The recent rape of a photojournalist in the metropolitan city of Mumbai was reported in the global media extensively. As an Indian expat living in the US, the coverage of my homeland in the western media vacillates from one extreme to another. Readers in 2008 perhaps would remember the blistering rise of the next global superpower. The reports seem so exuberant and so incredibly optimistic; one would be forgiven for fearing that we would soon all be ruled by Indian Engineers. This positive coverage was fleeting. Reality soon crept in with familiar force and the news soon transformed itself into the negatives, the rampant corruption, the flaccid growth in the Economy and then… the sexist and misogynistic attitudes of the Indian male.
The last one seems to becoming more and more evident these days. Multiple gang rapes, constant reports of Indian and foreign women being harassed seem to be reported on a daily basis. As someone who spent a few years in India, these reports are not at all surprising. They are heartbreaking no doubt, but I have seen this way too often. There is always a particular case that captures the media and the populist sentiments, people rally, the Govt. comes up with promises to do more, the opposition blames it all on the party in power and we go about with our lives, soon forgetting the incident, too captured by the allure of Bollywood actors and our never ending attempt to vicariously live through them. I began thinking about this recently after reading the CNN article about an exchange student and her experiences in India. To say that it made me ashamed would be an understatement. It made me hate my country. It made me despise my culture and the people from it. Trolls on the comment boards seem to indicate that this was not an Indian problem, but a global problem, I reject this notion. It’s a little broader than that, it’s a south Asian problem, and also an African problem. I will focus on the Indian continent, mainly because; I know the most about it.
Sexist Religions: India as a land represents a cultural and mystical nation to the rest of the world. The history of the nation goes back thousands of years. The ancient Indians were the pioneers of astronomy and mathematics. The Indian land has made ubiquitous the many spices that constitute our exotic cuisines. Cloaked in its mysticism, is a history that reeks of sexism. You see, the reason for most of India’s problems could be ascribed to politics, corruption etc. but fundamentally, the reason why to an outsider, it bay appear backward, is because very little of the ancient culture went through a transformation and modernization. Some traditionalists are perhaps proud of this very fact. Take the religions for example. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Its main texts, The Ramayana, The Bhagawat Gita and The Mahabharata were written thousands of years ago with the oldest preserved parts found around 400 BCE. And the traditions and customs espoused in these texts solidified the traditional role of the Indian Male and carved that into the social fabric for generations to come. The head of the household was always the Father. The Mother or Wife was there to serve the needs of the husband and take care of his family. There is a phrase that is used ubiquitously in these texts, and that is “Pati Parmeshwar” which basically translates into “My Husband is God”. A barbaric practice (outlawed by the British) was Sati, where a widow would jump into her husband’s funeral pyre as a mark of sacrifice. The other main religions in the country are Islam and Sikhism. Both of these religions are resultants of cultures that discriminated against women. In Islam for example, In a trial, the testimony of one man is equal to two women. Even for inheritances, men get a larger share than women. Of course, the religion tries to introduce reforms and mask its bias by citing the larger responsibilities of men, it inherently creates fertile grounds for people to take it and run with its message. The Ulemas and the Priests interpreted these in the harshest terms and the masses enforced their ill-conceived understanding of it.
Cultural Summary: The bottom line was this across all religions in the Indian subcontinent; women exist for the pleasure and comfort of man. Even now, majority of the nation’s women do not work and are traditional homemakers. There is nothing wrong in this, if it is the choice of the woman, but in most cases it’s not. This thinking is indoctrinated into the psychology of every one, adults and children. A woman who chooses to work and mingle with men is judged and has to fight the judgmental eyes of her family and also her community. Sexual assault victims are blamed because they wore clothes that aroused the men around them. Of course leaders throughout its history have tried to introduce reforms, but these only go so far and are often lip service. The traditional rural and even urban gentry have not changed.
Modern India: The modernization of the country has brought about challenges to the established order. The traditional roles of men and women are now being redefined by the youth. And therein lie the hope of the nation. This is perhaps the only way there will be a social change. But it will be extremely messy. The percentage of literacy is still drastically different between men and women. Women still are confined to the home in many older families with the elders disproving of those who venture out of the house and choose to live by themselves or work. These are staggering realities of India; these cannot be solved by protests or by speeches by politicians. These need to be understood by the people of the nation, and this will only happen when the younger generation controls the country. So we are atleast a couple of generations away from that. The current demographics are interspersed between half of the population under 25 years and half older. The numbers will rise for the younger generations but a lot depends of the older generations as well. They need to understand that they can no longer marginalize the women of India. They are fighting the oppression, making drastic gains in education, innovation, entertainment and even politics. They are at the table and demanding respect, equality and to be treated with respect. They are tired of being looked at as baby making machines or objects of sexuality. The Indian male, the ugly Indian male, needs to realize that he is just one wheel of the Indian bicycle. They can try to stop them, but I can assure you, they will not be successful.