According to a TrustLaw poll of 370 gender specialists, out of all the G20 Nations India being the worst place to be a woman, second to last is Saudi Arabia.

It hasn’t been 2 weeks since I arrived in India, and this made me sit up and pay attention. I started to observe the women we do,or don’t see around the financial district where we work. Paying attention to traditional clothing worn by virtually every woman alongside men in shirt and jeans, listening again to the warnings about the where we should not go, when we should or shouldn’t be somewhere, noticing the women-only carriages on trains. And then there’s the news.

A 19 year old girl pushed out of a moving train after resisting 4 youths’ attempt to molest her; A 24-year-old woman suffering burns on 90% of her body after her boyfriend set her alight; One police officer charged and 4 suspended following the ‘alleged gang rape of a young woman in a police station’; a teenage girl attempts suicide after the 45-year-old teacher who raped her in December is released on bail; 22-year-old college student driven to suicide after being filmed in her bath and then raped by her cousin and two other. All reported in today’s Times of India.

I’m new to India and wouldn’t presume to have had anything more than a glimpse at the world experienced by women here. I accept that this very glimpse is naturally skewed by my being a foreigner, and a young white woman at that. But I’m not blind to basic observations either so I thought I’d share some of those.

Every morning I walk to work through a crowded city, careful to wear ankle length skirts and high necked T-Shirts, despite the blistering heat. Often I walk home as night falls and by and large I feel safe and comfortable. At the office several of the attorneys are women, strong, intelligent individuals who act as advocates in Mumbai’s High Court on a daily basis. We have male and female legal secretaries and one of the female interns is studying law in Delhi, she has a boyfriend and cracks easy jokes about a blissfully ignorant father.  She makes cheeky remarks as we pass stalls on the main road brazenly selling vibrators that must have been manufactured in the 80s.

Despite all these things the article that declared India so cruel to the female sex still rings true. Why? Because my everyday experiences have a less congenial backdrop that is equally tangible and never too far from sight. I recognise it would be unfair to paint all Indian men with the same brush. I am all too aware that I work in an office full of men who represent child victims of rape, advocate for beaten wives, and much more, all the while treating the women around them with the utmost kindness and respect. I am also conscious of the fact that women, often of older generations are often more than complicit in the suppression of women. But violence against women in India cannot be considered the exception to the rule- it is not isolated incidents or the abhorrent actions of a small proportion, the facts just don’t support such arguments.

On the weekend a young female lawyer was harassed, slapped, and then arrested by plain clothes police officers at 2 am on her way home from a bar with her brother and two friends. They remarked on her attire and reprimanded her for drinking before manhandling her(As reported in the India Express). In response she smacked one- I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. She was arrested despite the fact that it is illegal in Maharashtra to arrest a woman between nightfall and sun up unless in exceptional circumstances (Criminal Procedures (amendment) Act 2005, s46(4)). This particular law was put in place because of, amongst other things, the security risks posed by such actions and the taboo of unaccompanied women (http://www.legalserviceindia.com/articles/afse.htm).

Nevertheless young women are habitually harassed if out late or drinking. According to one of the male lawyers, police who witness an unmarried couple kissing outside a nightclub are likely to verbally abuse her and beat up the man. Such moral policing is on the rise in Mumbai. Our colleague theorised that because living costs are so high, young people are living at home well into their twenties or thirties but no longer forced to wed. As a result they date, but they can’t bring their girlfriends/boyfriends home so they fool around in stairwells or nightclubs. It is this type of behaviour which upsets those who witness public displays of affection, and encourages a clamp down.

Such moral policing is for the protection of our youths, and our women- so I’m informed. In the incident reported above, regarding a girl pushed from a train, the other passengers apparently stayed mute during the entire assault. Later however, after the woman fell 25 feet down the side of the tracks, they collectively thrashed two of the boys involved. Seems to me that whilst men jealously guard ‘their own women’ they have little to no respect for those they find unprotected.

