New Internationalist

The hypocrisy of sexism in India

Mamata Banerjee
Many feel Mamata Banerjee is dismissive of sexual violence Biswarup Ganguly, under a CC License

In Aligarh, north India, Gunjan, a 20-year-old college student lies injured in hospital. Her crime? She wore jeans to college. Her mother died defending her. Gunjan’s neighbour, by all accounts a disagreeable woman, taunted Gunjan and her family about the fact that Gunjan’s clothes were objectionable and her parents should stop her dressing in modern, offensive (to some sections of society) clothes. Non-traditional western garb is okay for Bollywood, but frowned upon in conservative Indian circles.

The young girl told the older woman to mind her own business. Enraged at the insult – in traditional circles it is unheard of for young people to answer back – the woman returned with a group of men wielding sticks and knives to teach Gunjan manners, according to newspaper reports. Neighbours who tried to intervene, were attacked too. By the time the police arrived, Kamlesh, Gunjan’s mother was lying in a pool of blood. Hit on the head with a heavy object, several times. The doctors pronounced her dead on arrival at the hospital. Gunjan and a few others are now hospitalised with serious injuries.

Our society, never fails to astound. Our logic is incomprehensible. The same people who attacked Gunjan probably live on an unadulterated diet of bad Bollywood films and serials, many of them lewd, and crassly vulgar in the extreme. The women in many of these films dress in tight, supposed-to-be-provocative, sexy clothes. Unabashedly pornographic dance numbers which leave little to the imagination are allowed past the censors. And children watch these movies with the entire family, grandparents included.

But in a country where female strength is revered, in the famous Kali and Shakti cults, there is the other side of midnight. A totally hypocritical attitude to women. The perfect woman is idolized as Sati-Savitri, in our literature. Yet ordinary women face hell on a daily basis. We have dowry deaths, and all manner of vile attacks on women, recently exacerbated because of a surfeit of cheap government sold alcohol and porn let loose on our streets via mobile phones. Apparently, porn can be viewed on mobiles for as little as 10 rupees a download, according to recent reports. $1, as I write this, is currently 58 rupees.

Women’s groups have been shouting themselves hoarse for decades. But, things seem to be getting worse, not better. I grew up in Calcutta, now Kolkata, and took pride in the fact that if a woman was molested on a city street, one scream would have a mob rushing to her defence. That seems to have changed now, with West Bengal branded one of India’s worst states. Gang rape has become common and the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee who rode to power, with sloganeering on women’s issues and myriad promises to make life better for Bengal women, now passes irresponsible remarks, dismissing rape and sexual violence as the opposition trying to carry out a smear campaign against her party. She publicly protests that the media and women’s groups are being paid to malign her to all who will listen. Women’s groups are outraged and frustrated that the first woman Chief Minister of West Bengal state, where the Hindu goddess Durga reigns supreme, is such a disgrace to womanhood.

The National Commission for Women, noted with ‘dismay’ the transfer of two key officers involved in investigations of the now infamous Park Street gang rape case and Bankura case ‘for reasons best known to the state government.’ Even when they are spelt out, ruling party politicians manage to hush-up rape cases where their party men are involved.

Bengali women pride themselves on being strong and feisty. Women’s groups are banding together to fight back. And their shakti (strength) is not something to be trifled with. May the force be with them.

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  1. #1 Nirupama 14 Jun 13

    Marie,

    If there aren't regulations which are punishable quickly this is bound to happen. Some how in our country it is misused or everyone finds a short cut so or things take longer to solve therefore the only option is to keep voicing out like what you do. Most people i talk to are tired and have given up to voice out since they feel nothing will happen. Hope people reading your article get renewed energy to voice their concerns. Like you said ’may the force be with them’. Is the Government awake?

  2. #2 Mikail 14 Jun 13

    Good article. However, too short and seems like your point got lost somewhere down the line. I am confused as to what you wanted to highlight as the article drifted on. Is your point that you would like to see indian values change (such as those of Gunjan's neighbour to be able to take such idiotically drastic steps) or that bollywood is steering us wrongly by sensationalising sexuality by women, or rather that both the common man and politicians alike should be accountable for their actions as far as womens' rights are concerned? I agree that the country has taken the wrong direction as far as womens safety is concerned and that all the above points maybe, in part, to blame for the rise in incidents against women. I think it would be a welcome change for India to take a page out of the arab world's books and punish those who commit these heinous crimes by cutting off their genitals ( I know this sounds extreme, but so are some of the crimes against women in our country.)
    As for the backlash that will come after ( eg. women falsely implicating men etc etc.) I would be interested to know your take on that?

  3. #3 john dsouza 14 Jun 13

    Most of us are being allowed to live in a cocoon, because most of the writing on highlights the extreme event. Ghastly as these incidents are,we need more literature on the more subtle aspects of hypocrisy and sexism. Feminism gives us a positive agenda and ideology, which can really be taken forward, if we keep highlighting these subtle issues.
    An example: My eight year old daughter was ’ostracised’ by her peers in the neighbourhood, as some girls said that they should not play with her, as she use ’bad language’. When my wife confronted the ring leader, she was told that she used the word ’chaddi’ when her bloomer split while playing. This was apparently inspired by some mothers, who had early conspired to ensure that she wore bloomers rather than panties, under her normal dress. We had been bewildered as to why my daughter used to be upset when she didnt have bloomers or jeans to wear. My daughter has had to ’adjust’ the liberal attitude we inculcated, so that she could play with her peers! and she seems to be in state of confusion as a result. She is not able to reconcile our views with those of her friends:
    So I do feel that the progressive women's movement, must leave the more dramatic events to the many who are taking it up in any case, and address, write about more subtle, but daily and closer home, manifestations of sexism, prejudice. My thought go back to the ’pink chaddi’ campaign. Such campaigns help.

