Indian Women Fuel Widespread, Silent Revolution

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The prominence of Indian female politicians has attracted plenty of media attention. Less obvious, says Jael Silliman, is the broad, silent social revolution that is changing gender roles. Recently, it has reached into the Catholic Church.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Jael SillimanKOLKATA, India (WOMENSENEWS)--A paradigm shift has occurred in the institutional recognition of women in public spaces across India.

The Western media has noted that Pratibha Patel, the president, Meira Kumar, the speaker of the House, and Sonia Gandhi, the power behind the ruling Congress party in India, are all women.

The rise of women to political power, challenging deeply rooted caste, gender and national barriers, has been covered.

So have the gender-friendly policies that are being instituted at the ground level, such as the recently launched special trains for women. The trains are a tacit acknowledgment of the sexual harassment Indian female commuters confront on a daily basis and the institutional commitment to accommodate these workers.

These news stories are a welcome foil to the reporting on Indian women as primarily victims, which dominates the international press.

What has received less attention is a silent revolution across social sectors in India.

Women's integral role in all spheres of society are now a fact of life. This sweeping change is occurring in such unexpected places as the Catholic Church, the media and non-traditional work sectors, including the police, the airlines and the army.

The revision of policies of large private and public sector institutions is driving this change in an arguably top-down fashion.

The Catholics Bishops Conference of India, or CBCI, the highest ecclesiastical body of Catholics in the country, will announce policy recommendations imminently that call for equal representation of women at every level of the church to "redeem" a centuries-long "injustice."

Landmark Policy

Through this landmark policy, women are expected to get equal representation on all conference commissions that exert their influence on seminaries, parishes and diocesan pastoral councils.

Gender sensitivity courses would be required for all clergy and feminist theory would be a main course in seminaries. This gender policy would be a major breakthrough in a Catholic church anywhere, not just in India.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church in Kerala has announced an aggressive strategy for the political empowerment of women. The state's Marxist-led coalition is seeking to reserve 50 percent of seats for women in local elections slated for 2010. The church seeks to prepare Catholic women, who tend to steer clear of politics, to run for elections. This would lead to Catholic women having a greater voice in local and state politics.

The Indian media, long viewed as a bastion of male privilege, is also changing. Women are highly visible on TV channels and talk shows. Women regularly anchor nightly news shows and host interview panels on all topics, including traditionally male issues such as sports and finance.

A leading example of a high-profile media woman is Barkha Dutt, who came to national prominence for her coverage of the war in Kargil, which occurred between India and Pakistan in 1999. She continues to be a strong voice in the media on issues of regional conflict and hosts one of the more important Indian current-event talk shows, "We the Citizens."

Another is Shireen Bhan, executive editor of the award-wining CNBC TV business news.

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