchal mindset of man is the same. Thus, women have to face the same problems everywhere. Maybe because the urban woman is educated, she can assert herself a little more than her counterpart in rural India who is illiterate and has stigma and superstition attached to being a woman. Otherwise, the quantum of subjugation is the same everywhere.


Despite education, the urban Indian woman faces many hurdles.

Sure, even education doesn’t take away all the stigmas attached to women, and it doesn’t take away the patriarchy that’s prevalent in men. So, she has to go through all the hurdles that any woman goes through in a patriarchal society.


In spite of education, the urban Indian woman faces many hurdles.

Sure, even education doesn’t take away all the stigmas that are attached to women, and it doesn’t take away the patriarchy that’s prevalent in men. So, she has to go through all the hurdles that any woman goes through in a patriarchal society.


What makes the small percentage of financially sound, urban women confuse ownership of consumer goods with independence, equality, and liberation when, in reality, their voices are echoes of the patriarchal society?

It’s a myth to say that if you have got all the consumer goods and all the facilities you are independent, or you are empowered—because things do not empower.

Empowerment means self-confidence.

How many women have the self-confidence to make it on their own? Having that measure of confidence is the time I would say a woman is empowered.


My research suggests that women who marry into wealthy families often have it harder than their lower socio-economic counterparts. A woman married into a wealthy family is controlled—an accountant monitors expenses; she is directed on whom to mix with, and instructed on how (and about what) she should speak. Moreover, this silent prisoner [a wealthy man’s wife] must put on a happy face each day and play the part of a wife who enjoys equal status.

What you say is very true. You have done your homework well. Whether it’s in an affluent society or a poor society, women are all victims of male patriarchy. The rich Indian urban woman suffers a lot too—there is as much domestic violence against her. And even though she is educated, she dare not speak out, even today. She suffers silently.


In Indian society, single women, young adults, divorcees, and widows are denied a favourable status. A woman’s discrimination takes place on numerous levels—from securing a place to live to solo travel and exclusion from social gatherings. A married woman’s visibility and value are limited to a wife or a senior employee (under the patriarchal umbrella). Further, a married woman’s role is superficial; the respect she’s extended—domestic help to office staff—is based on her association with patriarchy; the day her association ends, this married woman is reduced to nothing. Can you explain this system?

True. Being a woman, one faces discrimination. Single women face double discrimination and many hardships. First, they are women and second, they are either single or widowed. Widows have the additional stigma of being non-acceptable in society and are considered inauspicious in society even today, whether rural India or urban India. The moment her husband passes away, a woman becomes a widow in society and the very friends who used to visit her, eat her food and appreciate her house stop visiting her house. Of course, she becomes more careful as she is labelled a bad character. Hence, the Indian patriarchy has prescribed a dress code to her, prescribed a fashion code to her, prescribed a food code to her—to deprive the widow of many other things. And this discrimination is a way of victory of patriarchy.

In wealthy families, the day a woman’s husband dies, the widow has to give over her power to the second inherited member of that society, whether it’s a daughter-in-law or a daughter. And the very minute the keys are transferred, the “thijori”—or what you call the safe—has also gone from a widow’s hand, and she is relegated the lowest rung.

This discrimination happens even in very wealthy business houses. Recently there was a case in India where a very wealthy businessman died, and the moment the wife became a widow, even family members in the joint family wanted to have sex with her. A woman in India needs to be protected by her husband, father or son. Every male member of the family in society starts thinking that a woman is their possession.


Does this caustic system—of subjugation—persist because image consumes the Indian society, so much so that one stops living an authentic life?

Yes, we live in a society that prevents us from living how we want to live. When a war widow, after the 1971 war was going on a scooter with her brother, the neighbours complained—the widow was spoiling the society by openly going on a bike with a man. Can you believe this—a woman has lost her husband, she needs to depend on someone, and why should the society bother how she is going? These are the things that are very difficult to change in society. It will take centuries to change, just like it has taken centuries to create.

In the Vedic period, women enjoyed equal rights. With time and tradition, we have become more regressive, instead of progressive.


Significant populations of widows, young and old, pursue prostitution to survive. Much of this happens in holy towns. Why does exploitation continue under so many names and guises?

Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and it’s a multi-million-dollar business.

Prostitution is the biggest form of the greatest subjugation of women. No woman wants to sell her body to anybody at any given time. However, circumstances are such that pangs of hunger, poverty and deprivation lead her into prostitution.

Also, people kidnap women and mislead them. In holy towns and holy places, people go in the name of religion and religious bakhti [devotion to god], here too men exploit these poor women living in bhajan ashrams—places where they think they can sing for their daily morsel of food. Of course, it has become less now because people have become careful. Men know we are social activists who are vigilant all the time. There is a change now, but not as much as desired.


Is the exploitation of widows limited to holy towns, or does it occur in almost every society in India?

What happens in holy cities today is not anything that’s not happening in urban areas. A woman is vulnerable anywhere. And because of patriarchy, a woman’s status is so low that she becomes vulnerable. I would not say that it’s only particular to religious or holy cities—exploitation of women happens in urban cities; it happens in rural towns. It’s the psyche of the man that we need to change.


What will drive change?

First, a woman has to become economically independent—

when a man takes away independence from a woman, he is subjugating her.

Second, a woman must inherit property rights over the ancestral property—of her husband, her father-in-law or father. Right now, she is deprived of her rights. Even though a law has been passed to make women an equal partner in the property, many women don’t claim it saying they don’t want to fight with their brother. The sister is supposed to tie rakhi [a sacred thread] on the brother who has to protect his sister all her life, but men are not only taking their share of the property, but they also take their sister’s. And third, the widow is deprived because of illiteracy and the mindset of the man. Many factors contribute to her second-class status. Till such time that all these fall into place, change will not come.


How can an ageing woman expect to reap any different when all she has sown in the male child is entitlement?

In a society where the male child is the only wanted child, change is tough. In these 50 years that I have been working, especially in rural India, a woman would stand behind a door, and she wouldn’t even come out to show her face. Today a girl is much more aware; she is wearing a salwar kameez [tunic with pants], a dress code that shows more empowerment. The village girl opens the door fully, and she talks to you without a gunghat [a veil], which is a big sign. When the female child starts going to school, she learns to use the computer and undergoes vocational training; she will become a self-earning member of society. It’s 60 years after independence; I am sure things are going to change. Even urban India is still waking up.


What responsibility should women take to change male entitlement?

First, a mother, a woman, must give equal treatment, from childhood, to both the boy and the girl. After all, the woman bears the child. Second, an equal number of schools must open for girls and boys, giving them equal opportunities to learn all types of arts and sciences. Last, female feticide must stop.


We expect men to take responsibility for their actions and make changes, but we don’t expect the same from women. Women can be equally abusive—monstrous mothers destroy their children, ruthless female doctors humiliate victims of sexual violence, female lawyers parading as women’s rights advocates oppress women; the list goes on.

Yes, both men and women are the same, and their ideas come from the same society. While of course, men have to change more, women also need to change a lot. A woman is as responsible as a man.


The impression of India is one that nurtures and welcomes women as equal players. Only 33 percent of seats in the national parliament are allocated for women, and often daughters, wives, sisters, or cousins of political or politically connected families go on to hold political positions in India.

Yes, 15 years ago after the Beijing conference [Fourth World Conference on Women 1995], a bill was introduced for 33 percent reservation in the parliament for affirmative action, but this bill has been pending for years in the parliament. Every time this bill is presented in the parliament, some male members take the bill, throw it out, and want consensus. The idea of 181 seats going away to women in parliament is unthinkable for male members. One of the major, senior ministers told me: “Mrs Giri do you want me to sign my death warrant by signing that bill,” which means men treat these positions as their property and are not willing to share it with women. Hence, it’s a very critical situation. Only eight percent of the Indian parliament is women. Out of the 542, there are hardly 33 women members in the parliament. We are not representing the country accurately at all.


There is no shortage of capable women.

Not all the male members of the parliament are educated and literate. When it comes to seats for women, men ask: “Whoh aurat khana hei” [where is the woman]? As if there is a dearth of women in the country [India] who cannot win an election. When the reservation was made for panchayat women, we asked the Panchayat Raj [an assembly of five respected elders chosen by the village] precisely this question: “Is there a shortage of capable women?” And lo and behold, today women are so successful that from a 33 percent reservation for women it has grown to 45 to 50 percent.

