Growing violence against Indian women has deeply shocked the public, culminating in widespread outrage at images of a brutal sexual assault on a young student in the north-eastern city of Guwahati, earlier this month.
After leaving a bar she was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men who dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all.
It was around 9.30pm on one of the city’s busiest streets. Police finally arrived after 45 minutes of the assault.
Last month a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries.
Crime statistics provide more damning evidence: Violence against women is the fastest rising crime among all offences under the Indian Penal Code.
National statistics show that between 1953 and 2011, the incidence of rape rose by 873 per cent, three-and-a-half times faster than murder.
In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes, and a bride burnt for dowry every 58 minutes. The number of crimes against women, including sexual harassment, cruelty by the husband or his relatives, abduction and trafficking, annually exceeds 261,000.
Separate numbers aren’t available for the harassment faced by women for not bearing sons, and for that barbaric South Asia speciality the acid attack, which disfigures a woman for life for rejecting a man’s advances.
The sexual assault on the woman outside a bar in Guwahati, Assam state, was aggravated by the apparent instigation of a cameraman from a local TV station to strip her so his channel could scoop the story.
The police failed to respond in time to distress calls, trivialised the incident, and delayed arresting the molesters. Ethical standards were then further trampled when the victim’s identity was disclosed by the media, by a member of the National Commission for Women, and worse, by the chief minister’s office.
Guwahati has a relatively calm, polite public culture. But beneath the surface hides a lot of sexual frustration. In November 2007, a 17-year-old Adivasi girl was stripped and paraded in Guwahati.
Guwahati has witnessed a more rapid spread of consumerism and ostentatious spending than many other fast-growing cities. Most of its 127 bars are only a few years old. But they are marked by raucous music, vulgar display of wealth, testosterone-driven competition for female attention, swagger and rowdiness, lubricated by alcohol.
Such behaviour, Bollywood-style gangster mannerisms, and boastful cellphone conversations are now commonplace across India.
Young men are often exposed to sex primarily through Bollywood songs choreographed to suggestive movements or Internet pornography. They are in constant search of sexual conquests via showing off and aggression.
Such conquest has nothing to do with a natural, easy, passionate relationship of affection or love to which physical contact comes organically. It’s devoid of values such as compassion, sensitivity, cooperation and caring.
Male conduct sometimes bursts into lascivious mob-style violence. More often, it takes the form of lewd taunts, or forced contact with and groping of women’s bodies. No wonder women feel unsafe in every city – even in broad daylight.
Beneath the aggression lies deep insecurity among young men, who are typically under-socialised and denied an opportunity to interact naturally with women.
In our societies, boys and girls rarely meet or play together. Sexual segregation occurs early, and stereotypes are formed well before adolescence.
Under the stereotypes, male “virtues” like bravery, physical strength, “toughness” and refusal to cry, are celebrated. Girls must imbibe “feminine” characteristics like modesty, gentleness, soft speech and hard domestic labour.
These retrograde patterns of inequality are changing, but not rapidly enough. Meanwhile, a new culture bred by India’s “fast-track” capitalism and the market forces is superimposing itself, producing an awkward amalgam. For instance, female foeticide is more common among the more educated and affluent than the underprivileged.
As women get educated and join the labour force, they become more visible, independent and self-confident. For more than a decade, girls have dominated the top tier of school-graduation exam results. And women are proving more diligent and reliable than men in call centres, offices, factories and outdoor sales jobs.
This is producing new insecurities among men, who seek to control women in various ways. Recently, a village panchayat in Uttar Pradesh decreed that no woman can use a mobile phone. The all-male panchayat fears that women might talk to strange men and lose their “purity”. However, no restrictions are imposed on the men they might talk to!
Other examples include conservative dress codes imposed on women by colleges and religious leaders, attacks on women in pubs by Hindu fanatics, and public stripping of “inappropriately” dressed women even in supposedly cosmopolitan Mumbai.
Even police chiefs in many cities warn women against dressing “provocatively”. In 2007, the Delhi police issued “security tips” for students from the Northeast, who frequently face harassment: “Revealing dress be avoided. Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace.”
The NCW chairperson herself has now joined the chorus, advising women “not to ape Western culture” and “dress carefully”. Like others, this is essentially blaming the victim for her harassment.
In South Asia’s patriarchal society, where gender discrimination is pervasive from cradle to grave, many women internalise male prejudices. A recent medical survey found that only 8 per cent of Indian children with poor eyesight regularly wear glasses. Forty-nine per cent of the girls who need glasses say they don’t use them for “cosmetic” reasons, and 83 per cent refuse because that would hamper their “marriage prospects”.
Even worse, a Unicef report this year finds that not just 57 per cent of Indian males but also 53 per cent of females in the 15-19 age-group believe that wife-beating is justified. Such sanctioning of domestic violence is not compatible with a civilised society.
A full-fledged nationwide campaign of social reform is now necessary to battle entrenched patriarchy and male chauvinism. Social reform was an early component of the Indian Freedom Movement and used Enlightenment values of reason, freedom and equality to combat male chauvinism, caste, communalism and other forms of parochialism and hierarchy.
But such reform lost momentum long ago and has fallen off the agenda altogether. The increasing levels of violence women are now being subject to shows that a revival is urgently needed. Progressive intellectuals, teachers, enlightened politicians and concerned citizens must contribute to this revival. This is a litmus test of their leadership.
As for now, administrators – and especially the police – must all be put through gender-awareness courses. We must hold their feet to the fire in demanding that they provide the security and freedom women deserve.