Indian women take part in a protest against rape during International Women's Day on March 8 in New Delhi. (Rajat Gupta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NEW DELHI — It all started with the gang rape of a young Indian woman in Delhi in 2012 — a victim now known in India as “Nirbhaya,” which means “Fearless” in Hindi. Protesters marched in the Indian capital, candlelight vigils were held and courts sentenced the rapists to death.

Amid the new calls to stop violence against women in India, Deepa Narayan, a sociologist based in Delhi, kept turning one question over and over in her head: How did Indian society come to accept this treatment of women? “What is it about our culture that leads to such violence against women and this pervasive sexism?” she said in an interview.

The question led Narayan and her researchers to conduct 600 interviews — about 3,000 hours over three years, documented in more than 8,000 pages of notes, now published in a new book called “Chup,” the Hindi word for the imperative “Quiet.” That word was chosen, Narayan said, because it has become so ubiquitous in silencing women that it was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Conducted across colleges, in coffee shops and in shopping malls in the major Indian cities of New Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, Narayan's interviews sought to delve into the “inner lives” of urban women. It revealed that India's young, educated, modern women still encounter widespread gender inequality, and often internalize conservative attitudes toward women's social roles.

Women, even those who said they were feminists, often used words such as “mother,” “sacrifice” or “giving” to describe themselves, Narayan found, while men often described themselves as a “leader” or “powerful.”

“Overwhelmingly, what emerges is the burden of duty; women feel burdened by the ‘shoulds,’ the expectations of duty imposed on them” Narayan writes in the book. “In fact most words chosen by women describe the emotional qualities and strengths needed to cope with the duties of being a daughter, wife and mother, in other words, meeting everyone else’s needs selflessly.”

India, despite making strides in development in the past three decades, lags behind on gender equality. It ranks 131 of 188 countries on the U.N. Development Program's Gender Inequality Index. Dowry, female infanticide and women's education are persistent issues despite decades of successive governments' efforts to address them. Narayan said the problems in India are not limited to villages and uneducated people — the behavior of outspoken critics of sexism shows how deeply entrenched these attitudes are.

One woman, who leads the gender studies and diversity program at a university in New Delhi, for example, recently called Narayan to compliment one of her recent speeches. “She said, 'Oh you're so beautiful.' That was her first line. I had to start laughing,” she said.

Narayan didn't expect that so many of her interviewees — a sample of India's young, modern women — would be parroting female stereotypes, despite labeling themselves as feminists. “What I heard women saying was disturbing. Over and over I would shake my head in disbelief that yet another smart and smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom was so unsure of herself.

“Society is stagnating under the veneer of modernity,” Narayan said. “Women have internalized these behaviors that make it so men continue to be in power.”

Many women described being groped — almost all of Nayaran's women interviewees, she said, had experienced being inappropriately touched. “This has become normalized. This is no longer traumatic,” she said.

Such behaviors occur because of how young girls in India are raised, Narayan writes. “I call the way girls are raised ‘fear training,’ literally, training girls to become fearful. It is training based on no and don’t. No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that.”

In October 2017, Raya Sarkar, a law student at University of California at Davis, posted a list accusing South Asian academics of sexual harassment. (Maya Craig,Sarah Parnass,Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

Women's lives in India, Narayan said, are beset by doubt. One woman interviewee in the book, 27-year-old Eshani, describes her father's dissatisfaction with every achievement — 89 percent in an exams? Why didn't you get 90? he would ask. “She feels crushed; no achievement of hers is ever good enough. Fault finding, with everyday ordinary things like how a girl combs her hair or how a girl stands or talks, is a strategy intended to dampen confidence,” Narayan writes.

The portraits Narayan depicts are ones that many Indian women will recognize — one woman describes her husband forcing her to sign a resignation letter the day after her marriage, another describes her mother's anger on learning she was a lesbian, despite being a gender-training expert.

Male interviewees, too, Narayan said, suggested how women's roles in society are perceived differently from men's. One man for instance described his father as an intellectual with whom he could have long debates, and his mother as simply “superstitious.” “He called his mother the 'shock absorber,' " Narayan said. “She absorbs all the tension and keeps the peace.”

For Narayan, the constant undermining of women's positions is about limiting their identities and their existence. “We have to change the framing of how we see gender inequality,” she said. “We are still being taught not to exist. Or exist as little as possible, that's what underlies the phenomenon of gender inequality.”