India is defined by misogyny. Hatred of women is woven so tightly into the fabric of Indian society, according to writer Pubali R. Chaudhuri, that any Indian who denies it is lying.
The most recent example is the horrific gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi. But it is no anomaly. “National crime records show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women.” That’s 89% of all the violent crimes in India, and women tend to be blamed and even punished when they are raped — witness the young victim who was told by police to marry the man who raped her.
Sexism begins at conception with parents’ preference for male children, especially if their first child was a girl. Indians abort 300,000-600,000 female fetuses annually, creating a shortfall of 7.1 million females nationwide. Chaudhuri reports that Indians “utter prayers, make vows, observe fasts, bow before this or that divinity,” all with the goal of begetting boys, not girls.
Girls suffer for the sake of their brothers. Boys tend to get more food, a better education, and more of the family estate, Chaudhuri writes. Eventually a girl becomes, practically speaking, the property of her husband and in-laws.
A few years back, by happenstance and Oprah’s book club, I read a string of books by and about Indian women. I found the female characters’ day-to-day lives so disturbing that I had to cut novels about Indian women off my reading list for a long while. Just reading about the rampant misogyny was oppressive.
Not that the United States is proof against systemic sexism and violence against women. I spent many years as a litigator battling company-wide discrimination against women at large employers. In law school I volunteered as an advocate for rape victims. The United States is not innocent, and I do not claim to know all the answers for either my country or for India. But I feel entirely justified identifying and calling out the problems in other nations as well as my own. Worldwide violence against women is so overwhelmingly common that it is everyone’s responsibility to call it out and work against it.
As Sabina Dewan writes, last month’s gang rape “is a tangible chance” for “governments around the world…multinational corporations, and international development and human rights organizations” to “advocate for stronger policies to protect women from violence, harassment, and discrimination.” She argues that countries that improve their treatment of women will enjoy burgeoning economies and higher labor productivity.
Sonia Faleiro identifies one concrete prerequisite to ending India’s sexual inequality: a vast improvement in the criminal prosecution of rapists. “Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction,” she reports. The “police must document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases have to be fast-tracked and not left to linger for years…If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.”
A broader prerequisite to the improvement Dewan calls for is abolishing India’s obsession with female sexual purity. “A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure,” writes E.J. Graff at The American Prospect. India “is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her — and that the solution is to marry the rapist.” Guarding a woman’s purity is her own responsibility; she must pay the price for any failure.
More complicated but at least as necessary is a shift from viewing women as men’s property to understanding them as independent beings with as much potential as males. As Graff writes, the kind of “endemic street harassment” found in India “is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.” Faleiro described in The New York Times the terror women face when commuting between their homes and their universities or jobs. She adds that women are not allowed to feel safe in private spaces either.
India has a long history of treating women as property, perhaps longer than Americans can fully appreciate. One old manifestation, called sati, is the tradition of wives being burned alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres, which some Hindus still observe. Another phenomenon is dowry killings: if grooms’ families demand more money than the bride’s dowry and her family fails to satisfy the demand, the in-laws douse the new bride with paraffin and burn her to death. One woman died this way every 90 minutes in India in 2010.
At every stage of life, Indian women have belonged to men — fathers, husbands, brothers. People do not part easily with property, and men will not acquiesce to their loss of superior status any time soon. But last month’s rape seems to have catalyzed a new fierceness in Indian women’s drive for equality. International support can help them keep it going for the long haul.
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