Misogyny in the Indian elections: an education

Harrowing cases of violence against woman are reported internationally, while a bizarre backlash takes place against reform in the rape law passed in response to the fatal Delhi Nirbhaya gang-rape in 2012. Misogyny is embedded within India's society. 

Niyati Keni
20 June 2014

Silent protesters seek justice for a girl subjected to gang rape in December 2012. Flickr/Ramesh Lalwani. Some rights reserved.On Friday, April 18, 2014 an article appeared in the Indian Express, an Indian national broadsheet, about the gang-rape of a young woman in Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India. It was the day after one of the main polling days in the Indian elections and the country was in the grip of election fever. The article might easily have been overlooked as yet another example of the kind of sexual violence that has put India in the international spotlight more than once in the last couple of years.

The accused included the woman’s husband, brother-in-law and four police officers. The official comment from the local police station included the following: “We will take action only after confirming if the woman was actually raped or the charges were aimed at settling scores with her husband.”

Even now in 2014, the stigma for a woman of being raped in India can be and usually is enormously destructive in her life, which makes claiming rape a less than ideal ploy for settling a score with a spouse. Moreover, for a lone Indian woman, without much in the way of support from her family, taking on the police has to be either certifiably insane or she is telling the truth. But this was another example of how casually women’s testimony is discounted and trivialised.

My trip to India this April with my daughter had been planned to forge a bond for my Eurasian kid with the Indian side of her heritage. What I didn’t anticipate was starting the feminist education of my 7 year old in earnest, sitting her down for a discussion about how, for women, the playing field is not only not level, but oftentimes booby-trapped.

Prior to our trip my father had expressed a deep anxiety about our safety whilst in India. He was anxious about the spate of gang-rapes that have appeared in the news over the last few years, as if it were in any way a new phenomenon. My mother chipped in with the comment that women put themselves at risk by thinking they can dress how they like and go out late at night with impunity. I forget her exact words in the cloud of fury that enveloped me at this.

My response, eventually, was this; that Indian society raises its boys with a sense of entitlement that is based on their gender alone, whilst raising its girls with no sense of entitlement at all. I pointed out that rape is a hate crime, not one of desire, and that the use of violence against women, sexual or otherwise by men, has been over the years a way of attempting to reassert power when they feel it is slipping.

My mother had never apparently considered this. My father, to his credit, agreed wholeheartedly with me.  I should point out that my fiery and capable mother has been throughout her life something of a pioneer. She was a first-generation Indian immigrant to the UK, taught full-time at one of the roughest comprehensives in London for thirty years, wore a sari for all of her professional life (even and especially after her headmaster told her she could never hope to gain the respect of her students if she didn’t wear western clothes) and she was always financially independent of my father - in an era in which this was rare for women.  Yet it was her comments during our conversation that made me realise just how deepset is the bed-rock of misogyny that underlies Indian culture.

In 2013 the rape laws in India were amended after the Delhi Nirbhaya gang-rape in which a young woman died. Since then, there has been a predictable backlash from male journalists and judges claiming that the law is now being used ‘as a weapon for vengeance and personal vendetta’ (to quote Justice Kailash Ghambir of the Delhi High Court) and calling for the amendments to be scrapped. The fact that the rapist is often known to the woman, perhaps a friend, lover or landlord, is frequently given as a reason to discount her story (the assumption being that it was somehow just a misunderstanding or sour grapes after an affair has gone wrong).

It is conceivable that in a small number of cases a claim might be false. However given the experience of most women who pursue a rape case, with the enduring stigma and the frequent vitriol of the community, the tarnishing of her character and the likely eventual acquittal of the accused (around 90% in India are acquitted) how likely is it really that 90% of these women are just making it up?

Unabashed misogyny and gender inequality

On April 10 this year, a Delhi politician of the Samajwadi (Socialist) party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, addressing an election rally in Uttar Pradesh (referring to the death sentence that was awarded to the repeat-offending rapists of a photojournalist in Mumbai) said, “Girls befriend boys. When they have differences with the boys they call it rape. Boys make mistakes. Should they be hanged for that?” He called for the amendments to the rape laws to be reversed. The following day another senior politician in the same party, Abu Asim Azmi, speaking to journalist Varun Singh, said, “Girls go and complain whenever they want. Then the problem starts and the man’s honour, which he has earned throughout his life is destroyed.” His solution was that “any woman, whether married or unmarried, who goes with a guy, with or without consent, should be hanged.”

