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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Will women get universal access to technology?

Despite the fact that technology has been interwoven in human life in various forms such as cars, television, computers, Internet and mobiles, women in some countries have been deprived of its use on the pretext of social norms 

Recently, an unusual incident linked with women and mobile phones turned into a hot topic of debate in the media. A group of women from Asara village in Uttar Pradesh's Muzzaffarnagar district voluntarily gave up using mobile phones along with wearing jeans to prevent any kind of sexual assault.
The group believed that use of cellphones possibly led to situations like relationships and love marriages that are 'unwarranted' and 'strictly not allowed' in certain parts of north India.
Clearly, the society and its norms played a bigger role forcing the group indirectly to give up use of mobile phones.  

''India is a democratic country but the rules play out very differently in local regional contexts, partly owing to the vast cultural differences within the country itself. This is a cultural imperative rather than a religious one,'' says Dr. Meena Gopal, a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

''Women are often seen as the bearers of the honor of the community, and this honor is considered embedded in the spiritual-moral - a realm normatively given over to the woman as homemaker. Too much of mobility in the 'public sphere' - as symbolised by the cellphone, is therefore seen as undermining this realm. At a related level, it is curbing of independence of the woman,'' Dr Gopal adds.

Sagarika Chakraborty, a Mumbai-based lawyer and writer says, ''It has been a long standing view that if you keep women away from exposure to modern outlook she will remain timid and meek. In every culture, modernism and technological advancement have been blamed by traditionalists to have corrupted women. Before internet and mobiles, it was Bollywood that was blamed for rising hemlines and plunging necklines. This is nothing new.'' 

However, other countries like Saudi Arabia for instance bans women from driving cars, restricts them from using camera-mobile phones while attending public functions or gatherings.  

Iran had banned women from watching football matches on TV during Euro Cup 2012. Going back to Taliban regime in Afghanistan, women were barred from using computers and Internet. Such restrictions are largely driven by social influence of orthodox religious groups and clerics rather than anything else. 

''The reasons vary in different contexts; often it is the norm of retaining women within the domestic sphere and the kinds of work they can do there that drives these diktats. This is changing today. However, with the illusion of choice being offered to women and access to technology being made a symbol of that choice - this still retains gender roles,'' Dr. Gopal points out.

But why restrict women from using technology that has become an integral part of human life across the world? ''It is a misnomer that religion prevents us from being exposed to modern gadgets and technology. Even if that is the case, no religion talks about only subjugating women to such conditions,'' Chakraborty remarks.

She criticized the patriarchal society rather than any religion for the present situation. 

''Be it in Afghanistan or India the underlying fear is losing the dominance that the patriarchal society has on women. However, blaming religion for it is the easy way out. Even in UP if you ask the panchayat they'll quote Sita, they will talk about culture and what Manu wrote about women being equal to chattel still holds true,'' Chakraborty explains. 

Moreover, Chakraborty says, ''The fear that technology will bring in freedom, exposure and thus women will start questioning dominance and break down the age old dogmas still prevails in society.''

The ban on use of mobile phone by women might be an isolated case in India compared to other countries; however, for a country with over 900 million mobile phone users, it certainly reflects a different ground, which is highly dominated by societal norms and group or community driven ideologies.

''Yes. Several restrictions and violence operate in different contexts - for example, torture of wives for dowry, extreme violence if a woman wishes to marry outside her caste, are known to happen,” Dr. Gopal comments.

''This, however, must not be stereotyped to describe Indian society as a whole. As for technology, it is home-based technologies that are primarily targeted at women. Also, a new image of the Indian woman is being built up through the media - one who is tech-savvy, in control, even better than the man. The analysis, therefore, will have to be nuanced,'' she adds. 

On the contrary, Chakraborty says, “We are a lot of hypocrites - we are first ones to stand up and say that the country is going to dogs and run away from it at the first opportunity and then we accept such dictum like the UP case.''

''It just shows that for every baby step that we take towards women empowerment there are bigger forces pushing us back by greater strides. We are moving from being developing to developed only on paper, no matter how many technological advances happen, till the basic gender disparity is solved no advancement will make any sense,'' she says.

According to Chakraborty, technology is a boon, it helps in simplifying and empowering lives but is treated like a curse. ''It also shows how insecure we are and how we at heart know that our age old system is based on weak pillars - one blow of exposure and freedom and it shall fade away. Thus, we choose such avenues like banning mobiles so that our women remain tamed,'' she concludes.

Will the society and culture across the world change their views on women and give them the due respect they deserve without any restrictions?
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