While musing on why these men felt the need to write about strong women (and bearing in mind that some of the events they relate took place several decades ago), I came across a lengthy and detailed article about women in India. Published in the reputable British newspaper The Guardian, "Why Is India so Bad for Women," by Helen Pidd, paints a grim picture of the mistreatment and sexual abuse of women in India, and the failure of the legal system to protect them. Pidd opens with the dramatic statement that India has been labeled the worst place to be a woman among the G20 nations. The poll, it turns out, was carried out among 370 gender specialists around the world, and even Saudi Arabia was one rung above India.
Pidd presents a litany of abuses that women in cities and villages have suffered recently, beginning with a gang attack on a woman who emerged from a bar in a busy street in mid-evening in early July, in the city of Guwahati, Assam, in northeast India. The assault, which was clearly sexual in nature (although it stopped short of rape), was captured on numerous mobile phones, as well as by a TV cameraman, and was shown all over India. However, it was only after several days, as outrage and pressure grew, that the police took any action and began arresting some of the culprits, including eventually the TV cameraman. What became clear from the attack and its aftermath was the lack of respect for women, and especially independent women who don't adhere to a particular dress or behavioral code.
Pidd continues with many other examples of sexual harassment and abuse of women, from men "feeling them up" in the crowded metro and buses on a daily basis and extending to a village father beheading his 20-year-old daughter for falling in love with a lower-caste boy in June this year.
Of course, women are abused in many other countries, too, including in Israel, the country where I live. Up until recently, Israel was rated one of the worst offenders in trafficking of women. Brought over from former Soviet countries on the pretext of work, they were smuggled over the Egyptian border into Israel and sold into sexual slavery. Now, through various means, the authorities have clamped down, and Israel is no longer regarded as a major offender. In ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious areas, morality squads patrol the streets in order to catch and punish young women who dress or behave immodestly. Finally, there is the sad phenomenon of husbands murdering wives among the Ethiopian Jewish immigrant community. Uprooted from their familial structural ties in their home country, they are unable to adapt to modern Israeli society and vent their frustrations against their helpless and hapless womenfolk.
Indians from the villages must also witness a similar sense of loss of identity and structure when they migrate to the city. But why was India rated the worst country to be a woman?
According to the survey, infanticide, child marriage and slavery were the main factors contributing to this ranking. Gulshun Rehman, health program development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled, said: "In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour."
Pidd expands this picture by citing various statistics, including a UNICEF survey among adolescents about whether wives should be beaten, and the 7 percent escalation in crime against women between 2010 and 2011, and especially offenses against the "dowry prohibition act" (involving abduction and kidnapping) and rape. An editor of an Assamese women’s magazine even spoke of a “Taliban-plus” mentality against women in some areas.
While all this is very disturbing, we should perhaps try and retain some perspective. Unlike many other countries where women are mistreated, India is a democracy, albeit an unwieldy one. In fact, it is the biggest democracy in the world. Moreover, it has continued to function as a vibrant democracy for 65 years. India is a multicultural, pluralistic country, with major problems and huge differences in levels of development. As a parliamentary democracy, it has the means to implement change – most importantly, through the educational system and legislation, and via the legal instruments already at its disposal, but also through a range of women’s advocacy and other pressure groups. I believe that attitudes toward women in India will eventually alter; it may take a long time, but hopefully such stories about women like those related here will become curiosities from another era.
On the weekend of December 22-23, following the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi a week earlier, thousands demonstrated in the capital to protest the latest incident of violence against women in India.
See, for instance, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/23/world/asia/india-rape-protests/index.html