Why do these clearly deranged opinions matter? Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are arguably amongst the worst places to be female in India. The gender ratio of newborn babies gives a clue as to why. At birth, the ratio is 899 female to every 1000 male newborns in UP. This figure, after accounting for the naturally slightly greater number of male foetuses at conception, is largely attributable to female foeticide.

After birth it still isn’t plain sailing for the girls. In rural areas, where in utero sex determination is not available, female infanticide and neglect account for the subsequent decline in the numbers of pre and primary school-age girls. The trend persists through the age groups. The inevitable result of these disappeared women is that in 2014, according to the Election Commission of India, females make up only 44.6% of voters in Delhi and 45.2% in Uttar Pradesh (the national average for the whole of India is 47.6%).

How many of these women get to exercise their votes without duress is also debatable. In an article in The Independent on April 19, a female teacher interviewed by Andrew Buncombe in Sikar, Rajasthan, ‘estimated that about a third of women made their own voting decisions’, suggesting that two thirds cast their vote under the ‘overbearing influence of husbands, fathers or brothers’. This was an opinion I heard echoed more than once during the election period.

It is galling to think of this basic political right of a woman being casually appropriated by the men around her. India’s system of proportional representation in parliament means that in the Lok Sabha (House of the people) Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, has the largest number of seats. The second biggest state represented in the Lok Sabha is Maharashtra (the state my parents hail from) which, like UP, has atrocious statistics where the girls are concerned. The sex ratio at birth in Maharashtra is even worse than UP’s (883 girls to every 1000 boys).

In the same week as these comments about rape exploded in the press, the Election Commission of India banned two other politicians from holding public meetings of any kind for making inflammatory speeches that it was felt might incite racial tension between Hindus and Muslims. Their speeches were deemed to fall foul of the model code of conduct which requires that candidates and parties do not engage in ‘any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic’. Action was quick and the ECI also asked for criminal charges to be brought against the men.

Has there been any comparable response by the ECI to the misogynist comments of their fellow politicians? No, because the code of conduct does not stretch to cover sexuality or gender - although the ECI recently saw fit to issue a warning to Mulayam Singh Yadav for threatening to block poorly paid teaching auxiliaries from progressing onto permanent salary scales if they didn’t vote for his party.

Indian politics remains staunchly male. As if to emphasise this, during our stay we witnessed numerous macho, flag-waving motorbike rallies in support of the main parties. All participants were male. There is an assumption that politics is simply not suitable territory for women.

Five days before polling day in Maharashtra, there was a full-page spread in the Times of India with interviews with 12 young people about their political ‘wishlist’ and their thoughts about voting. Four of them were women. The centrepiece of the page was a large cartoon in which a man and a woman ‘discussed’ manifesto promises and the upcoming vote. The man had a total of 97 words which included the phrases ‘scrap corruption’, ‘better infrastructure’, ‘health and education benefits’ as well as ‘empowerment for women’ and ‘abolish dowry’. The woman’s total of 21 words were more or less as follows: ‘Yes,yes,yes’, ‘Yeah,yeah’, ‘Wow’, ‘I could kiss you’, ‘Really?’ and ‘So who do I vote for?’ Clearly women are not expected, even by the Times of India, to have credible political opinions of their own.

Womens’ invisibility in politics doesn’t look likely to change any time soon. Female representation in the Lok Sabha has historically been dire. In the last election in 2009, 10.86% of MPs elected to the Lok Sabha were women. Women candidates are simply not being fielded. In 2009, in UP the percentage of female candidates was 9.52%, in Maharashtra it was 7.46%. The national average was 8.7%. The figures have not shifted since. According to India’s Association for Democratic Reforms ‘National Election Watch’ report, in the 2014 elections the percentage of female candidates overall is 7.5% which is less than the number of candidates who have previous criminal records (17%), and even less than those whose criminal records are for serious charges such as murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and extortion (10%). Apparently having an amoral character is less of a hindrance to a political career than having ovaries.

