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An uphill struggle against misogyny in India

Women and men must do more against gender violence

An uphill struggle against misogyny in India

A protester holds a poster during a rally against the gang rape and murder of a teenager in Kolkata in January (AFP photo/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai

February 25, 2014

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My heart grieved after reading the story of the young American woman who was stabbed to death by her Indian husband of five months, who subsequently killed himself.

It grieves for all the young girls who are forced to remain subdued because of the threat of rape or sexual violence – abuse explained by some as being the result of how they dress or walk, and how they are seen in unconventional spaces.

I grieve every time I hear of a young woman who felt liberated enough to marry against the diktats of Khap (community) tribunals, and suffer violence at the hands of angry and bigoted old men.

When Erin Willinger met the handsome young auto rickshaw driver Bunty five months ago in Agra while visiting the Taj Mahal, she believed she had met the love of her life.

The two married soon after on the rooftop of a hotel, with the legendary monument to love as a backdrop. Bunty promised to show her his beautiful country, and she was swept away by the romance of it all.

What went wrong?

The young American viewed her marriage and her Indian spouse through her own cultural lens. She knew nothing of the demands that Indian men make on their wives, unaware that after marriage she became little more than her husband’s property.

Further, she did not know that she was a prize catch for the young man who perhaps was just emerging out of poverty, whose traditions and culture were rooted in Khap tribunals – community courts that have the power to order the rape and killing of women who reject cultural controls.

Women Networking, a loose affiliation of women’s rights organizations in Mumbai, recently conducted a survey at police stations to assess the handling of cases of violence against women.

Informal chats with police officers while conducting the survey revealed a traditional mindset that threw into question how these men could be sufficiently sensitive to women victims of sexual violence and assault.

“I have told my daughters they can watch movies, but only the afternoon shows. They have to dress modestly and not call attention to themselves,” said one senior inspector.

Dr Asha Mirge, member of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women, echoed the inspector’s sentiments.

“Girls should be very careful about what they wear and their body language. Whether it is ‘inviting’ or not should be taken care of," Mirge said. 

"Why should Nirbhaya go to a late night movie show at 11pm [referring to the 23-year-old physiotherapist gang raped and killed in 2012]? Why should a photo journalist in Mumbai go to an isolated place like Shakti Mills at 6pm [referring to the gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist in August last year]?”

Clearly the onus of attracting violence is placed on women.

Mothers are in a quandary. They want to allow freedom to their young adult daughters, but how prudent should they be?

While girls have been empowered with education, financial independence and the courage to live independently, the mindsets of the majority across the country have remained rooted in the traditional cultural mould.

Most men cannot think of giving up control over their wives and daughters, nor can they handle the independent and freedom-loving female because not only are they threatened by her but also afraid of her ‘polluting’ influence on their “protected women”.

The bottom line is that men cannot give up the power they exert over women. Through controls (even violence) they can ensure the loyalty and ‘safety’ of the women in the family. At the same time they will not think twice about sexually assaulting a woman who – according to their moral compass – is deemed “free and loose”.

They do not flinch at the thought of preying on a vulnerable woman who comes their way, be they godmen, grandfathers, (hypocritical) fathers, bosses, or men occupying high positions in the legal or justice system. They have the power to control, use and abuse women, and they do not want to give it up.

It was only because two young interns mobilized public opinion and gained the support of senior female lawyers that a retired Supreme Court judge was eventually investigated for alleged sexual harassment last year.

Citizens’ groups should support women who want to change entrenched misogynistic mindsets in India. Women should join the larger women’s movement to strengthen the collective voice for change.

And gender-sensitive men should join the fight against their narrow-minded and violence-prone peers, so that young women no longer have to endure a siege mentality whenever they leave their homes, and so that men can conduct themselves with the dignity and respect that common human decency demands…or face the unalterable legal consequences if they do not.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women’s issues based in Mumbai

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