In India, (and sadly much of the rest of the world) a woman’s value is intrinsically tied to her perceived purity. In rural areas it is not uncommon for victims of rape to marry their attackers ‘willingly’- a better alternative to being shunned by society.  Men still give their sisters protective bracelets to warn prospective assailants that the woman in question is under a man’s protection. A sense of ‘ownership’ is pervasive. In the extremes of certain rural communities, such as the Pardhis and Vardus, women are “sold, exchanged, mortgaged and even leased” (Mane 2001). Though this is indeed the extreme, the ‘ownership’ model exists in more subtle forms throughout Indian society. As one article recently put it, women spend their lives being handed over by men, from their fathers to their husbands then their sons in old age. I do not fault the protective instincts anyone would have for family, but this seems an entirely different brand of love. Where honour becomes so central, it displaces all other important ties- there is something terribly worrying about a society that views a father who kills his ‘shamed’ daughter in much the same way as a cattle owner putting a maimed cow out of its misery. The communal worry over taint by association is so ingrained that in one village a man chopped off his daughter’s head and paraded it round town to be a warning to other girls of the consequences of having a relationship with a boy of lower caste. Often such violence is seen as a necessary evil.

From those who don’t condone it I still hear words such as ‘you have to understand the cultural context’ or ‘you must see if from his perspective, not that I agree…’. That just isn’t good enough.

There remains in the eyes of so many men, in everyday situations, the look of a customer weighing up prime meat. The women who wander the promenade, or who sit by them in restaurants, or walk alongside them in the bazaars, they are all theirs to assess, sometimes to take, or to own.  I make this observation based on interactions I’ve witnessed myself in Central Mumbai- it says nothing of what is still commonplace for thousands of women across the state who suffer without a voice. Dalit women are, by virtue of their sex and their caste at best invisible, at worst the objects of violence and collective disdain. Just last week a colleague took on the case of a 3 year old girl “no taller than my knee” who had been raped and beaten and left for dead. She was an ‘untouchable’. The police didn’t take photographs, nor did they encourage the father to file a police report.

In rural areas women are still regularly subject to witch hunts. Hundreds have, to varying degrees, been beaten, raped, tortured, paraded naked through villages, ostracised, driven from their homes and robbed of their land, whilst others are killed, by stoning, beheading or burning. And yet not a single case has been successfully prosecuted in the state. There are no laws against witch hunts in Maharshtra. If you’re lucky your aggressors will be prosecuted for battery, most walk in a couple of months.

All this in a country touted as the world’s favourite nascent democracy.

How do we tackle these attitudes? This pandemic of chauvinism and misogyny? The commonplace acceptance of domestic violence? The collective disdain towards women?

In the west feminists fought to shed the label of ‘victim’ ascribed to women, but here many of those suffering in silence are almost completely denied their agency, their voice. Some truly are denied the capacity to fight. There are many voices within India who are struggling on behalf of those screwed over by this system of castes and ‘morals’ and so called ‘tradition’. As I pass through this incredible country I merely wish to lend my voice to theirs, in this tiny little corner of the internet I want to bear witness, to offer support.

I realise as a British woman, my opinions can’t help but be tainted by history. I am indeed fully aware that Victorian notions of sexuality imported by the English have played a central part in the rigid sex-structures now prevalent across India. Our complicity with the dominant Brahmen caste since the 1800s helped entrench the caste system and stigmatize whole swaths of the population. These colonial stains, and so many more, still linger. I don’t deny that.

But at some point can’t we move on  enough to declare that the past misdeeds of one, do not or should not, permit the continued evils of the other. Enough cultural relativism. It is possible to respect another’s history and religions and culture, and demand more than a superficial nod at female humanity. To renounce sexism is not to undo the traditional make up of Indian Society. To express outrage and disgust at certain behaviour should not be the insult, rather affront lies in silently accepting the like as a mere cultural phenomena.

2 thoughts on “India: the worst place to be a woman?

  1. I really appreciate your concern. You shouldn’t think that your opinions won’t help.

    Past was past. India has moved ahead and along with the world. This is the reason why women of this country of yesteryear ‘snake charmers’ wear jeans, acquaint themselves with modern learnings and enjoy the opportunity to work alongside men in cities. Though this is true only for cities, things are changing at an unimaginable pace in the countryside as well.

    I wouldn’t agree that India is the worst place to be a woman. Though I must say that ours is a traditional, conservative society and people are often opposed to behaviours that are considered foreign. The opposition comes more from women, specially in rural or uneducated households.

    As regards the acts of sexual violence against women, I must say that most of the times these are committed by sick and perverse minds. Indian society or traditions doesn’t permit such crimes and there is no space for sick individuals.
    However, we do need activists and open discussions on these matters to stop or discourage those sick minds.

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