The ‘new normal’ is a term we often see used in journalistic writing nowadays. It pertains to the drastic changes in lifestyle and work pattern brought about by the corona pandemic. There is one area though, where another pernicious virus lurks that is fairly resistant to eradication – the virus of disparity between the genders.
Across diverse fields, women have been judged harshly, have had to struggle harder and have been compensated less for the same amount of work. Consider sports. Several youngsters, like my son, enjoy playing and watching basketball. Though there are slight differences in the game for women and men, such as the ball size and the distance of the free throw circle etc., the hoop height from the ground is the same – ten feet. A fancy trick in basketball is ‘dunking’ where the player jumps up and literally slams the basketball into the hoop.
More men are able to dunk than women. Their games attract more audiences. Is it because women have less sporting ability? Not so. It is because the courts and hoop heights are designed keeping the average male height in mind. Ideally the hoops should be higher for men, given that the average male height across countries is more than that of their female counterparts.
For example, in 2020, the average male height in the USA is 175.3 cm and the average female height is 161.5 cm and in India it is 166.3 cm and 152.6 cm respectively. This difference holds across all countries and is significant. Though allowances are made for male competitors with lower weight categories in certain sports, this thinking has not extended fully to factoring in gender. Structural parameters remain the same whether it is swimming pools or games courts or hoop heights.
Women earn less in sports events partly because they are judged on standards calculated for masculine weight and height. While this has probably caused them to excel more, the talent required to do this has not been well acknowledged. In the armed services, there are ongoing discussions on whether women are fit for actual combat roles or not. There is no doubt they are. With the sophisticated weaponry available, one doesn’t necessarily have to be physically very strong to handle it, though strength may be a desirable asset otherwise. Good, sharp reflexes and training are what is needed. The issues are actually more about logistics and additional infrastructure that the military will have to provide along with the patriarchal reluctance to taking orders from a woman.
To understand this argument better, one need only to look at rural areas where women do considerable heavy lifting, be it lugging water, grass or firewood. They carry enormous bundles on their heads. This has not changed even now, when many men are present at home. Men rarely lend a hand with these demanding physical chores in their own homes. If women can be relied upon to do the heavy lifting of several kilograms at home, why cannot they be entrusted with lighter rifles? The bias against women has crept in a little into our laws. If we see the debate raging around abortion we find that the legal system chiefly focuses on ‘independent rights of a foetus’ versus the mother’s right over her own body.
Why should the advocates of a foetus’ independent right to life not debate equally energetically its right to enjoy the lifelong protection and financial assistance of its father as well? Why is the concern and care limited largely to its being born? Even in the case of unwed parents, there are laws in some states that accord the biological fathers some custodial rights over the child though he is not married to the child’s mother.
Conversely, however, on the subject of abandonment of the family by the biological father, the onus rests on the spouse to file a specific case. My daughter, a law student, shared some research on how mothers are even retrospectively made accountable to the foetus in some cases in USA and elsewhere. In the Grodin vs Grodin case from the Michigan court of appeals in 1980 for example, there was an attempt by the child to hold the mother liable for taking Tetracycline antibiotic (prescribed by her doctor) during pregnancy which caused the child’s teeth to become discoloured as a result.
There are thus people who seek to curtail a woman’s rights over her own body, snatch away her privacy and her choices and even cast aspersion on the legendary maternal instinct she shares with the members of her sex. Meanwhile, there is scant debate on the responsibility of older males producing children, even when medical journals inform us that the offspring of older fathers (more than 35 years of age) have reduced fertility and an increased risk of birth defects, some cancers, and schizophrenia. Instead, of being held negligent in any way, men are lauded for their ‘virility’ even at an old age.
The legal system thus does not seem to pin equal responsibility on the father as a parent. The norms of society end up placing additional stresses on women at the most vulnerable period of their lives – during pregnancy. A woman may be battling daily fatigue and nausea. The nearest good quality gynecological care may be available only very far away. The woman is often not supported with help in daily chores or ensuring she has the best nutrition. Sometimes, she is even blamed for being careless if she accidentally slips or gets hurt.
Far less emphasis is laid on the conduct of the father in maintaining a peaceful and harmonious environment at home during the pregnancy. At work, women lose out on wages and career growth when they exceed the stipulated period of maternity leave. Why can’t the government make it a point to create adequate jobs that women can execute from home? Why must women pay a heavier economic price than men for the privilege of parenthood? Recently, there was a case of a pregnant student activist seeking bail. Pregnancy was not accorded a special ground for consideration of temporary bail for her. It is well established that pregnancy can carry risks to the life of the mother and needs special care. This is reflected in many areas; insurance companies do not agree to new insurance for a pregnant woman till after the post-delivery discharge; pharmaceutical companies clearly state on drug labels whether a drug will harm the foetus if taken during pregnancy etc.
When the welfare of companies and fetuses can be factored in, why must women have to fight for concessions for themselves before the judiciary? We must recognize all these prevalent subtle and overt biases if we seek to establish a holistic ‘new normal’ way of life that is equitable. Will the ongoing pursuits of those working towards gender equality slowly usher in a more just ‘new normal’ or will it need the advent of a magic vaccine? Without factoring in the critical aspect of gender, we will simply be lurching from one abnormal state to another.
(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)