The grim daily reality for women in India
It has been widely reported over the last few months that India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. The issue of the status and treatment of women has been raked over in countless global reports, newspaper articles and blog posts.
But what is all this international attention on the plight of women in India about? Didn’t India have a female Prime Minister decades before Julia Gillard? Isn’t it a secular, peaceful democracy – not a war zone, or a nation that actually legislates against women’s rights?
Nevertheless, the lives of Indian women remain dangerous at worst, and troubled at least, in ways that deserve attention. Recently, the issue of women’s safety has flared up again –this time in response to the public molestation of a woman in the North-Eastern state of Assam. The incident has left many questioning ‘why is this still happening?’ ‘How has this happened again?’
Well, actually, it happens countless times every day, every hour, every minute across this country. But it’s still being splashed across the television screens, the newspapers and magazines, and the Internet. The pundits are out in force and certain leaders are regurgitating the same inane comments. Again.
Like waves crashing on the shore, the sexual mistreatment and debasement of women in India never ends. And each time it makes the news, it makes it seem even more endless.
I know that this happens the world over. I am well aware that, even in Australia, women are raped and beaten every day. And that the men who do it are all too rarely brought to account. (I also know that violence occurs in same-sex relationships, and by women against men, but for the moment I’m talking about the overwhelming phenomena of male violence against women.)
However, having lived here for over two years now, I know it is different in India. It seems to me that what makes it different here is the public nature of the attacks on women, the response to these incidents, and most importantly, what that means for all of us walking around this country with vaginas between our legs.
It is hard for a visitor like me, relatively rich and raised in the West, to imagine being sold off as a child bride. It is hard for me to imagine needing to get married to ensure my future. It is hard for me to imagine many of the daily realities of women and girls’ lives that really do make India one of the worst places to even BE as a female.
But the kind of violence that is the subject of only the most recent controversy is something I can, and do, imagine. Almost daily.
The recent incident that I am referring to was when a woman was assaulted - stripped and mauled and groped by a group of men seems to be the sum of the many reports - after leaving a pub on one of the main streets of her city, Guwahati.
Despite the fact that the incident was filmed by a member of the local news media, the exact details of what happened are still not clear - but the outline is enough. Her ‘crime’? Drinking. In a pub. With men there. Perhaps dancing. Being out late at night (it was about 9.30pm when this happened). She was out with her friends.
As far as my experience demonstrates, moral policing against women in India is out of control. Not only that, but the age-old method of using sexual violence to control women who even threaten to stray outside of the bounds of convention is rampant.
It’s also a completely, infuriating nonsense that absolutely enrages me beyond what words can describe. Because don’t think for one single minute that this violence will stop the moment all women in this country start following the suggestions or orders that are made – by both men and women in power - to start wearing traditional dress, cover their heads, leave their jobs, and be indoors by 8pm, to care for their brothers, fathers or husbands.
Of course it bloody well won’t - let’s not even touch on the myriad forms of violence and oppression exercised upon women and girls in their own homes.
You can find statistics elsewhere, but let me tell you this - the reality is that this behaviour is working. My female friends, colleagues, and I all agree - it controls pretty much every single female in this country that we love, every single day.
I think carefully about what I wear every day, and often cover my shoulders and chest with a shawl, only to be comfortable wearing my outfit once I am with my friends or inside my office, a club, bar or restaurant. I do not leave my house alone after 9.30pm, and definitely not after 10pm. I am afraid when I come home, alone, after dinner or a night out.
I do not make eye-contact with men I pass in public. I am terrified that, as I let myself into my apartment building, the caretaker or his friends will be there, still awake, and drinking, and ready to comment on my late arrival home or my attire, or worse. It makes me mistrust and inwardly question every man that I encounter, which is an awful thing for both of us, and by extension, terrible for the whole of this society.
Because, of course, there are many wonderful men in India who would never treat a woman badly. I am friends with these kinds of men and I work with these kinds of men.
I, of course, encounter considerate men, like drivers who wait with their lights on to make sure I get to my front door safely. The fact that never goes away, though, is that women are very much second-class citizens here.
Even well-off, young and educated women are held to a different standard, still having to justify why they work after marriage or why they are dating someone they may or may not intend on marrying. Women are so often seen as infantilised possessions of men, incapable of making their own decisions, going out by themselves, seeking their own fun, challenges or satisfaction.
Like I said, I can’t imagine many things, but I imagine the kind of thing that happened in Guwahati happening to me almost every day. Because I have had my breast grabbed by a rickshaw driver at 9am in the morning. I have had men suggest that I come to their houses to give them a massage and have sex with them.
I have had my breast groped by a school-boy whilst I was sitting at traffic lights at 5pm in the afternoon. I have had a man put his hand up my skirt and grab right between my legs whilst walking past market stalls on a main street in the middle of the day.
I have had a man masturbate at me whilst standing next to me at the counter at a beer and wine shop. Almost daily, men make ‘kissing’ noises at me as they pass on their bikes, yell obscenities from cars and buses, and stare at me in a way that makes me feel violated without even being touched.This happens to every single female I know and meet.
I know that what has happened to me is only the tip of the iceberg for women in India. And I know that I might be only one karaoke night, or late dinner out, away from far, far worse.
If I am often vigilant, and sometimes scared or terrified, I can only imagine how other women feel. As we see these horrifying incidents reported, I know that many of us feel as if we are just being smashed back down into our ‘proper’ place. As we hear police, and even female leaders, tell us to stay inside or to dress appropriately, again, we know they are trying to put us our place.
At the moment it seems that it will never end. But if the young women that I know in India are any indication, it will one day. They are amazing, first-class citizens of their nation – and the world –and I see them pushing and fighting against this in the way they live their lives every day.
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