Tuesday, 31 August 2010

On a Small Death

Anti-discrimination legislation is to be found in jurisdictions worldwide. Protection from race, sex and disability discrimination are the most common, but legislation relating to discrimination of other types such as age, gender and religion is being introduced. Jersey has a recognised presence on the international stage. It follows that the Island should have the necessary legislation in place in order to command respect as a jurisdiction that promotes modern standards of respect for individuals' rights and encourages equality and harmony between its citizens. (Jersey, Draft Discrimination Jersey Law)

Funding for Jersey's discrimination laws could be removed under plans for States departments to save money. The Home Affairs Minister, Senator Ian Le Marquand, has proposed the cut in a bid to reduce spending by 2%. (BBC Radio Jersey News, 26 July 2010)

In India, as in many parts of the world, women are often seen as second class citizens, and when a child dies, there can be a feeling of relief, of the loss of the burden. For the ancient civilisations of the world, while it was not unknown for some women to rise to positions of power, they were invariably treated for the most part as inferior to men. And in the so-called civilised West, it has taken great moves with respect to antidiscrimination laws to ensure that women are treated in the same way. Jersey still does not have these in place.

Even now, in the West, religions propagate their own discrimination, as for instance against women priests or women bishops on women imams. And yet quite often the same societies and religions promote the ideal of the family, and they almost deify the mother.

In researching discrimination against women, I came across a beautiful poem by an Indian writer about death of a small girl. It is poignant and makes its point so well. But more on that later.

The poet was Uma Shankar Joshi (1911 - 1988) who was an eminent poet, scholar and writer, who received the Jnanpith Award in 1967 for his contribution to Indian, especially Gujarati literature. Gujarati is a state in India, whose capital is Gandhinagar, and largest city is Ahmedabad. It is home to the Gujarati speaking people of India - India being a nation forged under colonial rule from many smaller states , cultures and languages. The most notable Indian born in Gujarati was, of course, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi (rather like "Christ" as a surname, Mahatma is a title meaning "Great Soul" that has been subsumed into language as a Christian name). Joshi was also well known for writing about the life of Ghandi - here is a short tale from Ghandi's early life:

Mohan was very shy. As soon as the school bell rang, he collected his books and hurried home. Other boys chatted and stopped on the way; some to play, others to eat, but Mohan always went straight home. He was afraid that the boys might stop him and make fun of him. One day, the Inspector of Schools, Mr Giles, came to Mohan's school. He read out five English words to the class and asked the boys to write them down. Mohan wrote four words correctly, but he could not spell the fifth word `Kettle'. Seeing Mohan's hesitation, the teacher made a sign behind the Inspector's back that he should copy the word from his neighbour's slate. But Mohan ignored his signs. The other boys wrote all the five words correctly; Mohan wrote only four. After the Inspector left, the teacher scolded him. "I told you to copy from your neighbour," he said angrily. "Couldn't you even do that correctly?" Every one laughed. As he went home that evening, Mohan was not unhappy. He knew he had done the right thing. What made him sad was that his teacher should have asked him to cheat.

Not surprisingly, the Gujarati Tourism site features a good deal about Ghandi. And of course, India celebrated 63 years of freedom on August 15, this year. But the state is under pressure. The fear is so real that just a week before the customary address, the Prime Minister delivered a sombre message via radio to the country, and specifically to one part of the country - Kashmir. Violent clashes between police and demonstrators have highlighted the the alienation felt by Kashmiris, but across the nation, there are separatist movements attacking India's unity and integrity.

Internecine strife and violence based on religious beliefs was never uncommon in Indian history, and the British rulers strengthened such divisions incalculably. But, Independent India has witnessed a growing trend of communal tensions, largely derived from majority communalism but receiving heightened response from minority fundamentalism.(1)

The Times of India highlights both the political movements, and also an underlying and independent ideology, which is a backlash against the social values promoted in Indian society as a unity, and which it calls "communalism". With this harking back to the past, it is clear that women are, once more, the losers:

All represent a backward and retrograde thinking opposed to modern values of individual freedom, equality and social equity. Such values exist as a reservoir beneath the surface, and find expression in social evils such as dowry and bride burning (there were 7,456 dowry deaths last year), female feticide (an estimated 5-7 lakh female fetuses are aborted every year despite stringent laws), untouchability and caste discrimination. As can be seen, they are often expressed in relation to women who are sought to be treated as second-rate citizens, and prevented from joining the country's mainstream. (2)

And this brings us back to the poem by Joshi which I mentioned at the start , and here it is:

On a Small Death

Who is there to weep for your little girl who died too soon?
Yet we all wept with reasons each our own:
Grandma wept conventional tears
Through glad at heart burdened house was rid of a girl;
Mother - poor Mother - secretly shed her sorrow, thought you never knew;
And the good neighbors who always joint to help the dead to final rest,
Why should they weep for what is second-hand sorrow to them?
I could have wept, but thought: why weep for so small a death?
And thus, we all mourned, as men must at death,
According to custom, resting foreheads in our hands.
Finally we lifted you, a small burden, from that sad house;
We walked a little, turned the corner toward the burning grounds
And there she was, your little friend, at the window.
She looked intently, watching your new game:
To Climb up like that and sleep on grown-ups shoulders:
We, the mournful, paying no attention moved on, Suddenly it dawned upon your friend;
This cruel game - your grim departure: She cried her lament aloud.
She moaned, the only one in the world to feel your loss.
And I who never meant to weep
could hardly hold my tears.

- Uma Shankar Joshi

(1) http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/story.htm
(2) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/A-million-mutinies-now/articleshow/6308883.cms
(4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-10760402
(5) http://www.statesassembly.co.uk/documents/reports/27881-37143-522008.htm

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