Women in India, a Democracy and Future Super Power
In India, where uneducated women are expected to obey their fathers and then their husbands, some are rebelling against violence and injustice. When Sampat Pal was a little girl in India, her parents wouldn’t let her go to school, so she wrote the alphabet on village walls and floors. They finally agreed to send her to school, but removed her when she was 12 to marry a man 13 years older. A year later she had the first of her five children. At 18, she started meeting with local organizations to work on women’s health issues and fight against child marriage, dowry abuse, and domestic violence. Her husband didn’t like her speaking with men but, “He supports me now,” she said. She reported, “There used to be a pervasive feeling of helplessness, a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible, but that is slowly changing.”[i]
She organized the Gulabi (Pink) Sari Gang in 2006 to help victims of domestic violence. She told her group of women, “To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force. We function in a man’s world where men make all the rules. Our fight is against injustice.” The group started with a few women and spread to villages throughout the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The women use clubs and bamboo batons to influence wife beaters, rapists, and corrupt government officials to change. One of the members whose husband used to beat her reported he stopped when she joined the gang; “I learned that the more you suffer silently, the more your oppressor will oppress you.”
When a landlord raped a teenage girl, he paid the police not to investigate. The Pink Gang called the police chief and he got on the case. In 2008 the group discovered that a government shop that was supposed to give free grain to the poor was in fact selling it. The pink-clad women stopped the trucks carrying grain to the illegal market by deflating the tires and taking the drivers’ keys. They pressured government officials to get the grain to the poor. Ms. Pal also teaches women job skills such as weaving plates from leaves and sewing. (See endnote for other youth activists in the news. [ii]) The gang had over 20,000 members by 2008. A movie called Pink Saris was released in 2010, with excerpts online.[iii]
In another pink protest, when Hindu activists criticized a movie star for living with a man without being married and filed criminal suits against her for leading young people astray, the incident outraged thousands of Indian women, who responded in 2010 by collecting many pairs of pink panties and sending them to the Hindu organization behind the attack.
Reeni, a 17-year old female student from India stated, “I want my country to ensure greater safety for women in India. Women should be able to travel and work on their own without worrying about their security. They should get respect and be treated as equals at their workplaces or even while walking on the road or sitting in a bus.”[iv] An Indian male student, Deepak, 18, said he’d like to do away with “self-immolation,” which still is sometimes performed by young brides and widows and he also mentions the problem of slavery.
A high school girl reports,
Women’s liberation is a myth, considering the worsened condition of the fairer sex in the social setup. Though women have increased their contact with the outer world, have reached the pinnacle of success and are now at par with men in all fields, inside the homes, it is the same old story. It is women who carry out all the household. Men are not bothered at all about the extra load that women carry. Moreover, crimes against women refuse to subside. Rape, harassment, dowry, infanticide–the females have to bear it all. To add to this, the society still feels that ladies are inferior to men; it is still male-dominated society.
Garima, teen, f, India www.rdpschool.com
Rajni Jaimini, a high school teacher in Delhi, reports that sex roles are changing. Although her architect husband doesn’t get home until around 9:30 PM, he gets the children ready for school in the morning, and her father-in-law greets them with a snack after he picks them up from school. Although her parents didn’t want her to date in college, some girls who came from outside of Delhi without parental supervision had sex with various boys. They tried to keep it a secret because men want to marry a virgin. What Rajni appreciates about western values is more freedom for women, but she wants to preserve the extended family with the grandparents providing childcare, love, and free place to live. She’s also happy with her arranged marriage, glad she didn’t have to play the dating game.
She reports harassing women, called Eve teasing, is still a problem on the streets and in public transport in the North. The boys are usually migrants from villages who are not used to seeing girls’ legs; they whistle and make comments as happens in the US too. Some universities try to diminish it by banning women from wearing jeans and short skirts. Prevention of dowry burning is the goal of government legislation that permits the groom and his family to be jailed if the bride complains about mistreatment. To deal with overpopulation, Rajni reports government health clinics are widespread where women can pick up free condoms for their husbands or get other forms of birth control from a doctor like IUDs and pills. Women can choose to get sterilized during the hospital birth of their last child.
A novel called Miss New India looks at changing roles of young women. Anjali Bose, 19, is a business college student in the state of Bihar in North East India. Her parents are typically obsessed with the search—including Internet sites–to find her a good husband from similar Kayastha caste and Bengali background, despite not having much of a dowry to offer a suitor. They’re traditional lower middle-class, eating fish and rice with their fingers and the women taking a bath in a sari, the daughters sleeping next to her mother. Anjali wondered, “Marriage equated to servitude, like her mother’s and sister’s. But if not in marriage, how did a woman in Bangalore live?”[v] Her American English teacher urges her, as one of his best students with a special “spark,” to go to Bangalore in the south to find a job in a call center. He hopes she’ll avoid early marriage to someone her parents select and a repetition of her parents’ squabbling and unhappiness.
