India today is a very different country from the India of my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today’s India and its economic strength, urbanization and success have made global headlines. Over the past three decades more Indian women have graduated from universities than ever before. They’ve established their professions, married late and chosen their spouse, something I could not do when I lived there.
In many ways, modern Indian women are no different than those in Western countries. What is different is that they live in a culture where women live in fear of acid being thrown in their face, of dowry deaths and of honour killings. That, and other anti-women actions result from a culture where women are viewed as chattel and the property of their male relatives.
According to a UNICEF report in 2007, more than 60 million girls who should be alive are missing worldwide due to sex discrimination. Half of these women are from South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The report describes a shocking litany of violence and abuse such as honour killings, dowry death, abortions, acid throwing, genital mutilation, rape, starvation and child marriages. Girls as young as eight and nine years old have been married off to adult men.
While patriarchy exists in every culture, in India the patriarchal culture is deeply rooted in ancient traditions and practices. The subordination of women has been legitimized by one’s immediate family, relatives and caste. (Those in lower castes are more likely to be and are expected to be exploited.) The harsh anti-women assumptions were thus also institutionalized in the larger Indian society, in education, media, law and the state.
The tragedy of this subordination once again came to light in the now well-publicized, horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23 year-old female student in Delhi in late December. The 23-year-old was on her way home after watching a movie at a shopping mall with a male friend when she was raped by six men as they drove a bus around the nation’s capital. The student died thirteen days after struggling to survive injuries to her ruptured intestines which had to be removed in attempt to save her life.
Indian television quoted a police spokesperson who said that the perpetrators raped the woman for being out at night with a man and that they wanted to “teach her a lesson.” Five of the six alleged attackers have been charged with murder. (The sixth was under aged 18 and will be charged separately and tried in a juvenile court.)
As horrific as this crime is, and the resulting protesters’ anger is warranted, the national outrage is a response to not just this crime but to the accumulative trivialization of thousands of rape cases languishing in the Indian courts for decades.
Kavita Krishana, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association stated, “Every female born in India learns early in life that she cannot seek assistance from the police or anyone else if she is sexually molested. We live in a culture of ‘blame the victims because she is a female’”.
“The problem” stated Krishana, “is at the top”. As evidence, consider that six state Members of Parliament are facing rape charges. In total there are 260 serving politicians who have been charged with sexual assault crimes against women. Many of these charges were laid decades ago.
Also, consider the attitudes of police. The Commissioner of Police in Delhi, Neeraj Kumar, told the protesters “women should carry hot chilli powder to protect themselves from attackers or not leave home without a male relative to accompany them.” The Commissioner then added that “the majority of the rapes are committed by men known to the women therefore police can do little to protect women.” Politicians state publicly that it is the victims who should be held responsible and deserving of the assault if she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Few offenders are ever convicted.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India recorded 572 rape cases in Delhi in 2011 and by mid-December in 2012, 635 rape cases had been reported. Statistics from both years are a vast underestimate, as the report notes how only 20 percent of rape cases are ever reported to the police. Eighty per cent of the rapes are not reported for fear of stigma, family rejection and the slim chance of seeing a conviction. Regrettably, the recent rape and death of the student is not an isolated rape case nor is it the most brutal case in India. The report estimates that, in India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. These crimes occur in public places in urbanized cities, not just in villages.
As if that were not bad enough, gang rapes in India are common and media reports have identified victims who attempted to report their assaults and were in turn raped by the policemen.
As with other patriarchal systems, the South Asian culture is characterized by deep-rooted inequalities in male-female roles and legitimized by social and cultural norms that place men in controlling positions over the lives of women.
The socialization of children into their gender roles, both male and female, begins as soon as they are born. There are great celebrations upon the birth of a son, but solicitous empathy is offered when a daughter is born.
As a result, the Indian society condones, explicitly, the low status of women. Girls are seen as a curse and burden on their parents.
As for Canada, many South Asian immigrants chose Canada because the foundation of this country is built on values of security, freedom and respect for all. Yet, there are thousands of women in Canada whose rights are not respected, who are neither free nor secure, because their families have transported repressive patriarchal cultural values to this country which have resulted in several honour killings in the recent past.
Women are equal to men and have the right to be educated, pursue careers, choose their own spouse, refuse to meet dowry demands and go out for a movie with a friend. If the culture of male privilege does not change, all demands for justice and retribution will be in vain. Thus, while the demonstrators in India are demanding capital punishment for the criminals, what is urgently needed is alteration in the cultural values of many Indian men—and not only in India.
Aruna Papp is the co-author with Barbara Kay of Unworthy Creature—A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, published in 2011 by Freedom Press.