We examine the cultural forces driving violence against women in India
The heinous crimes against women in India that have hit the headlines in recent months are a result of India’s long-standing patriarchal culture and deep-rooted beliefs that women are of less value than men.
Manifestations of this belief can be seen along the entire span of a girl’s lifetime, even before she has left her mother’s womb. The phenomenon of sex-selective abortion, which allows parents to find out the sex of their child and terminate the pregnancy if it’s a girl, is testimony to this. Finding out the sex of your child before birth is illegal in India, precisely for this reason. However, there is a thriving underground market for it and a lot of money to be made by doctors who capitalise on these traditional prejudices.
Sex-selective abortion has been exacerbated by the Indian government’s family planning campaign to keep family sizes small to tackle extreme poverty in rural areas of the country.
My research in rural villages of Punjab revealed that this campaign has been hugely successful and parents agree that a “small family is a happy family”. However, this also means that parents have fewer chances to have a son and they are not prepared to leave this to chance.
But where does this obsession for sons stem from? There are a number of cultural factors that contribute to this. The principal reason is the perception of economic security gained through sons. This is not only because men have greater access to education and employment opportunities than women, but also because a son will never leave his family home. Daughters on the other hand, traditionally leave their family home when they get married and if they are permitted to work, their income goes straight into their mother-in-laws’ pockets. For this reason, investing any time or money in your daughter is considered to be akin to “watering someone else’s garden”. Additionally, marrying off a daughter is a huge expense, which most people cannot afford and is a reason for keeping the number of daughters to a minimum. Sons on the other hand, will bring money into the family when they get married (through their wives’ dowries), they will carry on the family name and inherit the family property.
Young girls and boys are hugely perceptive and acutely aware of their own parents’ gender preferences. It’s no surprise then that these young people grow up to be either men with superiority complexes or women who feel guilty, ashamed, and indebted to their families and society for the inconvenience they have caused.
Women have internalised the gender discrimination they face and believe their existence is secondary to men. This is why women are blamed and blame themselves for violent acts against them. This culture of blame is one of the most abhorrent aspects of patriarchy. Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party leader in western Maharashtra state has recently stated that “rapes take place also because of a woman’s clothes, her behaviour, and her presence at inappropriate places,” adding that women must think carefully about whether they are inviting assault.
This warped logic, which is almost as absurd as sexually assaulting a woman suspected of having sex with another man, shows that the fundamental belief that men are superior to women, is nowhere near being shifted. Men’s authority lies simply in the fact of being a man. They can act with impunity simply because of their sex. Whereas women will always be wrong, always be shamed and blamed, and always be more expendable, because they are women and this is how it has always been.
What more can be done to improve the rights of women in India?
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