The Sexual Divide

Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation?

Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success.

In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: “We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want.” The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in the presence of men.

There is no reason to doubt this sentiment and it raises a whole host of questions that need to be considered:

First, how did things get to be this way? Have they always been like this in India (not if one reads William Dalrymple’s account of pre-modern Hinduism that we had summarized earlier)? If not, what triggered the change? Dalrymple traces changes to sexual attitudes in India to the Victorian morality of evangelical Christian missionaries who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes that were internalized by British-educated Hindu reformers who felt embarrassed by their own culture. If this interpretation is correct, it mirrors the perceptive observation of a Native American Indian about the encounter of his own people with Europeans: “We all know the Indians were colonized by the Europeans but every colonized Indian has been colonized by the Indian reaction to colonization.” And this would raise a further question – where else do we see the consequences of this double colonization?

Second, does anyone have an explanation for why this practice is labeled ‘Eve Teasing’ in a country in which the majority of the population does not subscribe to the story of Eve and Adam? Are there more relevant labels in use in local languages that might provide clues to the origins of the practice? How is this treatment reconciled with the powerful imagery of female goddesses in Hinduism?

Third, how widespread is this male attitude towards women? The news story suggests that men are not supportive of the ‘Ladies Specials’ and that it took a female Minister of Railways to initiate the service. We can explore this question across class and space. Is it largely a middle-class phenomenon triggered by the rapid increase of women in the labor force? And are there significant variations across states in India? If yes, what may be the reason for such variation? As an extension, what is the nature of variations across South Asia?

Fourth, as bad as the situation seems to be, one must commend the fact that a progressive measure has been chosen to enlarge the space for women as they join the workforce in India. This is far better than the retrogressive advice that would be given to women in Pakistan – to stay at home in the protection of Chadar aur Chardeevarii or to make themselves invisible under a burka.

Fifth, does this retrogressive attitude in Pakistan have anything to do with authoritarianism in society? Recall that the German slogan ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche’ (children, kitchen, church) is attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and is descriptive of the male perception of women’s role in society in the nineteenth century. But this slogan was revived by Hitler in the 1930s when he stated that for the German woman her “world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.”

Sixth, can we conclude that the democratic space in India offers hope for a progressive decline in gender discrimination? To what extent would Indian women have to replicate the feminist struggle that was needed to overcome the most blatant forms of discriminations in the West? And how long is the struggle going to take? Gail Collins mentions in her new book that even till the early 1960s it was a great time to be an American male – harried executives could expect to return home to wives who existed solely to cook their dinners, raise their children and look stunning at parties!

It is unacceptable that women do not find it possible to be themselves in the company of men. It should be particularly unacceptable to men. Why isn’t it so?


  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:06h, 23 October Reply

    I’ve heard first hand accounts from eye witnesses of men masturbating in public buses in Chennai.
    I’ve heard of women in India (middle class) expressing their sense of revelation when they experience an unmolested life in Western countries; they’ve said that they did not know that such an axiety free life was even possible.
    I’ve seen my mother get infuriated at my father when he made her walk from the market place to the bank (where he was waiting for her) along a road that had only men in it. I remember her yelling “Men were looking me up and down”
    I’ve heard from young urban women in India (in their 20s) openly acknowledge the constant threat that they live under. They’ve reported that few men can get their gazes to the faces of these women.
    I get the impression from urban women that none of them have been left unmolested in public transports.

    I recall the term ‘Eve Teasing’ being used in Tamil women magazines that my mother subscribed to. It was written in Tamil and pronounced like the English. I believe there will be a purely Tamil word for that; but that word would not be used commonly and it probably would have been coined after the term ‘Eve teasing’ was. That’s just my guess.

    I know that mothers and daughters often have discussions around the kind of dress that is “appropriate” as they step into the streets or have visitors in the house. The physcial security and dignity of the woman partly underlies this discussion.