Women are even fighting for independent seats. It’s a myth to say that there are no women,

or women aren’t capable. Women are competent, and if given a chance,

they will prove that women can rule India better than men.

Illiterate rural women working at grassroots levels are highly capable and productive. These women could be illiterate, but they know their duties—they are digging tube wells, building schools, repairing roads, and are seeing that violence against women reduces. With the reservation, we have won over a million women in panchayat elected members, making a drastic difference. Four poor women accompanied me to New York for the Hunger Project prize distribution (for the best panchayati raj worker), and what an impact they have made on American society.

It’s a myth to think that only women from well-to-do families can come into politics. Slowly and steadily, women who have been grassroots level representatives will also come to the Lok Sabha [lower house of the Indian Parliament]. You cannot stop this trend. But of course, it will take a long, long time because men are still unwilling to give their seats to women.


Would it be accurate to say that most financially comfortable women are apathetic to the plight of the less privileged?

Yes. I live in Delhi, and when I tell them [financially well off women] about the plight of women in Brindaban, which is 150 kilometres from Delhi, they say: “Oh, is that so? We didn’t even know anything like that was even there.” The human rights questions don’t arise in these women [well-to-do]. So the women in Brindaban have to fight it out for themselves; we have to bring awareness amongst them, generate a kind of enthusiasm in them that they are equal to men.


Why do wealthy Indians lack social responsibility?

Philanthropy in India is not known; we don’t have people who can think of others’ concerns. The rich live in a world of their own, believing nobody can share it. The rich are setting up an example of wasteful wealth. When there is such great inequality, you cannot pretend that you don’t know what is happening on the other side. You have to become participatory. You have to come down on your knees to find out how to improve society because sooner or later, the rich man will become a victim of it [inequality]. How long will the poor go on bearing injustice? There will be a revolution one day.


When a wealthy man drowns his daughter with consumer goods at her wedding (to establish his worth), it’s labelled as gift-giving. However, when these “gifts” are demanded of a poor man, it’s called a “demand for dowry.” In addition to demeaning and displaying his daughter and other female family members like decorated cattle, the rich man is continually reinforcing a destructive system that leads to dowry deaths of the less fortunate in the country. How did this criminal practice come to be acceptable?

It’s a very good question. Heera, god bless you for asking. Until the time, we have an equal kind of society, where the rich don’t display ugly wealth—and it happens all over the world—it will continue to happen. The rich are displaying their wealth, but the poor man who is forced to compete with the rich suffers a lot and becomes bankrupt.

It’s a vicious circle—the poor man’s ambitions should not touch such heights that he forgets his limits.


Indian matrimonial advertisements seek “fair” wives; the Indian market is flooded with fairness creams, and Indian movies (in addition to fair-skinned foreigners dance wearing the bare necessities) consistently refer to white skin. In most cases, the groom or actor (or the advertising executive), like the majority of Indians, has a dark complexion. Doesn’t fairness obsession establish India’s racist and sexist attitude?

Yes, not only in movies but also in Indian society and magazines, everybody wants a fair looking girl. India has a big complex with fair women. And the demeaning manner in which movies show women is appalling. Darker-skinned people are as good as fair, and this mindset needs to change.


The Indian immigrant, in America or UK, might have a six-figure salary, a fancy title and the trappings to reassure him that he has made it, but his mental and emotional makeup is warped. Many unsuspecting Indian women are suffering due to the abuse and cruelty inflicted on them by Indian men.

Yes. Today the situation is very, very bad. I have come across thousands of girls who are suffering in the US. I am connected with an organization in the United States, and we have registered 18,000 such cases. Also, girls who have been brought to America on the pretext of marriage are ill-treated.


White women aren’t spared either—thanks to the portrayal of white women in Indian films and media—of white women lacking morals—she is seen as a sex object. The Indian man’s psyche conveniently believes this twisted attitude. At the same time, his Indian mother subscribes the view that so long as her son doesn’t marry the white woman, it’s okay for her “beta” to have sex with a white woman; marriage is reserved for the “good Indian woman” whom the mother chooses. How do you explain the mindset?

