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Millennial Letters

Fighting Sexism in India

The ghost of a 23-year-old female Indian gang-rape victim who died December 28th still haunts Sindhu, a young Indian woman.*

For her, the phantom lurking behind the tragedy contains the uneasy contours of her own culture. Changing social norms, demographic differences, and technological advances have changed the face of India—for better or for worse. Sindhu believes rapid modernization created such a sense of moral confusion in India that sexual repression has been allowed to fester—with disastrous consequences, as seen by the recent gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi, a horrific event that prompted a national conversation about sexual abuse in India.

But the 19-year-old’s immediate response to the incident was terror. “It scares the hell out of everyone to think what she might have gone through,” she wrote to Millennial Letters from Bangalore, adding:

Everyone feels angry about the incident. They fear that they might be in her place one day. Anger is because of the guilt. Guilt that we have let such incidents go on. Guilt that our society treats women so. Guilt that we have such bad governance. Guilt that we have elected such people into power, people who won’t care for us. All this guilt leads to a lot of anger. I have never seen a bigger movement and so much change happening and all because of one trigger. There is also a lot of fear. Fear that the change may not come, the promises might be broken, that the government might let this pass, that the society will forget. Fear that the moment might pass.

Still, the young student already sees a change in India:

I see a lot of people talking about morals and values. I see people vowing to raise their children to respect women. To consider a woman’s opinions, to let her take important decisions. To ensure that women's opinions matter. To give women more power. I see a matriarchal society on the rise. There was a lot of opposition to introduction of sex education in schools. Now, people are asking sex education to be made compulsory.

It’s hard to say where India really stands on the gender issue. Despite ready globalization and economic success, patriarchy remains entrenched and abuse against women rampant—even while female CEOs stand watch over major business firms.  

Sindhu attributes the paradox to the power of technological advances coupled with a definitive generational shift:

People in the West may talk to their children about tough topics like sex. Well, my mom does talk to me about men, sex-related topics. That is because she is well-educated, brought up well. I have noticed that it is not the same in other families. Most parents don’t know how to talk to kids. Even in the older generation, didn’t talk to their kids either. It wasn’t very necessary. The society was very Indian.

But Sindhu does not dismiss the old ways with a derisive teen shrug. In fact, the modern-minded young woman is quick to defend the benefits of tradition, saying the gender roles in play in an older India gave women different values and afforded them an alternative kind of respect and power. “Yes, women were soft-spoken and looked after the family,” she wrote. “Men made the business decisions. Women let them. People knew their responsibilities and their place in the society. There was a good balance of power.”

This appreciation for tradition is a concept alien to many female rights defenders in the West, who are quick to encourage their Eastern counterparts to crush patriarchy under a distinctly modern, well-turned feminine heel. The disconnect is part and parcel of a cultural divide that remains very real even in the face of globalization. In Washington, DC, Deepali Patel, a young Indian-American, told me some of the West’s criticism of India over the rape case came across to her as slightly “imperialistic” and hypocritical given the West’s own rights issues—for instance, a booming human trafficking business victimizing thousands of women in Europe.

But the relationship between India and the West is nonetheless growing. The information era brought with it a wealth of new approaches to gender roles and expectations; India’s growing participation in international trade sees an ever-growing expansion of imports—not all of them strictly commercial. New ideas have challenged the old ways. Sindhu thinks her generation is better educated and better equipped to deal with all this, saying many of her female peers in India today want to be “more alpha,” by which she means they want to be stronger and more assertive in romantic relationships—which, she said, doesn’t necessarily go over “well with the men who want the women to take care of them instead of themselves.”

These desires come alongside shifting social roles, according to Sindhu:

People are dating more. Women are stepping out of the house more often. They are mingling with the men. Exploring. They have chosen to marry late, have only few kids and stay alone independently and pursue their dreams. Young men are fine with this. It is the older folk that find the idea uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable, and in some cases perhaps downright reprehensible. Households in India are rapidly changing, and technology now has the power to unleash unsavory influences in the hallowed halls of many an Indian home. “With the Internet, porn and the movies, people are discovering their sexuality earlier,” Sindhu told me, going on to describe how this exposure has affected her dating and social life:

Since pre-marital sex is still frowned upon and there isn’t a dating culture, sex is hard to get. Many of my girlfriends (about 16–22 years of age) condemn pre-marital sex. Men will find ways to let out their sexual frustration. I think that is the reason grabbing, groping, and pinching is so common.

The authorities, meanwhile, hardly appear to be champing at the bit in the fight to end such practices. With rape allegations, for example, some doctors still use a primitive “two-finger test” in which they stick their fingers up a woman’s vagina in order to determine its laxity, therefore allegedly being able to evaluate previous sexual activity, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch condemning the practice. The so-called examination “perpetuates stereotypes of rape survivors as loose women,” the report said.

Such practices hardly encourage women to seek out the help of the authorities, so girls like Sindhu come up with their own ways to combat abuse. “I don’t go around looking scared and afraid” anymore, she wrote, later adding, “I still hate men for looking at women like objects and not as people. I hate their thinking. And I have met people who are most chivalrous, and I realize that all men are not perverts.”

But she says her biggest regret is the chilling effect this has on her ability to be herself—a girl coming into her own womanhood:  

I feel extremely uncomfortable when I look beautiful or am wearing something that will make people notice me. In fact, I dress down habitually … It makes me feel safer. Yes, I do wish I could carry off a mini-skirt confidently without feeling vulnerable. I wish I could trust men and date more. I wish I could walk in the dark fearlessly.

Perhaps, as Sindhu’s generation comes into its own, that time will come. 

* Sindhu requested that Millenial Letters only use her first name for fear of reprisals.

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