Suitors like to do home visits where they can assess “the mother’s modesty, the father’s authority, the spontaneous hospitality, the obsequiousness of the staff, the absence of ostentation.”[vi] Anjali agrees to meet an attractive man who her family allows her to spend six hours with him in his red rental car after finding him suitable. He rapes her in the car. That night, while her parents sleep, she escapes to Bangalore in jeans and T-shirt, suffering groping and fear while traveling alone. Her English teacher found a boarding house and lent her money to get her established, taking a crash course on how to do service calls for Americans, learning about US TV shows, chain store names, and sport metaphors.
As an attractive woman, Anjali is befriended in Bangalore by a man she calls Mr. GG whose wife refused to leave the US. He comments about his wife, “I find American-raised Indian girls too independent. They lack true family feeling.”[vii] Anjali agrees to have sex with him once, but doesn’t accept his offer to travel with him outside of India. She decided, “If I’m to give myself away, it might as well be to a well-established man who saved me and performed favors and kindnesses. A well-connected man who would owe me.” She gets caught in the midst of a terrorist plot, and Mr. GG rescues her. After being in jail, the police offer asks her why she didn’t let him know she had connections.
Her English teacher told her that historically India isn’t structured around networking and contacts, but around family and community, which falls apart in a big city like Bangalore with people from all over India. She makes her own network; her new connection with Mr. GG gets her a job as a telephone debt collector and she finds a wealthy family who takes her in like a daughter. Could she have made these connections without being an attractive tall green-eyed woman? She tells her new friends they’re part of a social revolution and someone asks, “Are we riding a tiger, have we started something we can’t control?” Anjali realizes her parents’ generation’s fight was to establish an independent India, which was achieved, but “I’m terrified, tempted, and corrupted by the infusion of vast sums of new capital.”[viii] Mr. GG writes in a newspaper column “’The New Miss Indias will transform our country. Dynamo is inflamed by the new species of tiger-lamb.” It’s not clear how Anjali is a tiger, since she depends on men to rescue her.
Since India is a BRIC nation, one of the rising economic superpowers, we need to understand if it will continue in the conservative patriarchal direction practiced by the 80% who live in villages. Or will India expand on the dedication to equality of some of the educated elite who live in urban areas—considered decadent and westernized by traditionalists. The three catastrophic issues facing India in this century are population explosion, the AIDS epidemic (over 2.5 million people with HIV) and female genocide—all are sex related.[ix] Yet sexuality is a taboo subject, despite the fact that India may overtake China as the most populous nation before 2030. Over half of Indians are under 22, childbearing age.
In Sex and Power, Rita Bannerji analyzes this important question in terms of the horrifying treatment of women, which fits the definition of genocide: abortion of girls, female infanticide, child brides (about 65% of girls marry before the legal age of 18), dowry murders (an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 yearly[x]), polyandry where a girl is married to brothers—catching on in areas with a shortage of girls, gang rapes, honor killings, and neglect of girls’ health and education. As a proverb says, raising a daughter is like watering a plant in your neighbor’s yard. A girl is an outsider both in her family of origin and her husband’s family. These cruel practices resulted in the elimination of around 50 million women. The 2011 census revealed the problem got worse: the gender ratio for children six and under is 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, the lowest ratio since independence, down from 927 girls in the last census.[xi] She points out that missing women phenomenon carries over to Indian communities in other countries. She adds that, “thousands of women who live in horribly abusive violent marriages in India would get out. Divorce, just like marriage, is a family/community decision–not an individual choice. If they got out, they would face excommunication.”
Ms. Bannerji reviews the “yo-yo” history of religion in India from celebrating sexuality to abhorring it to find a precedent for gender equality and a healthy acknowledgement of human sexuality. She found a model in Tantric philosophy, based on equality and balance between female and male, Shakti and Shiva. But in modern times, sex is not discussed; even kissing in movies is unusual and very chaste. An example of resistance to airing sexual problems is production of the film Water (2005), about child widows in the 1930s, was shut down in Varanasi by Hindu fundamentalist groups and the state government.[xii] Four years later woman director Deepak Mehta completed the film in Shi Lanka and the DVD is available in the West. Poor houses for widows still exist.
Girls and boys are not supposed to interact, due to the religiosity of conservative people. Yet at the same time it’s become acceptable for girls to show flesh in beauty pageants, films, and modeling. Ms. Bannerji believes, “Female genocide in India is the psychopathic fallout of the socialized dichotomy of men and women and sex and the sacred, and the inability of Indian society to overcome this schizophrenic vision.”[xiii] The future is bleak, she believes; because of widespread illiteracy and politicians cater to the majority religious conservatives to get their votes.
