Gang rape cases show need for a new India for women

RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI REUTERS A girl lights candles during a candlelight vigil for a gang rape victim who was assaulted … Continued

RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI

REUTERS

A girl lights candles during a candlelight vigil for a gang rape victim who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Kolkata December 29, 2012.

In the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu scripture, even when the evil Ravana abducts Lord Rama’s wife Sita, her abductor treats her with respect.

But thousands of years after the scripture was written, we are still seeing women in India treated with a profound disrespect of their dignity. To add the shocking gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old medical school student, a second, outrageously similar rape is reported to have occurred last weekend. This is not the India I believe in.

Friends find it odd that I can both express my love for Hindu folklore, Tagore’s poetry and a spicy curry while also describing India as a terrible country for women – all in the same breath. And by that I don’t mean India is terrible for poor women or uneducated women, unprotected women or old women, pious women or irreligious women, illiterate women or unskilled women: I mean all women, whether members of the burgeoning middle class, female foreign tourists or American-raised second-generation Indian women such as myself.  Of course, there are those who have managed to reach the highest echelons of their chosen field: former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, President Pratibha Patil, fashion designer Ritu Kumar, banker Chanda Kochhar, and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi are just a few examples. But too often, these women’s names are brandished as proof that India is a bright beacon of freedom and opportunity, safety and privilege for women in a corner of the world that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, these recent gang rapes reminds us that India has a long way to go in terms of transforming men’s attitudes towards women. Despite its efficient call centers, growing consumer class, and entrepreneurial spirit, the belief that women’s lives are equally as valuable as men’s is hardly a widely-held and publicly-acknowledged belief.

In a country where a woman’s worth is determined by some mystical calculus involving variables such as the fairness her skin, her ability to speak English, her level of education and skills and her assumed virginity, crimes against women such as rape are under-reported for fear of bringing shame to the victim’s family and curtailing her chances for a “good marriage.” Even in the year 2013, what ultimately brings a woman prestige in many families in India is her marriage, despite her inherent value as a human being.  

News blogs and articles reporting the rape and its aftermath describe hundreds of students and women protesting India’s silent permissiveness of violence towards the fairer sex. For the sake of  all of India’s women who have experienced similarly degrading and inhumane treatment in the form of physical, sexual and emotional violence, I hope the public will not diminish its anger but instead control and wield it. By doing so, they can force India’s politicians and police to reckon with the fact that whereas in the past the invisible underclass expected the powerful to rise above corruption, now the elite wields power derived from and by the mandate of the all people.

Let India be a country where the weak no longer endure random acts of violence and tolerate injustice in the hopes that quiet piety would conclude life’s journey in the warm glow of love. Let Indians today, even for the humble and the pious, no longer allow the downtrodden to passively accept their lot. Let India look to its ancient mythology as inspiration for camaraderie and mutual respect between men and women, and among the poor and the powerful.  

Kavita Ramdya is the author of “Bollywood Weddings” and teaches at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.                 

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  • Rongoklunk

    You overlooked the way women are treated generally, and how the caste system contributes to it. As a tourist a few years ago – riding buses and trains – I never saw any man give up his seat to a woman, or let them ‘go first’ through doors, On a local Rajasthan bus I got the passengers in an uproar because I gave up my seat to this young lady – who looked like she worked in the fields, and was carrying two really big sacks which she pushed onto a shelf. I stood up and she sat down. Then it started – the uproar from the men. So she stood up again. So I sat down before another guy could. And I understood loud and clear that men don’t stand up fpr women around here. Or perhaps it was because she was a lower caste, a Dalit perhaps. But still. She was a woman. And one does not stand up for them.
    On a train two young women got aboard and attempted to throw their sacks onto the rack, but a man stopped them doing that because he wanted to sleep up there later. I picked up the bags and threw them onto the rack, and gave up my seat so both women could sit down. The man was furious and looked at me as if he wanted me to explode. I sat on my bag – not sure if I should be doing this – going against the grain in a country that I’ll be leaving soon. But somehow I feel that westerners have it right – to treat women the way we do – as equals, but physically a little weaker. I found it hard not to get involved, but in a sense it’s obviously stupid too because it changes nothing.

  • nkri401

    Rongo,

    I suspect European peasant women were treated not much better.

    Even for the founding fathers to declare all men are created equal was a revolutionary idea, following the French revolution.
    I realize it was … , fraternité, however.

  • Rongoklunk

    Of course you’re right. I’m sure it had a lot to do with both the Enlightenment and the women’s rights movement in the early years of the 20th century. No question. And the weakening of religious influence in the west – and two world wars all helped to make women achieve independence. Compare them to the veiled or otherwise totally covered women in the Muslim and Hindu countries, where they seem to have no independence – no freedom to dress as they would like to. In some countries they’re not even allowed to drive.
    But in the west we know that women are our equals in every way except physically. And we appreciate very much the difference.

  • tiger_parent

    man or woman, it doesn’t matter what your “sexual” orientation is–if a person is able to see another person as a person and not some object, then the world will be a much better place.

  • SaReGaMa

    The author misrepresents Ravana’s charater: it is not for any noble cause, but out of fear that Ravana does not violate his abductee, Sita. In YuddhaKanda, Ravana recounts a past misadventure to a fellow demon, explaining that he had once raped a celestial nymph, whose subsequent curse stipulated that Ravana’s head would “burst into 100 pieces” if he ever forcibly seduced another woman. And it is for this reason that Ravana attempts to seduce Sita into submission every night while she is his prisoner at Lanka.

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