In the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu scripture, even when the evil Ravana abducts Lord Rama’s wife Sita, her abductor treats her with respect.
But thousands of years after the scripture was written, we are still seeing women in India treated with a profound disrespect of their dignity. To add the shocking gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old medical school student, a second, outrageously similar rape is reported to have occurred last weekend. This is not the India I believe in.
Friends find it odd that I can both express my love for Hindu folklore, Tagore’s poetry and a spicy curry while also describing India as a terrible country for women – all in the same breath. And by that I don’t mean India is terrible for poor women or uneducated women, unprotected women or old women, pious women or irreligious women, illiterate women or unskilled women: I mean all women, whether members of the burgeoning middle class, female foreign tourists or American-raised second-generation Indian women such as myself. Of course, there are those who have managed to reach the highest echelons of their chosen field: former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, President Pratibha Patil, fashion designer Ritu Kumar, banker Chanda Kochhar, and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi are just a few examples. But too often, these women’s names are brandished as proof that India is a bright beacon of freedom and opportunity, safety and privilege for women in a corner of the world that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.
However, these recent gang rapes reminds us that India has a long way to go in terms of transforming men’s attitudes towards women. Despite its efficient call centers, growing consumer class, and entrepreneurial spirit, the belief that women’s lives are equally as valuable as men’s is hardly a widely-held and publicly-acknowledged belief.
In a country where a woman’s worth is determined by some mystical calculus involving variables such as the fairness her skin, her ability to speak English, her level of education and skills and her assumed virginity, crimes against women such as rape are under-reported for fear of bringing shame to the victim’s family and curtailing her chances for a “good marriage.” Even in the year 2013, what ultimately brings a woman prestige in many families in India is her marriage, despite her inherent value as a human being.
News blogs and articles reporting the rape and its aftermath describe hundreds of students and women protesting India’s silent permissiveness of violence towards the fairer sex. For the sake of all of India’s women who have experienced similarly degrading and inhumane treatment in the form of physical, sexual and emotional violence, I hope the public will not diminish its anger but instead control and wield it. By doing so, they can force India’s politicians and police to reckon with the fact that whereas in the past the invisible underclass expected the powerful to rise above corruption, now the elite wields power derived from and by the mandate of the all people.
Let India be a country where the weak no longer endure random acts of violence and tolerate injustice in the hopes that quiet piety would conclude life’s journey in the warm glow of love. Let Indians today, even for the humble and the pious, no longer allow the downtrodden to passively accept their lot. Let India look to its ancient mythology as inspiration for camaraderie and mutual respect between men and women, and among the poor and the powerful.
Kavita Ramdya is the author of “Bollywood Weddings” and teaches at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.