There is a lot I am genuinely proud of about being an Indian – how women get treated in India is not one of the reasons. It is 2012 now – not 1612. And look at what happened in the nation’s capital. A 23 year old girl got gang raped in the nation’s capital ! . As an Indian (especially as an Indian male) , I am ashamed. This is not an isolated incident – such incidents happen all too often in India. And it is a deep rooted problem with many dimensions. It needs a combination of top-down and bottom up measures by the citizens and the elected government to fix.
I was born and raised in the southern state of Kerala. Before I was born, my community (Nair) was a matriarchal one ( This is very atypical, and most of Indian families follows a Patriarchal system). Essentially women controlled the family and inheritance was via the mother’s lineage, not the father’s.
Men had to use their mother’s family name as their surnames. Men essentially could enjoy benefits in their life time, and the inheritance went to their sisters and the kids of the sisters. The primary reason for this system was that Nair men were warriors back in the day, so moms had to ensure stability of the family even when the male members were away in wars, or lost their life in battle. Women were well educated and there was apparently no issue on dowry, female foeticide etc. I would highly recommend reading the novel “Indulekha” by O.Chandu Menon. There is an English translation for the book – and it will open your eyes on how the society functioned at that time. The whole picture changed when Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act was passed in 1975, the year I was born.
I know a lot of very strong women first hand, and they have all influenced me. My mom who only got schooling till high school was (and still is) a small business owner and made sure my sister and I got the best education we could get. Same with my mom-in-law who worked really hard to make sure her daughter was set up for success in her life. My sister did her masters degree, while also having a demanding career as a TV anchor, and then moved on to a career in IT. My wife who stayed home for first 10 years of our marriage (despite being eminently qualified to work as an engineer ) to take care of our little daughter is the sole reason I could focus on my job that needs me to be away from them for most part of the week. And they all had a middle class upbringing that valued hard work and good education. If they can do it – I am sure a lot of Indian women can do it equally well or better.
Discrimination between men and women in India starts even before birth. Female foeticide is so high in India that government had to pass laws to stop allowing doctors to even determine the gender of the foetus before a baby is born. Even with all the awareness – the ratio of male to female children seems still lopsided . I know couples who kept on having babies till they had a male child or two. What I never understood though was why several moms – who obviously are women themselves – showed a definite preference for sons and not daughters.
The discrimination continues in school – boys and girls sit in two different sections in the class. And at the first available opportunity, most parents send their kids to a “girls only” or “boys only” school. I went to a “boys only” school, and my sister went to a “girls only” school. I then went to a “boys only” Mechanical Engineering degree. Well, we did have one girl in our class – and I have the deepest respect for her for finishing 4 years of college with us boys, most of whom never knew what to say or do in front of her. The first time I got to sit next to a girl was on the first day of my MBA class. I haven’t been that stressed out ever – and I still remember sweating profusely when I shook hands with a girl in my class. I definitely was not prepared for a world where men and women co-existed. One of the biggest values I got from that MBA degree was learning how to live in the real world where men and women both are equal partners. It took me a few years into my career before, I got comfortable with the idea of being around women.
My female colleagues and class mates have shared similar stories of their upbringing and how it made life difficult for them. This is an easily solvable problem – let both boys and girls go to the same schools, and sit next to each other, and learn to co-exist and have healthy relationships. Of course it is not a magic bullet – but it surely will eliminate some of the problems that only arise because of curiosity.
Social belief systems cannot be changed over night by government regulations – reforms will probably take another generation or two. Over time, India has practically gotten rid of “sati” , child marriage, devadasi system etc. But it took a lot of time, and collective effort and leadership. And India has only benefited from that. That gives me hope that we can get better from current status quo.
India has strict laws against corruption. But that has hardly helped contain corruption. So while punishment for rapists and other abusers must no doubt be swift and just – such laws should not be created out of anger. In a country like India, misuse of laws is rather common place. Swinging the pendulum to the other extreme might not be the right long term solution. Laws must be made when people are peaceful, and enforced justly in all situations.
There is a definite part for the government to play in making this situation better. Safety of women should not be a matter of paying just lip service. Our constitution does not discriminate between men and women. Women should be free to travel, dress, work etc in ways they are comfortable with – and should not worry constantly on what trouble lays in wait for them every step of the way. Awareness and education needs to go hand in hand with strict enforcement of the law, and preventive security measures by government at all levels.
Curiously, not all problems faced by women are caused by men. A good case in point is sheer number of dowry related and domestic abuse cases where the mother in law makes life difficult (sometimes impossible) for their daughter in law. Or for a less drastic example – I have seen women humiliating other women in buses when they share a seat with a man, usually with the approving nods and looks from co-passengers.
One of the things India lacks in sufficient numbers is the number of women that others can look up to as great role models. The situation today is much better than say 20 years ago, and from what I have heard from elders – it is a LOT better than in their times. When Kiran Bedi became an IPS officer, it was an inspiration to every girl in the country. Several women made it to IPS after Ms Bedi, but nearly not at the same clip as men did. But over time, I seriously hope things will change. When I got my first job – maybe 10% of employees in IT were women. These days when I visit India, it looks 2X or 3X better, and I am heartened by that. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Which brings me to the political side of this problem. A lot of educated people in India have given up on the political process in our country. They either won’t vote – or they vote entirely based on party affiliation. For example, I have friends and relatives who will vote for the Congress party irrespective of who the actual candidate is. They also don’t care to hold their elected representatives accountable when they mess up. This needs to change. If India needs progress – its citizens should be an active part of the political process. We are miles away from that now. Now that social media has the ability to pass on messages to a large number of people, I hope we start seeing some good changes.
Finally there is a lot we can all do as individuals. Without waiting for government or someone else to do the right thing, we can all start to practice being better to women. Let us send our daughters to co-ed schools and colleges. Let us make sure we won’t marry our daughters and sisters to morons who ask for dowry. Let us use our savings to give our daughters and sisters the best possible education, in lieu of the most expensive wedding. Let us work on helping the women around us feel better about themselves and about other women. And let us show our sons and brothers by example on how a civil society really ought to function. And by all means let us heavily penalize people who treat women with disrespect. And let us elect candidates who share our values.
PS : Today is the third anniversary of my blog. I tried really hard to not type up a depressing post today, but in the end could not justify posting this even one more day later.