Universal gender equality

IT is at best ironic that a country whose government was ably headed by a woman can cruelly discriminate against its female population generally. The country that we have in mind is India. Its prime minister was Indira Gandhi. And, as a column by June Kronholz in yesterday's Wall Street Journal reminds us, India's social custom of dowries and property transfer in marriage, supposedly banned in 1961, continues apace -- leading to the immolations of brides whose families cannot keep up with dowry demands, which seem to be growing even faster than India's relative material prosperity can support, and to female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses at tragic rates. Bride-burning statistics are not kept in India, but New Delhi police say two women a day in that city alone ``are set afire -- or are driven to set themselves afire,'' Ms. Kronholz reports. Of 8,000 abortions researched in Bombay, 7,999 were of female fetuses. Some 6,000 baby girls are estimated to have been poisoned in one county in India alone in the past decade.

It would be an even worse injustice to consider the mistreatment of women in India as an exclusively Indian problem.

The failure to acknowledge the rights, the abilities, the contributions, the very value and being of women, is a universal human condition. It has been so since the symbolic blaming of Eve in ``the temptation.'' Discrimination against women still corrupts legal codes, property practices, educational prospects throughout the world. Female infanticide persists in evenmore populous China, where birth-control laws are so strict that some families allow only male offspring to survive. In modern democratic European societies, woman suffrage and rights of property ownership remain constricted.

The case of India is instructive. It shows that economic, technological, and scientific advance in life styles alone, or the ostensible public acceptance of women in authority roles, may leave untouched the widespread private discrimination against women. It is not enough to trust recognition of the rights of women to general economic, social, or political progress, as if the issue will take care of itself. Such rights must be specifically and continually insisted upon and sustained.

No theory of social relativity, whether of the role of a dowry system or whatever, can be used to justify valuing a woman for anything other than herself -- in marriage or any other role.

A woman is complete. She needs no add-on of jewelry or cash or refrigerators or career to reach a par with a man in marriage. In the Western workplace, the ``dowry'' is often an expectation of extra hard work and superior performance for women to establish ``equality'' with men.

It is tragic, unfair, an outrage, to smother and suppress the intelligence, gifts, affection, and achievement of half the human race. We should constantly examine our personal, social, ecclesiastical, and political motives and actions to establish the universal gender equality that has yet to be established on earth.

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