Once you live in a country or become a country’s citizen, you have to be loyal to that country; you cannot have double standards. You cannot have your mother controlling you from India and do terrible things to women.

Many of these Indians who went decades ago to the United States are living in another century. These Indians don’t understand that India is also changing. The ideas they took with them to the US are no longer relevant in India; they have to adapt themselves to India’s thinking.


If the number of reported abuse cases by Indian men is staggering—knowing most incidents go unreported—one can only imagine the actual numbers. Dr Giri, it appears securing a college degree or pursuing a professional stint overseas doesn’t change a person’s fundamental attitude.

No, it [getting an education and working overseas] doesn’t change a man’s mindset.


With the rise in India’s population, do you foresee the increase in violence against women?

Violence has increased a lot. Violence comes due to lack of power. When there is no food in your stomach, there is violence. When there is no education, there is violence. When there is no law and order, there is violence. We have to tackle these three issues—food, education and law and order—to bring down violence. I should see a hunger-free society; I should ensure that the poor are not so poor that they want to steal things. I should see to it that the patriarchy mindset should change. Population alone is not the cause of violence.


Can life ever be normal for victims of rape, and can they ever be compensated?

No amount of compensation can ever give justice to a rape or rape trial anywhere in the world.

Since we cannot give back victims dignity, we cannot say justice is served. Sexual violence is not only a loss of a body, but it also penetrates deep into the mind; it’s a total loss of faith and confidence that’s very difficult to recover. Any amount of compensation—from a government or me—can’t write away rape victims trauma and pain.


With a thriving patriarchal society, patriarchal media can’t be far behind. Media exchanges favour to cover up sexual violence by corrupt politicians, actors, industrialists, and bureaucrats. How can media be powerful when it lacks the courage to shed light on the truth for society’s betterment?

I think the media are irresponsible; they must not play with women who are a vital element of society; women are not commodities but are being portrayed as a commodity, to which I object.

I am also upset with access to police for the women in India; it’s very, very bad. Police don’t even put FIR [First Information Report] in the register for women, and this is why I don’t call India a superpower; it’s still a far cry from reaching that stage.


Why do police rape victims of sexual violence, especially victims from poor and low caste families?

The police are corrupt people whose ideas about women are wrong. I don’t think the police are worried if a rape victim belongs to lower class or high caste—for them, a woman is a commodity to exploit, to get their pleasure.


The West has this misconception that women are worshipped in India. 

While they speak, men call her Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati [names of Indian Hindu goddesses], only in temples, only in stone. When it’s a real woman, real body, real physical person, she is insulted and thrown away from the house. Ironically, the very Indian men who worship the devis in their homes disregard the women in their household. This irony has to be challenged to change the mindset of the man.

Women are enterprising, hard-working, and invested. What stops women from taking ownership of their lives and celebrating their capabilities?

Women’s second-class citizenship and subjugation by men stop them [from ownership]. Women are very capable, but society hasn’t accepted women as capable. One woman president, or one woman something else does not make a difference. We have to have many women at every level. We must have judges; we must have bankers, we must have parliamentarians. We need women in every field. Only then we can say that women have reached the highest levels in society. One woman, or one man, is not a representative.


Should women encourage and support each other?

In any society, togetherness only takes you to the top. Unless you work in unison with each other, you cannot achieve anything. If I have achieved anything in my social work, it’s because everybody is with me; it’s teamwork. You cannot do anything single-handedly.


Are you hopeful of a time when women will start feeling first-class?

Yes. I was hoping it would be in my lifetime, but now I am doubtful. The change I have seen in the last 50 years has been so slow. Change will come through definitely, but it will take its own time. Every woman in India needs protection, needs to be taken care of and needs to be brought back to an equal status.


We hear of India’s economic growth, of India being the next superpower. How can a country achieve superpower status without addressing its people’s fundamental human rights and emotional health?

India, a superpower? With so much poverty, malnutrition, female feticide, child marriages, and dowry marriages, how can I call myself a superpower? Never. You cannot become a superpower where there are no human rights.

You can only be a superpower when there are equal human rights for every citizen in the country.