Recently released Hindi movie “Dirty Picture” is a celebration of women’s independence, individuality and sexuality, capturing the life of Silk Smitha, who lives by her own rules, using her sexuality to free herself from the hypocrisy of a male dominated society.But such portrayals are a far cry from the reality of life for many Indian women.
In one of a string of recent cases of violence against women, a 17-year-old student was allegedly stabbed by a youth in North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, because she refused to marry him. Reports suggest that although several people were present, no one spoke up for the girl.
Just a couple of days earlier, in a high-profile incident, a New Delhi woman was gang raped in a pick-up truck after she had been dropped off near her home after working a late shift at a call center. In response, police in the city have introduced new measures obliging call centers, corporations and media organizations to drop female workers at their front door after work.
The pick-up attack was far from an isolated incident. Indeed, New Delhi has the unfortunate nickname of the “rape capital of India”, with The Times of India reporting that the city had the highest number of reported rape cases last year, with 414, followed by Mumbai at 194. In a country where there’s still a strong stigma attached to admitting to having been raped, the true figures could be much higher.
And things may actually be getting worse in some cases. One recent study by leading researchers found that violence against women had jumped 44 percent between 1993 and 2011.
The working paper, ‘The Power of Political Voice: Women's Political Representation and Crime in India,’ and penned by Harvard Prof. Lakshmi Iyer, Anandi Mani of the University of Warwick, and the IMF’s Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova, also found that kidnappings rose by 13 percent and rapes per capita increased by 23 percent over the same period.
The propensity for violence toward women goes further than attacks on adult women – India’s skewed gender ratio reflects a culture in many states whereby mothers will go to great lengths to ensure they give birth to a boy, not a girl.
As Shreyasi Singh has noted in The Diplomat: “Sons are viewed as bankable assets, while girls are more often associated with anxiety, expense and subjugation. Having a daughter get married is hugely costly for parents, and there is little these women can do in return. Boys are also seen as a better investment as they don’t need crippling dowries. And in Hinduism, only a male heir can light the parent’s funeral pyre.”
Such social pressures have prompted many women to abort female fetuses, dramatically skewing the sex ratio in parts of the country. According to the 2011 census, there were 940 females per 1,000 people in India. But in the state of Haryana, for example, there were only 877 females per 1,000 males. As I travelled around villages in the Rohtak district of the state recently, I talked to many young men who said they were forced to look outside the state for a bride because there were too few women.
In some respects, of course, attitudes have improved. A 1993 constitutional amendment, for example, called for the establishment of directly elected local councils at the district, intermediate, and village levels, and also mandated one-third of all council seats should be filled by women.Yet even today, a woman’s sexuality is seen as tied to a family’s honor, and while parents might send their daughters to a good school or university, many still won’t allow them to choose their own partners or select their own path in life.
In the novel In Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep, Siba Shakib writes of a woman who struggles day in and day out to preserve her family, her honor and her sexuality, but finds the male-dominated society crushes her individuality.
India is not Afghanistan, and women here are still generally more independent minded. But such determination is not being matched by a change in the mindset of men, who too frequently believe they need to impose their will on women – often violently.