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The Plight of the Modern Indian Woman

Opinion | March 4, 2013

On 29th December, 2012, Indians all over the world were left dumbfounded, helpless and shocked to their core after the 23- year old Delhi gang rape victim passed away due to multiple organ failure in a Singapore hospital. “India’s Daughter”, the brave heart victim, or Damini (lightning, in Hindi), as she was labeled by the media, was the faint symbol of hope for thousands of sexually and socially oppressed women in India; her death was a haunting reminder to every woman who faced inequality at home, at the workstation or even in public spaces. The widespread coverage of the gang rape exposed the world to the downright sexist, perverse and inhumane workings of the prevailing male power structure and its violent reaction towards the emerging, empowered modern Indian woman. But how does this male-centric chauvinistic outlook originate and is there anything that can be done to change the current scenario?

Take a quick look at the new Bollywood movies flooding Indian cinemas and you’ll immediately notice the markedly insignificant role of Indian actresses. There is a popular trend of “item songs” in which high profile actresses like Katrina Kaif, decked in skimpy outfits, mounds of kohl and unnatural pouts gyrate suggestively to the cheap raunchy lyrics of dance numbers. Some might find these hit songs are harmless, upbeat rhythms to dance to in clubs and pubs. However for the impressionable, wider demographic of adolescent Indian men, these songs broadcast a truly disturbing message: the modern, scantily clad Indian woman is promiscuous and it’s fine to objectify her. Indian actresses are mere decorations in movies dictated by overly buff Indian actors who prove their manhood by teasing girls that giggle shyly in response and by beating up womanizing villains. In fact, Bollywood’s highest paid music artist– the flamboyant and notorious rapper Honey Singh, pens down lyrics that directly glorify sexual abuse against women, as inferior objects to be exploited by manly men. In a video done by a non-profit organization called “No Country for Women”, a series of interviews conducted by various Indian news channels of young Indian men showcased their deeply rooted misogynistic views toward women. They claimed that when girls wear provocative clothing, they’re asking for attention from male onlookers and pass lewd comments about them. On the other hand, a nineteen year old college going student complained that men obscenely remarked about her attire even when she was conservatively dressed—she added that the way she dressed had nothing to do with grabbing male attention, but about her own comfort and personal sense of style. One of the laughing guys filmed in the video even went as far as saying that he only teases the hottest “commodities”.

The grooming of young men is indicative of the deeply ingrained patriarchal attitude of the Indian society. Young boys are fed with a strong sense of entitlement and male privilege being brought up in their homes. Historically, women are viewed as financial burdens to their families as they must be given away to the groom’s family and aren’t allowed to earn money to support the household. This breeds hatred against women as they are seen as passive, submissive, unwanted members of the community. As the new, independent Indian woman carves her own path through the workplace and educational institutions, she is perceived as a threat to the concept of Indian masculinity in which the male members of society are supposed to be the chief guardians of the powerless woman. According to UNICEF, almost as many women as men are now attending college in India, creating more business opportunities and social mobility for women. Thus the previously robust, confident Indian male has a growing sense of insecurity due to emasculation and growing social dislodgment.

Hence, it follows that most of these recent hate crimes against women are occurring in metropolitan areas of India. As young, well-dressed female professionals claim their places in formerly male-dominated fortresses of authority, the old-fashioned Indian male is resorting to aggressive action to subvert the evolving, liberated identity of the modern Indian woman. Take the horrific case of public groping and manhandling of a sixteen-year-old girl in Guwahati, Assam by a barbarous mob of twenty men outside a bar. Her fault? She picked a fight with bar employees and as a modest woman wasn’t supposed to be in a bar. Eve teasing– the common, innocuous euphemism utilized in India to categorize the public sexual harassment of women by men– is evident of the widely accepted idea that the victim is in some way at fault for the actions of the perpetrators of the crime. Rape is considered a male prerogative, a sign of potent machismo, and a defense mechanism to show women their place in society. This all seems ironic, almost grossly hypocritical, where in a country in which Goddesses are extensively worshipped for wealth, prosperity and wisdom, a deeply embedded misogynistic attitude still prevails.

Although the coldhearted six criminals who raped and murdered the Delhi girl will face the harshest of consequences and mass protests were sparked all across India to rally for women’s rights, there will not be substantial, endurable change unless misogyny, a thread of the cultural fabric of Indian society, is unwound and discarded completely. This calls for parents, schoolteachers, leaders in institutions of higher learning and workplaces to foster an environment of equality and healthy collaboration between the two genders. It must be emphasized that manliness, as aptly put by Times of India, isn’t defined by the inches in a man’s pants or his “player” status but his ability to respect any and every woman.