In December 2012, the brutal and fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman nicknamed Damini brought the issue of sexual abuse of Indian women to the forefront of the nation’s political agenda. The pleas of thousands of protestors on the streets of India were matched with equal international outrage of the surprising normalcy of such crimes in the nation. Due to the intense debate it sparked, it was believed this case would initiate India’s gender equality revolution and help dissolve the misogynistic nature of the nation’s society and culture. While there is no doubt this case brought much needed attention to the marginalisation of Indian women, it is regrettably evident that the nation’s deeply rooted patriarchal preference will not be easily erased.
Though I have a true appreciation for the richness and beauty of India’s customs and traditions, there is sadly no denying that Indian society and culture is innately patriarchal. Females are too often viewed as subservient, passive beings whose primary expectations are to nurture their male counterparts. The breadth of this bias varies amongst societies and regions, and ranges from wives being expected to not talk back to their husbands to female victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse. Any degree of this bias fosters severe issues for women.
Despite being born and raised in America, I was not exempt from aspects of gender inequality linked to my Indian heritage. Disappointed in my lack of “marriage-worthy” skills, certain older relatives scoffed at my inability to cook a full Indian meal in my teens and vocally disapproved of my prioritisation of schoolwork over a spotless bedroom. The inequality I experienced is undoubtedly less severe, but is indicative of the widespread scope of the culture’s unfair treatment of women. Criticisms I received were all from female relatives who have been taught by society about the supposed job of a woman. Since it is extremely imbedded in Indian culture, male bias has been normalised to the extent that women do not realise they are being wronged.
The foundations of this patriarchy can be seen in the Hindu religion. More than 80% of India’s population classify themselves as Hindu and turn to the religion as a source of enlightenment and guidance. Unfortunately, the ancient teachings of the religion are derived from old traditions that involve the role of the less important female. Certain religious mantras are still expected to be chanted by only males, and only sons are to cremate their fathers. Another example is the story of Ahalya told in Hindu mythology. Ahalya, who is said to have been created by the god Brahma as the most beautiful woman in the universe, was married off to an older sage named Gautama. While her husband is away, the god Indra comes disguised as Gautama and rapes Ahalya. When Gautama returns and learns of the incident, he curses them both, turning Ahalya into stone. Ahalya is returned to her human form after she is brushed by the foot of god Rama, supposedly being forgiven by his merciful nature.
Basing a widely followed religion off of such stories and teachings has long-term ramifications for the development of a society. These ancient teachings have normalised misogyny and the subsequent unequal treatment of women, making it extremely difficult to erase the notion of male bias in Indian culture. The concept of Ahalya needing punishment or forgiveness is absurd; she is the victim, not the perpetrator. The injustice in this myth is mirrored in the patterns of female victim-blaming that are present in modern-day India.
While the Damini rape case did bring the issue of violence against women in India to the global platform, sexual abuse still remains a hugely marginalised issue. Instead of rape victims being supported, they are blamed for the crime because of the disturbing belief that they were asking for it. The New York Times recently did an investigative report on the gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist. She was scouting locations with her male colleague and was ambushed by a group of five men. When asking the mother of the rapist group’s ringleader about her son’s crime, she said the fault was with the girl, since she tempted the boys by wearing revealing clothing and interacting with someone of the opposite sex out of wedlock.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 68,000 rape cases were reported in India between 2009 and 2011. This disturbing number is actually significantly higher since we do not hear about the vast majority of incidents of sexual abuse. Due to the illogical stigma attached to females who have been sexually assaulted in India, it takes a great deal of courage for women to come forward with rape allegations. After a woman is raped, she is seen as having lost her honour. She is often ostracised by society even though she has committed no wrongdoing. In many cases, rape victims are not even taken seriously unless they are near-death or have already died. Of the 68,000 reported cases of rape within these two years, only 16,000 rapists were convicted of a crime.
Though proper justice was served to the despicable men involved in the Damini rape case, not enough pressure has been placed on stopping other perpetrators of rape. Instead of primarily targeting the male criminals, females have been expected to take extra safety precautions to prevent being victimised. Many young women have been slammed with earlier curfews and have had many of their personal freedoms revoked. These women are being punished for crimes they have not committed, and are being tasked with the responsibility to protect themselves. While the world is now aware of the mistreatment of women in Indian society, the measures enacted to protect them are not truly promoting gender equality.
The patriarchal nature of Indian society is rooted in the basis of its culture, thereby making immediate social justice nearly impossible. A true gender equality revolution cannot come without a transformation of the ancient customs and traditions that influence the present-day misogyny. As globalisation continues to breed more liberal generations, male bias in India will hopefully become a concept of the past.