I have a confession to make, I am a feminist. Nine months traveling through India has made me a feminist and this is me coming out of the closet.

I have always considered myself to be egalitarian, striving for equality rather than subjugation of one gender over another. Then I spent 9 months backpacking across India and I now believe equality is not possible nor something that women should strive for in India.  To be equal to a man here is asking too little, and the women of India deserve so much more.

In my observations here in India rapists, murderers, paedophiles and child traffickers are quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) condoned to ensure that women are kept in their place and made to feel guilty for trying to say or do otherwise. Its not the same as it is in the comfort of a western country like Australia (yes there are rapists, murderers and misogynists there too though), but the scale and indifference here in India is at a level that has made me sometimes feel physically ill. I can no longer fight for equality, women need to fight for so much more here because the cultural change required needs to permeate through over 1.2 billion people. No easy task.

I am not a man-hater, quite to the contrary I enjoy and seek out the company of men, but I do find the Indian man a peculiar one to understand as I discussed in my rather contentious blog post Decoding the Indian Man. So now I think its time to say what I have observed of the Indian woman.

She is in danger.

She is in grave danger because behaviour that puts her at risk is practised everyday and readily accepted under the name of culture.

I picked up the paper the other day, on one page was a story of a woman who had been gang raped but the police didn’t accept her statement because she was in a pub and somehow that means she “asked for it”. The next page had a story about a woman who had died from burns to her body but the court wasn’t sure whether to accept her police statement that alleged her husband had inflicted the burns because she had previously told them (whilst her husband was in the room) that the burns were a result of her spilling a cup of tea on herself (she died from these wounds so I want to know just how big that cup of tea was). Then the next page had another story about a woman who was brain damaged because her husband had allegedly rammed a screwdriver up her nose because he didn’t think he got a big enough dowry from her family (dowries are outlawed in India).  This a normal day in India. I now think twice before even picking up a newspaper because it is just too upsetting.

Women of the Village (taken near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan)

The violence and maltreatment of women begins long before they are even born.  Female foeticide is  believed to be rife despite pre-natal sex determination being a criminal offence.  According to the 2011 Census there are 940 females for every 1000 males, up from 933 in 2001, but this number was 972 in 1901. When you consider it is well below in some populous states Uttar Pradesh (908) and Delhi (866) and a horrifying 618 in Daman and Diu, only two states buck the trend; Kerala (1084) and Pondicherry (1038). More disturbing, the overall gender ratio of 940 is actually lower when you look at children between 0-6 years of age at 914.  The girls are being murdered early in life and whilst pre-natal sex determination is illegal in India it is believed  to still be heavily practised.

Why are the girls being killed? Because they are considered to be a burden  in the form of dowries and potential shame on the family. It is apparently less shameful to murder a girl than to have one who may possibly grow up and disappoint your morals sometime in the future.

Unfortunately, the murder of women doesn’t stop in their youth, women are still killed in the name of “honour” (where it is believed they have bought shame on their family) or for providing insufficient dowries (once again something that is banned). The statistics are mind-boggling, quoting a Reuters article :

“According to the U.N. Population Fund, around 5,000 women are victims of “honour” killings worldwide every year, while India’s National Crimes Record Bureau says 8,391 brides – one every hour – were murdered over dowry-related issues in 2010.”

So about 13 women a day are killed in the name of “honour” and one an hour because her family did not provide enough money and gifts to take her “off their hands” in marriage.  It is believed that in many of these cases they are sanctioned by the police, and not generally considered as murders or serious crimes.  This is how little a woman’s life is valued in the heartland of India.
Even if the girl is “taken” in marriage and survives, what kind of life is there for her in many parts of India?

For many they are “married off” long before they are ready, for those women between the age of 20-24, 43% were married before they were 18 years of age.   It is estimated that 40% of all child brides in the world are in India, that is 4,000,000 girls married before the age of 18 this year. These are just statistics but I have seen it first hand whilst visiting a small village outside of Jaisalmer only a few weeks ago.  A young girl was working with her father making carpets, she couldn’t have been older than 15 years yet she had the customary bindi and nose rings to indicate marriage.  As we were leaving our guide told us that she had given birth to a child only 20 days earlier.