The Women’s Reservation Bill which calls for a quota of 33% women in parliament was passed by the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, in 2010 and passed to the Lok Sabha for approval. It lapsed in the Lok Sabha for the fourth time this March. It currently looks very unlikely that it will become law and now needs to go back to the upper house to start the whole process again.

The central obstacle is that shifty inner demon, the misogyny that has been internalised within the psyche of each and every Indian, male or female, and embedded in us over centuries.

The full range of female nature

On our travels this April we visited the spectacular Belur and Halebid temples which date back almost 900 years. It was notable, even without the official, well-rehearsed spiel of our Archaeological Survey of India guide, that the portrayal of men and women was unequal. At both temples, statues of female deities were fewer in number, smaller than those of male deities and less prominently displayed, in corners or to one side, or at the back of the temple. Sculptures of men were all heroic in some way, hurling elephants about or fighting demons. The women were almost all dancing girls. Our guide’s only remarks about the female statues were about their hairstyles, about the vain and arrogant expression of one depicted admiring herself in a mirror and to inform us that the scorpion by the foot of another was a metaphor for her “poisonous character.” “The figures,” he announced authoritatively, “depict the full range of female nature.”

It was at Belur, kneeling on 900 year old stone steps that I began a conversation about misogyny with my seven year old daughter. Whether misogyny was entirely the sculptors’ intent 900 years ago or whether their legacy has been re-framed through the filter of centuries of patriarchal history is a moot point. Six hundred years after Belur, in the Dariya Daulat palace in Mysore, home of the famous Tipu Sultan who fought the British, women remain remarkably absent or at best scarce in the beautiful frescoes of court life. Those who are present are the occasional idle royal and her ladies in waiting. At every historic site we visited, the belittling of women in Indian culture throughout the ages, the failure to acknowledge and record their contribution, was evident. And I won’t even attempt a feminist deconstruction of the Indian epic, the Ramayana.

Signs of change

But there is hope for feminism in India. On April 18, the Supreme Court of India granted constitutional recognition to transgender individuals, giving them the right to marry, inherit, adopt, hold a passport and driver’s licence, have equal healthcare, education and employment rights. This comes only four months after the Supreme Court re-criminalised gay sex: but this decision must now inevitably be reviewed too. All of this can only bode well for Indian women, for it is hard to justify upholding the rights of one community but not another.

In the twenty first century there can be no sane argument against the dismantling of misogyny in Indian culture, indeed in any culture. For a start it doesn’t make economic sense to squander up to (in India’s case) 48.5% of the intellectual resources of the nation. Secondly, men who cannot allow themselves to see their partner as a whole, able, equal being, will never be able to find the kind of profound and mutually respectful connection that is possible between a man and a woman and that enables both to flourish. Without the necessary change in attitude, for a variety of reasons a generation of men and women may well end up lonely.

Some women may decide that men offer only a kind of emotional and psychological imprisonment that they can simply do without. There are already signs of the latter. In India, as in the UK, rapidly rising property prices have driven women into employment in their droves. Alongside, there has been the inevitable explosion of preschool child care and nursing homes to replace the unpaid labour that was once women’s lot.

With financial independence has come another kind of freedom. In India, divorce rates have risen dramatically, notably in the educated middle-classes. In Kerala (the so-called ‘divorce capital of India’), the number of registered divorces increased from 8456 in 2005 to 38,231 in 2011. The rise is in part attributable to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act which came into force in 2006. But it is also worth noting that Kerala has the highest female literacy rate in the whole of India (92% in the 2011 census. For comparison, the female literacy rate in Maharashtra was 75.5% and in Uttar Pradesh 59.3%).

In 2014, too many of India’s women still suffer lives shaped by violence, contempt and injustice. And they will continue to do so for generations yet, unless the biggest democracy and one of the oldest cultures in the world is prepared to examine, and examine honestly, the misogyny that lies at its core.

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