Her campaign to bring female genocide to public outrage is explained at www.50millionmissing.in, including a petition to sign. The website includes distressing comments from readers like this one:[xiv]
I have lost my 24-year, well-educated daughter Anshu Singh, in North East Delhi. She faced dowry death on January 2010 just after 45 days of her marriage. I have great concerns about my rest two daughters. I am in fear how to save them from this cruel world of making crimes on girls. My family is in great trauma since two months. The police are not taking pain to catch the culprits.
Ms. Banerji informed me in an email in 2010 “young India refuses to challenge the old ideologies and traditions that have reduced women to the status of trash in this country.”
Within India more than 60% are unaware of the degree of female genocide in India (they know its a lot but they don’t know how many). But when they are informed of the scale they don’t doubt it. They hear about feticides, infanticides and dowry murders on regular enough basis on the news and people talking, so they don’t question the scale of it. But what is worrying is that we don’t see the reactions that we think are necessary to gear a public condemnation or rejection of the practices. So for instance outside India our survey shows responses like horror, shock, anger, etc. But within India we are not seeing these responses. And we feel that we are now dealing with is a widespread and deeply rooted psychosis.
Here is an interesting article on why women characters must be traditional on TV–taking hardship and abuse subserviently. [xv] It says, “The makers of these serials say TV gives as good as it gets–women are usually appreciated by audiences as subservient, overtly loyal and moralistic or evil, conniving and home-breaking characters. Television cannot be about superwomen. It has to be about the average Indian women; otherwise it will lack identification,” Ekta Kapoor, the creator of India’s most wanted ‘bahus’ [young daughter-in-laws are a popular soap opera story] Tulsi and Parvati, told IANS.
So yes they respect the older generations–and so customs like dowry, dowry related murders, female feticide and female infanticide perpetuate. And it gets worse every year. Old India is based on the idea of the patriarchy, which is absolute in its control, and submission of women. The old sayings are “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” “Having a daughter is like spitting in your neighbor’s yard.” “A girl leaves her parents’ house in her wedding palanquin. It is only her bier that can return.” And so young India refuses to challenge the old ideologies and traditions that have reduced women to the status of trash in this country.
For example, one dowry related case that we dealt with in the 50MM campaign involved the murder of a young, highly educated woman who was working for multinational company. When her in-laws and husband continued to press for more and more money even after the marriage, she began to take out large loans through her company to give them that money. She was killed 45 days after the wedding. The same thing with female feticide.
Another case we had–where this young woman doctor, whose husband was also a doctor, was being harassed by her husband and in-laws to abort her twin girls. She was not only a professional but came from a wealthy, upper class, well-educated family. She did get out, but last year she was trying to return to her husband and in-laws house because she told me, “The children must have a father.” When her baby was six-months-old the mother-in-law tried to kill her by kicking her down the stairs. She was saved because she was strapped to her cradle. So I asked the mother–how can you think of something like this? She was financially able and the children were safe and happy. She basically told me, “In our society the children must have a father and we must learn to forgive.” You may want to read the “Democratic” or modern section that I cover in my book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies.
Nisha Singhania, senior director of Grey Worldwide India, reports a decade ago, most young women saw themselves as housewives.[xvi] Later, most said they wanted to be teachers or doctors. “If they had a profession at all, it had to be a noble cause,” Singhania says. “Now, it is about glamour, money, and fame.” Nikita, 13, says, “I want to be known for what I do, so you just wait. You’ll hear of me someday, but until that day happens, keep peace.” In the past, “As a girl, you never spoke to your parents. They spoke to you.” But today 67% of these young urban women say they plan to take care of their parents into their old age. Many plan to marry when they’re ready, not when their parents want, and 65% believe dating is a necessary preliminary to marriage. “The relationship with the husband used to be one of awe,” Singhania says. “Now, women want a partner and a relationship of equals.”
Female role models in Indian culture used to convey perfection, Singhania says. Now, 62% of girls say it’s O.K. if they have faults and that people see them. Watch a short video interview with Indian women business leaders, some of whom inherited their leadership from their fathers.[xvii] A business professor explains on the video that the reason for more women in technology enables more flexible work arrangements and leads to a more gender-neutral business world. Also, the increase of smaller families encourages fathers to pass their businesses to daughters. Political role-models include Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful figure in the ruling Congress Party, like her mother-in-law former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
[iv] Outlook Magazine, January 12, 2004
[v] Bahrain Mukherjee. Miss New India. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, p. 258.
[ix] Rita Banerji. Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies. Penguin Books, 2008, p. 285.