So why are girls married so young, Put simplistically it seems to be partly due to cultural norms and partly due to education.  Changing cultural norms is very difficult in any culture or environment, but education is something that could be improved upon.  However in a country so wide and dispersed as India, reaching the population to be educated is a challenge, and encouraging them to actually send their girls to school is another cultural norm to be overcome.

According to the 2011 Census in India, 74% of the population is literate but only 65% of women are. At its best, in Kerala nearly 92% of women are literate. At its worst in Rajasthan less than 53% of women are literate (yet over 80% of men are).  There is a clear disparity between valuing the education of men above women.  Where education is concerned I don’t believe equality is enough to seek out, the entire population needs to be educated for there to be a chance of anything changing quickly for the girls and women.

Whilst much of these issues are more prevalent in rural areas, there are still dangers for women in the more progressive urban areas.  Sexual harassment and abuse is also rife something that is not always taken seriously.  The media has developed language that belittles the crimes to minor issues and essentially removes the victim from the crime.  There is no sexual harassment, molestation or other assaults in India, it is simply “Eve Teasing”.  It is not harmless teasing, it is condescending, degrading and illegal harassment.

Some efforts have been made to alleviate the harassment, for example women’s only carriages in trains, but that is just masking the problem.  When men are not made accountable for their actions and the crimes are not viewed and reported seriously, I can’t see how the harassment will end.  Whilst I have fortunately not encountered any serious physical harassment in my travels, I have certainly experienced very uncomfortable staring and I am always covered from neck to ankle, particularly in smaller towns.

To make matters worse, in many cases it is the women who are blamed not the perpetrators of the crimes. In a recent case in Gurgaon (near Delhi), a woman was abducted on her way home from work and gang-raped by 7 men.  The police reaction was to announce that all women in Gurgaon should not leave their house after 8pm at night.  It would seem to me to be much safer for the women to require all men to be locked indoors by nightfall instead, but somehow the victim has become the one to blame and be punished.

Once again the media also denies its responsibility in reporting these cases accurately and with the seriousness they deserve, as the Times of India notes in itsarticle on this rape case:

“In recent times, TOI has tried to avoid carrying disturbing reports of rape and suicide, especially of minors, on front page (even today we have put one such report inside). While our primary duty is to report news without attaching any value judgment, we also believe it is our responsibility to spare our readers the trauma such reports cause (to the extent possible).”

A widely read newspaper wouldn’t want to disturb its readers with the truth!

In another recent case in Kolkata police actively tried to avoid registering a complaint of gang rape because the victim had been in a pub when she was abducted and raped by 6 men, and then delayed making a complaint for four days because she was so traumatised by the event.  It is alleged that the police actually mocked her. I would like to see how they would feel immediately after 6 men had abducted them at gunpoint and raped them.

The cases go on and on, apparently in India rape is not rape if she wore a skirt, bared her arms, had a bra strap showing, was not a virgin, had been married, attended a bar, was out after dark…the list goes on and on. In my opinion, and from what I remember of law school, if a man (or multiple men) penetrate a woman with any part of their body against her will then they have raped her. If they can’t “control” themselves then this is their problem that requires psychiatric treatment and not the “fault” of the person they have harmed. Yet in India, this concept seems just too difficult for those in authority to understand or take seriously.

Even in Parliament nothing is sacred.  Three ministers in Karnataka (the state that includes Bangalore) were allegedly seen to be watching pornography on a mobile phone during a sitting. They did all resign and were considered to be “responsible’ for doing so. More disturbingly, one of the ministers was responsible for the portfolio of Women and Child Development. With this level of responsibility allocated to them, may God help the women and children of Karnataka.

I don’t offer any solutions, once again here I am sitting in India wondering where on earth one can begin to help or make a change for the women.  The women of India certainly look miserable, in all my travels seeing mostly women from villages or poorer backgrounds, it was so rare to see a woman with a smile on her face. The reasons above are probably only scratching the surface as to why, but this is what I have observed and read.

In my opinion, the women of India deserve so much more then the lot they have been given, they work hard and are beautiful.  If only they were valued, appreciated and taken seriously.

So for these reasons I am now a feminist, loud and proud for beautiful women of India.