In India, New Opportunities for Women Draw Anger and Abuse From Men

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 25, 2008


Every morning, Gitanjali Chaudhry, 17, walks to her high school through a labyrinth of temples and vegetable markets. Along with her books, she carries an Indian version of Mace -- a bag of chili powder and a pouch of safety pins -- to fend off the often boorish men who loiter in the narrow passageways.

"We learned that women have to be brave," said Chaudhry, a loquacious, ponytailed girl who wants to be a lawyer. She has started attending increasingly popular neighborhood classes on self-defense for women.

Chaudhry is one of the brightest students in her working-class district. But since several local men started following her to class, she sometimes stays home now. She has friends who have been raped or are constant victims of "Eve teasing," when men on the street spew lewd comments or aggressively paw women's bodies.

"We thought opportunities were getting better for young Indian women. But the harassment only seems to be getting worse," Chaudhry said, as friends gathered at a recent "self-respect and self-esteem session" held by the nonprofit Smile Foundation.

For India's middle-class urban women, the past decade has brought unprecedented opportunities to advance in a social order long dominated by men. But a powerful male backlash has accompanied the women's revolution, an upwelling of resentment that has expressed itself in sexual violence and harassment.

In India today, women are working in lucrative retail and technology jobs, sometimes in cities far from their home towns. Economic independence has, in some cases, allowed them to delay marriage and early childbirth. Social mobility among India's young is also undermining the country's traditional joint-family system, in which couples are expected to move in with the husband's parents. The shift has empowered the modern Indian wife, freeing her from the scourge of the bossy, nosy mother-in-law.

At the same time, however, the number of reported instances of domestic violence, rape and dowry killings is spiking in South Asian cities, according to women's groups, demographers and sociologists.

Violence against women is the fastest-growing crime in India, a recent study concluded. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested, every 34 minutes a rape takes place, and every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped, according to the Home Ministry's National Crime Records Bureau.

With about 19,000 reported rapes a year, India ranks fifth highest in that category out of 84 countries studied, according to a 2006 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But women's groups say fewer than 2 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted in India report the crime to police, largely because the social stigma attached to rape may undermine a woman's chance for marriage.

The United States, where the reporting of sexual attacks is more common, ranks highest in the world, with 95,000 reported rapes each year.

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