No country for women? india's gender politics

Article published on July 31, 2013
Article published on July 31, 2013

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

When I came back to Europe this summer from India, I was asked the same question over and over again. Weren't you afraid? Since the case of a 23-year-old woman from New Delhi, who was raped on a minibus in December 2012 and later died of her injuries, was taken up by the European media, many people only hear rape, high risk and gender Stone Age when I mention India

Since then, reports on mass protests in Delhi and crimes against female tourists in Orcha, Madhya Pradesh and Agra have gained widespread attention. In 2013, India is a tourist destination non gratum. If you find the European media coverage unsettling, you'd probably freak out in India. There's hardly a day on which my Australian friend and I don’t read about sexual violence against women. However, articles in the Assam Tribune or the Telegraph Calcutta rarely deal with foreigners. Rather, they report numerous attacks on Indian women, young and old, rape of minors and crimes against small children. When I accidentally flip through the newspaper in a small restaurant in Shillong, I turn pale with horror. While reading about two 4- and 5-year old girls raped in Meghalaya, the owner of the restaurant tries to comfort us. “You don't have to be afraid, we'll look after you.” Smiling reassuringly, he hands us the business card of his restaurant. “That's my number. If you have problems, you can call any time.” 

In March 2013, the Assorted Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) announced a decrease of 25% in the number of foreign tourists visiting the country. According to a controversial poll by the ASSOCHAM Social Development Foundation, travel agencies and tourist offices recorded a decrease specifically of female visitors by 35%. The growing feeling of insecurity, which seems to seize a lot of women when thinking about India, seems to be more than a latent emotion. Nevertheless, this spring in North-East India, I don't feel less safe than the last years. That might be due to the fact that social manners here are more modern than elsewhere in India. But even in West Bengal and Assam, which are both very Hindu and relatively conservative, I move as freely as generally possible for a female traveller in India. Inflexible patriarchal social structures, religions that are oriented towards male priests and gods, unfair dowry traditions, the role of the Hindu wife as servant of her god-like husband, domestic violence and abortions of female foetuses; even a very naïve tourist will quickly realize that when it comes to women's rights, a lot is amiss in India. Accordingly, the country ranked 136th out of 186 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index 2012. Recent rape figures are equally alarming. The last report of the Indian National Crime Records Bureau counted 24,923 reported rapes in 2012. Taking into account that India has more than a billion inhabitants, of whom roughly 600 million are women, it's more than clear that the figures are misleading. Rape is still extremely taboo in India, which is why many assaults aren't reported to the police. A lot of women are simply too scared to be sent away, appeased, exposed or – in the worst case – subjected to abuse again.

A Western woman usually has a different experience. Although a female foreigner will be immediately noticed, not least because of her skin colour, and although she is still very much an object of desire for a lot of male Indians, she is also the foreigner, the other. The untouchable, in a different sense. But also, the guest who needs to be protected. The rules of hospitality are very strict in India and the keeping of them extremely important. The protection of female visitors has always been one of these rules. No matter if it's an ageing government official in Guwahati, a young musician on the ferry to Majuli or a restaurant owner in Shillong, they are all aware of our particular situation and offer us their protection. On the other hand, a female foreigner always has to detect cultural differences and to respect social norms. Covering up in larger clothes and a certain reserve in social interactions with men are as much part of one's safety as a couple of basic rules that greatly minimize cultural misinterpretations and unpleasant experiences. Don't walk around alone after dark. Don't drink with rowdy groups of men. Don't hitch-hike in the car of strangers. All these rules of conduct are easy to grasp, at the latest on second thought, and can be found in most guide books. 

Only few female tourists, some victims of violent crimes in the past, behave in ways that can increase the risks. Being unconscious of possible cultural misconceptions and behaving inappropriately does not justify the violence, of course. Wearing clothing that, in the region, is considered revealing, or accepting a ride from an unfamiliar man, never means a woman can be touched without her consent. Especially not as the most demeaning chauvinistic legend has it, that she is “asking to be raped.” In whichever way a woman dresses and behaves, she should always be safe. Unfortunately, this is not reality and India is still very far from this ideal. It will still take many decades of grass-roots work by Indian feminists and social activists, accompanied by major social and legal reforms, until women in India will be equal to and just as safe as men.

However, it doesn't help much to bewail the fate of Indian women, to speculate about the immolation of widows (banned since 1829) and illegal abortions or to shun India as a whole. In 2013, foreign women aren't less safe in India than before. If you keep to the basic rules, the risk can be considerably minimized, without living in a “golden cage” as a female tourist. In the long run, Indian men can only profit from getting used to foreign tourists by rectifying their often terribly distorted image of the “Western woman”, forged by legends, the internet and pornography.

The actual root of all evil isn’t social and religious structures or legislative faults. Rather, they are symptoms of a basic inequality of men and women. If this is to be remedied and Indian women are to become equal fellow human beings and citizens, men have to make an effort, too. This is exactly what the campaign Bell Bajao! One million men. One million promises, initiated by Mallika Dutt in 2008, is aiming at. Dutt, founder of the NGO Breaktrough, which tries to raise awareness for human rights with the help of global pop culture, has been fighting for the rights of women in India and the rest of the world for more than 13 years. In an article in the Times of India, she recently pleaded for a culture change that doesn't focus on legal crutches or social makeshifts, but on the creation of equality between men and women. Dutt is full of hope. “In India, and all around the world, two crucial things have begun to change: one, people understand that violence against women is an urgent global problem, and two, more and more of those people are men.” Of course, new laws for more women's rights and a more transparent system to report, persecute and sentence rapists are urgently needed. But this won't help much if a majority of men don't respect women in daily life. 

Luckily, the sensitivity for women's rights seems to be growing. When a family takes us under their wing on the train, a young hotel employee serves us chai and mithai (sweets) to apologize for a shabby room and the rude behaviour of some of his male guests, or a restaurant owner develops fatherly feelings towards us, I feel safer and am grateful for it. Because a lot of the time, small gestures, a friendly smile or a little help decide if I feel safe or not. Shunning India as a whole is surely not the right decision. Rather, the Indian debate about women's rights should be a reason to think and act. After all, we should all stand up for the equality of men and women – not just in India.