  4. #4 Charlotte 14 Jun 13

    My Mother and relatives were born in India and some of them still live there. I on the other hand was born and raised in England, and it shows. Not that I'm rude or ill mannered in any way but if I have an opinion or issue I will voice it as apposed to when my Mum was younger she wouldn't of dared. With No offence intended the women of India seem oppressed to me and quite fearful of having a voice which Mamata was, by the sounds of it, meant to be helping them to have. Whether it's a politician or other type of body in power, to get into a powerful position they're always just going to say what people want to hear then totally screw them over just so their name doesn't get tarnished by any opposition. The only way this will ever change is if these Womens Groups keep banding together to become bigger and stronger so their voice can be heard. I whole heartedly agree May the Force be With Them.

  5. #5 chandrika sen sharma 14 Jun 13

    Amen to that! Knowing the double standard most Indians have regarding women and their rights - to live how they want - it will take a miracle to change this outdated mindset. May the force be with them indeed!

  6. #6 Priya Chatterjee Thomas 14 Jun 13

    ’really good blog mari...
    and well we are definitely a hypocritical society-where else will you find a councillor banning mannequins in lingerie while elsewhere in the country, most definitely, and perhaps in the state where she resides too, temple walls are adorned with sculptures in suggestive poses-perhaps if this girl had worn a half sari exposing her midriff and God knows what else she would have been excused’

  7. #7 david cohen 15 Jun 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog on The Hypocrisy of Sexism in India challenges all of us to fight it in our own societies, communities and families.
    I spend time now working on the Defense legislation in the US Congress. We know sexism, abusing and harassing women and gays, is rampant. The authorities have failed to deal with it, confront it and end it.
    Now leaders at the top--President Obama, Secretary Hagel Military leaders-- are clear insisting on zero tolerance. That is necessary but not sufficient. We need systems that fix responsibility in such a way that those abused and attacked can step forward without fear or that they will be mocked or ignored.
    In the US the military has the attention now. But the culture has to change within closed communities, that is barriers must be broken, so that there is no longer a conspiracy of silence that we have seen too much of in the Catholic Church and fundamentalist religious communities.
    We all have lots to do to protect people and change our cultures.
    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    June 14, 2013
    --
    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World
    E-mail address:[email protected]

  8. #8 joyce gayen 15 Jun 13

    Super one Mari.

  9. #9 Biggentle 15 Jun 13

    It is safer to be male,i reckon, in our societies.Our societies assume a lopsided kind of stand on issues that straddle gender.there is little we can do individually.but collectively and with the right attitude...
    Though 'hypocrisy of sexism' is played out in every society,its prevalence in developing countries seems more .particulary,i think,because the leadership in such countries enjoy a massive degree of media and juridicial neglect- not being in the constant radar of human right activist bodies and not being booked for offences pertaining to abuses, direct or oblique infringements of human rights- and also because the cultures there are being solicitous of the male...infact,it would be wishful thinking to even assume that our religions ascribe the same level of importance and attention to both sexes(i don't wish to go any further).

  10. #10 mari 16 Jun 13

    Mikail

    Thanks for pointing out my meandering. I meant to write a totally stream of consciousness type of piece but changed mid way..
    ... a blog, at least, the NI blog, is limited to 600 words and I find this limiting..howsomever..please send me yr email and I will write a longer piece (I am starting another blog soon as well as longer articles) and mail it to you...

    I go ballistic each time I read about rape and now little children being raped, something we'd never heard about in India...and yes I have the same reaction, the vermin who rape children and women dont deserve our sympathy nor do we need to spend thousands on keeping them alive in our prisons..
    I believe I am against the death penalty but then I would cheerfully castrate rapists..hang, draw and quarter them too...
    I must say, I am not rational or reasonable on this issue of rapists and pedophiles..

    I am haunted by the picture of April Jones..

    Its frightening to think of men being falsely accused, but I think DNA testing etc. could prevent that, not merely hearsay or unbacked evidence...

    thanks for writing in...appreciate the critique


    Good article. However, too short and seems like your point got lost somewhere down the line. I am confused as to what you wanted to highlight as the article drifted on. Is your point that you would like to see indian values change (such as those of Gunjan's neighbour to be able to take such idiotically drastic steps) or that bollywood is steering us wrongly by sensationalising sexuality by women, or rather that both the common man and politicians alike should be accountable for their actions as far as womens' rights are concerned? I agree that the country has taken the wrong direction as far as womens safety is concerned and that all the above points maybe, in part, to blame for the rise in incidents against women. I think it would be a welcome change for India to take a page out of the arab world's books and punish those who commit these heinous crimes by cutting off their genitals ( I know this sounds extreme, but so are some of the crimes against women in our country.)
    As for the backlash that will come after ( eg. women falsely implicating men etc etc.) I would be interested to know your take on that?

    - See more at: http://newint.org/blog/2013/06/14/women-violence-india/#sthash.mBFPiE2E.dpuf

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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