In June 2012, TrustLaw, a Thompson Reuters Foundation Service organization, released a poll ranking the G20 countries in terms of their overall environment towards women. Canada, not surprisingly, ranked first, while India ranked last, even behind Saudi Arabia. Why the world’s largest democracy has failed to create a safe and supportive environment for women remains a difficult puzzle.
A Herd Mentality
Walking around any Indian city, one immediately become saware of the dearth of women on the street. Though India has certainly democratized substantially and become egalitarian in many ways, a woman walking around outside, alone, is a rare sight. I would contend that much of the violence directed towards women stems primarily from large groups of men. With the correct situational factors, groups of bored, high-testosterone young men can easily harass women, with little accountability. In The Person and the Situation, Stanford Professors Lee Ross and Richard E. Nesbitt describe how group dynamics can create a sense of diffused responsibility, in which individuals feel barely responsible for their own actions. Furthermore, in high-adrenaline, demanding situations, individuals often defer to the morality of a group. Daring to raise one’s voice in a group situation can often lead to persecution from the very group of which one is a part.
The price exacted when Indian men don’t raise their voices in dangerous situations is staggering. In July, working at a news station, I watched unedited footage of a 17-year old girl in Guwahati, Assam, being harassed, then molested, beaten, stripped and insulted by a group of young men. A journalist, supposedly ‘doing his job,’ filmed the entire ordeal, and made no attempt to help her. In my opinion, he glamorized the role of these molesters who all but performed for the camera, thrusting the helpless, undressed girl in front of the lens, humiliating her, mocking her for wearing a skirt, being in a bar, and allegedly rebuffing their earlier advances. Watching the footage again and again on the news would make any woman want to punch her fist through a wall. This is not the first time that men have descended on women in this fashion; even in more populous urban and public areas, women are vulnerable and exposed to the dangers of being overcome and molested by large groups of men. On New Year’s Eve several years ago, a woman accompanied by her male friend was molested at the Gateway of India, where hundreds gathered at midnight.
What the Indian government and population fail to realize is that this herd mentality and treatment of women affects the countries in many negative ways. For example, educated, cosmopolitan women leave India to study and work, often choosing to settle elsewhere, draining the country of a great deal of talent and arguably its best potential advocates for women’s rights. In India itself, women that could positively impact change in India’s social structures shy away from public life, fearing the shame and reputation desecration that they might have to endure. Finally, our population underestimates the shocking influence that these acts of violence can have on female tourists; many bright, eager, self-professed Indophiles leave the country vowing never to return again.
A Nation of Gawkers
India is a truly a nation of gawkers, as exemplified by a media that is invasive to a terrifying extent and idle groups of young men who are looking to make a scene. The sad truth, however, is that much of the gawking, leering and mocking is done when women, who are often absent in Indian society, are thrust into the limelight. Perhaps it began with the obsessive objectification of Bollywood actresses, each struggling to outdo each other in “item numbers,” to win the attention of the media. Nonetheless, it is a trend with dangerous consequences. National award-winning track athlete, Pinki Pramanik, was the unfortunate victim of the obsessive Indian curiosity. Accused by her live-in girlfriend of being a male and of rape, Pramanik was already treading on the dangerous grounds of homosexuality and gender identity. A mere accusation was sufficient for the media, the police and the residents of her small village in West Bengal to reduce this Asian Games gold-medalist to an inferior, second-class citizen. India might be ‘shining,’ but at what price? Manhandled as she was taken from her home, groped by a policeman in the glare of media bulbs, lodged with male incarcerates in prison, and secretly videotaped during one of her three sex-determination tests at a hospital that couldn’t even deliver conclusive results, Pinki Pramanik has been thoroughly humiliated by Indian authorities. She has been judged, scrutinized and jeered at by hordes of people who didn’t know enough and did not have the right to pass any judgment on her. Eventually, Pramaik was deemed incapable of rape once the third sex-determination test concluded that she was female. She was released on bail after 25 days in prison, but not without permanent scars to her psyche and self-image. The concept of privacy and personal space really doesn’t exist in India, and though this does give India its reputation of friendliness and hospitality, the fine line between interest and invasiveness is often blurred. Unfortunately, as one of the most unprotected groups in the country, it is the women of India who are the most susceptible to the adverse effects of media and societal invasiveness.
Arguably, the most shocking thing about the public dissection of Pramanik and her life, was the byte played on TV stations of her fan going through the crowds of people that had gathered outside her house. Pramanik sat in the back, her head covered while men banged on the windows and jeered. But it was the women of the village that shocked me most of all, clustered into small cliques, giggling, pointing and snickering, as though she were an outsider. Thus women in India face a final torment. The sordid reality is that Indian women seem to either suppress or ignore other women who are beneath them in status. In rural areas, women continue to perpetuate sexist practices ingrained by patriarchal societies. From birth, girls are seen as an economic drain on family resources by both parents, as dowry prohibition regulations are rarely enforced. Women of the family too, often perpetrate the brutal procedures of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. And even though one of our strongest and most visible politicians is a woman, male advisors surround her. Though relative success has been seen in the Southern states of India, where government benefits and subsidies have diminished the notion of daughters being a curse, the status quo for ambitious girls and young women is still abysmal.
In part, it’s the same finger-wagging grandmothers who hold women back in urban areas as well. Young women in particular find it difficult to seek refuge and help when they are threatened in part because older generations view this behavior as some sort of a comeuppance for having ‘Western’ beliefs. This is the same kind of “she had it coming,” attitude that has inspired thousands of women around the world to participate in empowering ‘Slutwalks.’ In the village of Baghpat, for example, a mere 50km from India’s capital, a group of local governing bodies, known as the khap, issued several Taliban-like diktats, including that women below the age of forty should not be allowed to go to the market, should cover their heads and faces outside the house, and be should banned from using cell phones. In Mumbai, a police officer wreaked havoc on the nightlife of the city by arresting women who had entered nightclubs without paying an entry fee on the trumped up charge of prostitution. As India has grown and globalized, this East-West conflict has manifested itself as an Old-Young conflict, leaving many Indian women floundering without the advice and support of their elders. Women can simply no longer be the casualty of a war brought on by the rapid development of India.
A War of Their Own
There are days when one wonders whether anything will ever change in India. Laws are archaic and useless. Quota systems are helping, but aren’t solving the problem. Often the power a woman has to resist sexism is based on economic status, and whether one lives in an urban or rural area. Few men would dare to actually assault a city girl, who looks like she might have powerful connections, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t be forced to feel uncomfortable under a sleazy gaze. There doesn’t appear to be an easy way out of this problem. We can hope that quotas and the emphasis on having women in local government will ease the pathways to parliament for most women. As India takes its place as a formidable economy and democracy on the world stage, one hopes that the inflow of wealth will lead to the financial empowerment of women. Ultimately, Indian society must change from within, and alter its perceptions of women as more than just a commodity or burden. Indian women have been phenomenally successful around the world, in business, media, government and the arts, and we deserve the chance to be just as successful in India, without the fear of stigma or sexual harassment.
Perhaps the men of India are afraid of women, afraid of what might happen if women unite against the perpetrators of gross injustices. And maybe they ought to be. Because after all the suppression, the restrictions, the horrors that we have endured, one could imagine that they might want to start a war of their own. And I’m not sure that most Indian women would be able to resist joining that army and their cause.
This article was written on November 3, 2012.