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India: No country for young women

Patriarchy and caste make gender equality almost impossible

India: No country for young women

Recent media attention on rape has exposed what has been the norm in India for centuries.

Myron Pereira, Mumbai

July 2, 2014

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For a woman to live in India is to be under constant threat – of verbal or physical assault, of physical violence at home or on the streets, of rape and murder.

It’s no country for young women. Or for older women either – for any woman, in fact.

It has been this way for centuries but we never noticed it before. But it’s only now after we see reports in the media that we start noticing it.

And why didn’t we see? Largely because we’re still a feudal, patriarchal society where men are the norm, and what men see and say is what is seen and spoken of. A patriarchal society believes that women are  men’s possessions – to be used and set aside (bhog ki cheez, as a former president of India put it), to be displayed as an ornament, to be bartered for benefits, to be thrashed and abused if they as much as talk back, and to be killed if they undermine family honor. 

This is what patriarchy is, the last barrier to equality and community (I prefer saying ‘community’ rather than the older word, ‘fraternity’). Patriarchy exists everywhere, East and West – in secular, ‘developed’ societies and medieval ‘developing’ ones.

It is subtle – like the glass walls and ceilings in the workplace, which condone unequal pay for equal work; but it is also brutal and vicious – like khap diktats, acid attacks, battered wives, ‘honor’ killings.

For as the women’s movement has always reminded us, rape is not a sexual crime. In its essence, it is a crime of power. In other words, rape is used to stifle, deny and prevent equality based on gender.

But patriarchy has a unique color in this country. It is tinted with caste, with that pernicious system of social stratification which makes sure that ‘those others’ stay in their place – below us – to serve us when we want.

This practice of dominance is routinely used and abused by the various arms of the Indian state – the army, police, judiciary in particular – to assert caste power and privilege over India’s lowest caste the dalits, tribals, minorities and women. And sexual violence is part of the routine of terror.

In the mindset of dominance, some groups become intrinsically ‘rape-able’. These are the womenfolk of the minorities, Dalits, tribals, foreigners. And also those ‘not like us’, such as sex workers, homosexuals, the differently sexed, teenage orphans and others. The lives of these do not matter anyway, not as much as those of the ‘right caste’.

In fact the hatred of most Indian men for women is so pervasive that it is expressed in killing them before they are born through infanticide, which is still common, rather than share property and dignity with them.

Why is it that the Indian state which brags about becoming a global ‘super power’ is at the very bottom of the ladder in its quality of health, freedom from violence, access to resources and freedom from sexual trafficking? Or as the metaphor puts it, why is it that there are more cell-phones in this country than toilets?

Obviously because those who rule the Indian state believe ‘that sort of people” have no claim to what ‘we’ have.

When those agitating for civil rights cry for ‘inclusiveness’ in Indian society, what they want is an equality of rights and opportunities for those most dispossessed of food and nutrition, of education and welfare.

So, if women are the most dispossessed, it is they who should be prioritized in terms of respect, security and welfare. Is this such an insurmountable task?

Let’s relate this to something closer to home – the condition of women in the Indian Church.  In spite of all pretensions to the contrary, gender relations in the Catholic Church in India leave much to be desired.

Indian priests and bishops are after all, Indian. That is, they are shaped by the mindsets of feudal patriarchy and entitlement, and know how to exploit women, just as other Indian men do. In fact, the more indigenized the Church is (not afflicted with the taint of ‘westernization’, that is) the worse this mindset is.

Gender policies there are aplenty, as well as preaching and pronouncements. What is in default is the will to implement them. The clergy will insist that there is always a place for women in the Church. It usually is at the bottom, as unpaid labor.

There’s no place for young women in this country, and sadly that includes India’s Church.

Jesuit Fr Myron J Pereira is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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