As the mother of two daughters in college, I chose to start 2013 at the New Delhi protests over the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a female paramedical student. I was in India to meet my eldest daughter who’d been traveling with a classmate born in Nepal. As a poet and former journalist, I also dove into the language of the event, spending my nights surfing the extensive coverage in English on 24-hour news channels and reading the robust print media. Many of the words were worrisome.
"Eve teasing" is a common media moniker in India for a broad spectrum of sexual harassment, essentially everything that falls short of rape. Verbal street harassment, flashing and molestation are all a lot more serious than the archaic euphemism suggests. In a 2012 poll, 78 percent of New Delhi women reported verbal or physical sexual harassment and 98 percent of young men admitted it's commonplace among their friends.
I sensed a hunger for leadership in framing the debate. The presence at protests of so many young men as well as parents with their children was encouraging and mirrored hopes for change reported by media. I discounted fringe theories such as the regional minister who concluded, “stars are not in position.” (One expects noise from the most conservative corners as I recalled the barbaric theories about rape from several U.S. Congressional candidates this fall.) Most discouraging, however, was the range of government and religious officials across the nation who blamed women for the violence, whether because of immodest dress or a decline of Hindu values. The son of the President of India, a member of Parliament, called female protesters "highly dented and painted" women who “have no connection with ground reality.” A popular Delhi spiritual leader said the gang rape victim could have saved herself by praying at her attackers’ feet. And far too many of the screaming heads on television were yelling for chemical castration even though experts pointed out that violent crimes against women are more often about power than sex.
Even the propensity to label the 23-year-old a girl in headlines indicated how language contributes to the lack of respect and response from the streets, the police and the courts. Only one of more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi in 2012 has produced a conviction. And few people dispute that rape is vastly underreported because of the widespread conviction that only people with political connections will get any semblance of justice from corrupt, underpaid, poorly trained and mostly male police departments and the overwhelmed and understaffed courts.
Even so, there is no shortage of reporting about violent attacks each day. In two national newspapers, daily roundups of recent rapes across the nation are headlined “Criminals Everywhere” and “Meanwhile…” In early January those briefs included a dead 16-year-old found hanging from a tree, a 15-year-old allegedly kidnapped by a neighbor dead in a school toilet and a 15-year-old held captive and raped for 15 days by three men from her village.
It’s dangerous to be female in India from the womb to old age. The list of causes is long and complicated: aborted girls, female infanticide and neglect, domestic violence, sexual violence, dowry and family disputes. From cradle to grave, males get a larger share of family resources whether for nutrition or health care or mosquito netting for malaria.
“If there’s one glass of milk left, it’s still going to the boy in the family,” said a mustached, middle-aged office manager at the New Delhi protests on New Year’s Day. “It’s just disgusting how we treat women of all ages.”
He’d approached me with a very nervous mother and her teenaged daughter he’d just met, in case my camera meant I was a reporter. Their faces were already partly covered by bright scarves, which they instinctually pulled even tighter as he relayed their dilemma. The 17-year-old went to the police at her mother’s behest after being raped by a neighbor in South Delhi. Not only did the police do nothing, the man and his friends are now regularly threatening mother and daughter. “Can you tell me who they can talk to who will take them seriously?” the man asked.
The stakes inherent in that question are quite high. About 25 million women could be alive if the suspiciously low ratio of women to men in India was more in line with areas of the world with more equal gender care, according to research published in December in the Economic & Political WEEKLY.
The analysis of government mortality data concluded that 100,000 women are burned to death each year and another 125,000 die from violent injuries rarely reported as murder or suicide.“The plight of adult women in India is as serious a problem as that of young girls who were never born or die prematurely in childhood,” wrote the authors Siwian Anderson of the University of British Columbia and Debrai Ray of New York University. They called for further study of their hypothesis that the excess adult deaths are “associated with the custom of dowry which has been linked to bride-burning and dowry-death if promised dowry payments are not forthcoming.”
Women have made enormous strides in India in recent decades in education and workplace opportunities but still live in a patriarchal society that has traditionally defined them by their relationships as daughters and wives and mothers. The visible successes of Indian women among the uncertainties and opportunities of the global economy makes them a target of the vast numbers of young men, many unemployed or underemployed, who outnumber young women of marriageable age.
“The modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age-old traditions, part sex goddess part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measure,” Sagarika Ghose wrote in a column in The Hindustan Times. “A profound fear and a deep, almost pathological, hatred of the woman who aspires to be anything more than mother and wife is justified on the grounds of tradition.”
Amartya Sen, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 and pioneered the concept of missing women, notes that the acceptance of elite women in top positions of political power since India became an independent nation in 1947 does not have a trickle down effect. In his book of essays The Argumentative Indian, Sen places improved gender equality high on his list of what India needs to maximize opportunities in the global economy. If the nation needs a model on how to do better, he and other respected voices say look no further than the teachings and example of Mahatma Gandhi.
I started 2013 in the footsteps of Gandhi, literally; his last steps are marked on the path where he was assassinated in 1948 for his advocacy for equality for all of humanity. Beside those steps, beside the Gandhi museum, the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia hosted an interfaith prayer meeting for “Peace Dignity Equality Justice & Respect for Women and Girls” on New Year’s Day. A picture of Gandhi towered over the open-air auditorium as I sat down with a book of his writings I’d just purchased in the museum shop.
“Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex,” Gandhi wrote.
I flipped the book over and printed on the back binding was praise of Gandhi’s vision of greatness by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet whose words I happily bumped into all across India.
No poet has to be convinced that language can be a compass.
Upcoming this week: Indian writers on respect and reform, a poets walk with a Delhi arts curator and a review of an extensive new anthology of Indian English poetry and interview with the editor.