Whitewashing women out of public memory

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need to commemorate the memory of more women, whether by building their statues or naming roads or institutions after them. Why? Because it’s crucial to remember who we are as a people and that our legacy includes not just powerful men in public life but also women who, despite the odds they faced, still surged ahead.  

The conference room at the National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body that advises government on policies for women, is remarkable for one feature: The absence of women on its walls.

There are standard-issue portraits of the prime minister and president, yet when I recently pointed out that a few additional portraits of inspirational women might not be out of place, the suggestion was brushed off.

But why blame the NCW? Across India, how many women do we honour by naming streets after them or building their statues and hanging their portraits? Indira Gandhi gets an international airport. Rani of Jhansi is valourised in statues. Savitribai Phule’s portrait very often hangs along side that of her husband. Anyone else?

In New Delhi, women barely get more than a half dozen roads. There’s the artist Amrita Shergill, Gandhiji’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, freedom fighter, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Mother Teresa.

It’s not just India. In the US, fewer than 8% of the 5,193 outdoor public sculptures of individuals are of females and, in the UK, writes Nilanjana Roy in The Financial Times, only 2.7% of “historical, non-royal” figures were women, found writer Caroline Criado-Perez.

India does have its share of remarkable women. Tragically, we have obliterated them from public memory.

Historian Ramachandra Guha has no shortage of recommendations — from Hansa Mehta, member of the Constituent Assembly and first vice chancellor of MS University, to musician Kesarbai Kerkar who, like MS Subbulakshmi, was born in an OBC family and had to combat caste prejudice.

“Why not name the Crafts Museum after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who set it up? Why not name the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow after Janaki Ammal where she was the director or the Chennai Music Academy auditorium after MS?” asks Guha.

To be remembered, women don’t require giant statues on the lines of Sardar Patel or Shivaji. A few modest portraits and busts would do.

Why bother? Because it’s crucial to remember where we come from, who we are as a people and what we stand for. Our historical and cultural heritage includes not just powerful men in public life but also the women who, despite all the odds, managed to surge forward, make their own paths and, in doing so, show us the way ahead.

Public spaces, and this includes the town square, the roads we walk on, our public parks and museums, belong to everyone. When we remove traces of women’s memory from them, we are teaching our young citizens about the worth of a woman’s place in the public realm. We are telling them that women simply do not belong and that our place is in the home, not in public.

And, yet, at a civilisational level, our most celebrated statue is that of a woman: Mohenjo Daro’s famous dancing girl. Some 4,500 years later, we should be asking why we don’t bother to commemorate more women.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times of January 13, 2019

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