Every 20 minutes, a woman is raped in the largest democracy in the world. Whether it is 20 or 2 is immaterial. For all we know, it could be every 2 minutes, because most rape victims in India are too scared to speak out. What is important here is that these rapes happen, and at such an alarming rate, that they pose the question of ‘why’. Why is it so easy for a woman to be raped in India, and for the rapist to get away? Why are there no proper laws making it harder for rapes to happen? Why are people who are raped criminalised, with many victims ending their own lives in fear of the stigma? Why does it have to take one well-publicised rape case to open the government’s eyes to the importance of the issue? Why is a woman’s honour considered to be more important than her life? Why is India one of the worst countries to be a woman?
For anyone who has been following a well-covered recent rape case in New Delhi, the death of a 23-year old medical student in the Indian capital marks the end of justice for many. Since after 16 December, the day the woman was gang raped in a bus and thrown out along with her boyfriend (who was also attacked); many Indians took to the streets protesting that the criminals be punished severely. Many even echoed their desire to see the death penalty imposed for these rapists. After fighting for her life for 13 days, the woman succumbed to her injuries. Still nothing concrete has come out of this case.
She is not the only rape victim in the country to go through such a heartbreaking fate, with many others having been left out by the media. However, what her case has done is bringing about a huge public outcry, and drawing international attention to the condition of women in India. In a poll in 2011, India was named the 4th worst country for women (with Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Somalia occupying the other spots in the top 5 list). In another poll, India was named the worst country for women among the G20 nations. Does India deserve these ‘honours’? Recently, a 29-year old man in the Eastern Indian state of West Bengal beheaded his own sister in an ‘honour killing’, justifying his act by saying that his sister needed to be punished for going off to live with her ex-boyfriend. His family applauded his act too, agreeing that the murder was necessary to protect the family’s honour. This is one of so many such honour killing cases annually in a country where namus is such a strong concept.
What gives fuel to such thoughts? Where does the idea come from that if a woman is raped, she deserves it? Or if a woman brings ‘dishonour’ upon a family, she needs to be killed? Who makes it difficult for a raped woman to be accepted by her family, as in the case many women who are left to fend for themselves after being rejected by society?
Why indeed is India such a terrible country for its women? Look at the list of the 5 worst places for women. Whereas Afghanistan, DRC and Somalia are embroiled in their own internal conflicts, India has been an independent, democratic, and relatively conflict-free country since 1947. The Indian constitution guarantees rights to its citizens, regardless of their class, caste or gender. Then why is violence against women commonplace? Why do some men think it their right to pass lewd remarks on women, or to look at them uncomfortably, or to touch them and grope them, or even to rape them?
It goes back to a deeply engrained patriarchal system that treats women as lesser beings. Women are meant to be confined at home, their lives revolving around household chores, giving birth, and serving men (whether it is their fathers, fathers-in-law, husbands, brothers, brothers-in-law, or even sons). The ‘importance’ of women is obvious when one finds out that more than a third of child brides live in India. The sole purpose of a woman is to be married and to bear children. Age is just a number in this matter and the earlier a girl is married, the less of a burden she is to her parents.
Any woman who moves out of this domestic system is a deviant, a woman without values. Any woman who discards traditional concealing garments for more revealing outfits is a woman who is ‘asking for it’. Any woman who is free and independent, making her own career choices and choosing her own partner deserves to be punished – because that is not her place. She cannot choose the way she wants to live her own life. Because of this growing independence of women, some men think it is their duty to show women their ‘place’.
When a female child is born – she is made aware of her difference with her parents and relatives constantly telling her to be demure and to give her brother what he wants. A male child is told not to do the housework – because his mother or sister are there for that. A girl child is conditioned to think that marriage is her ultimate goal in life – and she must foster qualities that make her a suitable bride in the long run. A male child’s violent actions are not snubbed like those of his sister’s, because ultimately he is building his masculinity. These attitudes are not propagated only by fathers but by mothers too. It is in this environment that men grow to accept their stubbornness, disregard for women, and violent tendencies as their right, and women grow to accept their submission, demureness and honour as their duties. Of course this is not the case in all households because there are women who have never had to do a day of housework, and there are men who respect women as equals. What it does show however, is that for some people, skewed attitudes towards the other sex actually developed when they were children.
Even if a woman escapes all these gender-biased situations in her home, or if she faces no molestation from her own family members, she goes through them most commonly on India’s streets. Possibly no Indian woman in the country (perhaps apart from the North-East, and other remote areas mountainous regions) has escaped some form or the other of sexual molestation, be it a very long uncomfortable stare from a man, or being groped or touched inappropriately. In fact this is so common that women fear going out alone especially at night, they fear talking to men sometimes, they try avoiding any physical contact with men. It is so common that there’s hardly any retaliation from a woman when she is asked not to go out in the night or to go out alone. Why should there be? After all it is for her safety or so she thinks. In fact it becomes more of an issue if a woman does go out at unearthly hours of the night. Take for instance the case when a female journalist was murdered when she was outside until 3am. Delhi’s Chief Minister, a woman herself, said that one “should not be so adventurous”. However, no one tells a man not to walk around at the same time. After all, he doesn’t have to fear the same things a woman has to fear on the street.
If a woman goes out in the night and something happens to her, the first question asked is why she went out in the night. Victim blaming seems to be the most common of all. It is the same with rape and molestation cases where the first question asked is if a woman was wearing revealing clothes or if she was partying. Why are the same questions never asked to men?
As if gender discrimination in everyday life is not enough, the Indian justice system does not do much for a woman either. Many times, rapists have walked free whereas the victims have died or have been forced into killing themselves. In some parts of India, a woman’s chastity is the most important thing there is – ironically even more than her life. Once that is gone, even if it is not out of her own doing, she faces only one thing – dishonour. In many cases, this honour is so important to her that death is better than being shamed. That is the ‘importance’ of women. Society plays such a huge role in dictating the importance of this chastity that many times even families of these ‘dishonoured’ women commit suicide.
Yes, women in India can vote, they can wear what they want, they can work and can earn, they can drive, they can become politicians. Yes, India has had a woman Prime Minister as well as a woman President, long before many other countries. On the surface, it would seem that women in India are much better off.
Yes, women in India are raped every 20 minutes, almost 40% of all child brides in the world come from India, there are 940 females for every 1000 males in the country, more than 10 million females have been aborted before being born in India. It then sparks the question about why this is happening in a country that considers itself a future economic superpower? Why is it that India’s true wealth now lies in the money it makes, rather than the protection and respect of its citizens, regardless of gender? What it shows that India really has a long way to go until it brands itself a future superpower, because the way things are right now show that the country still has not come out of its prevailing ignorant, misogynist attitudes.
When one hears of these statistics, when one understands the attitudes that are prevalent in the country, it should come as no shock when India is named one of the worst countries in the world for women. It’s a shameful honour that India can bask in for now.