  • Rita
    Posted at 18:16h, 23 October Reply

    I disagree with the first comment as it is it self a reflection of the “colonization trap” we fall into – blame everything on the British! I very much doubt if the British are responsible for the patriarchal system in south Asian societies (exceptions in Kerala and some Tribes) as evidenced by religious practices and social norms that affect women daily. Should we blame the British for:
    -prohibiting Hindu women to participate in religious rituals such as funeral ceremonies, weddings where a father or a male has a dominant role and not the mother;
    – property passed to sons (before the passage of state laws) and because of this patrilocal residence rather than matrilocal
    – preference for sons
    I could go on with other disabilities imposed on women but I hope my point has been made.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:55h, 23 October

      Rita: The points were questions rather than comments so the answer could go either way and that is what would lead, hopefully, to a better understanding. The intention was not to blame the British for ‘everything’ – that would go against a lot of evidence. But something did change with the British – primarily ways of seeing and interpreting the world – and that could have a bearing on attitudes. What was permissible could become taboo; what was unimportant could become crucial to identity. Dalrymple makes this point with respect to attitudes towards sex; Sunil Khilnani with respect to history, religion, and governance. A lot changes when interpretive frames change – the world of gods and demons could change into one of atoms and empty spaces.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:40h, 23 October Reply

    I feel we must look at the scene in rural and urban areas. Is eve-teasing widespread in rural India? My first guess would be no. If we can agree that it is an urban phenomenon, then there is a possibility of comparing it with religious conflict.

    One must realize that eve-teasing and harassment are nothing less than forms of violence. And although Rita correctly points out that much violence was present in India since ancient times, I feel that some particular modes of oppression are modern and should perhaps not be shunted in the same category as the older, ritualistic discrimination.

    My own understanding is that eve-teasing in urban India is a reflection of the anxiety and frustration of the urban working class Indian male. Ages of marriage are pushed back substantially (compared to rural areas) due to economic compulsions and the pressures of the state, with little or no sexual freedom. Add the growing anxiety about jobs and status, and you have a large group of young men who view women as easy targets to release their anger and frustration.

    I might be wrong, of course, but perhaps, a comparison of the behaviour (with respect to eve-teasing) of married urban Indian men and unmarried ones will perhaps give us some insight.

    I would like to add that in general, urban Indian males feel very inadequate and lack self-confidence. A host of factors contribute to this feeling. Economic deprivation, general powerlessness and lack of collective direction and a media that constantly potrays white and western looking as the ideal. I think this feeling of inadequacy and lack of confidence applies to women too, but they handle it much better.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:52h, 24 October

      Vikram: Your comment suggests excellent hypotheses to pursue. For the moment we can only speculate but I hope that someone with the benefit of fieldwork enters the discussion with concrete evidence.

      As Rita mentioned, South Asian society has been characterized by an entrenched patriarchal system. On this base, we can superimpose two hypotheses. First, that the exploitation of women stems from structural causes – a gross asymmetry in power and a lack of accountability. Second, that it stems from psychological causes – delayed marriage and job anxiety. If the first is true, there would be proportionately more exploitation in rural areas; if the second is true, there would be more in urban areas.

      I am just guessing at this point but I feel there could be a lot of systemic rural exploitation that is taken as a norm and doesn’t attract much media attention. Urban situations increase the vulnerability of women to random harassment because of anonymity and forced immobility in crowded public transit systems and isolated and confined work spaces. These generate protests from the newly-emergent middle class and are the subject of news reports. The exploitation of domestic workers in urban areas by both unmarried and married males seems to have gone on for much longer.

      I am also not sure why the obvious target of anger and frustration of anxious unmarried males should be women. From what I am reading, I am being forced to entertain the notion that a lot of men do not think of women as human beings – rather they are in the category of animals or things that can be possessed and treated arbitrarily without any moral conflict or social sanction. This is a horrible thought.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:33h, 24 October

      SA, it is very common for middle class men in India to feel threatened by confident and assertive women who are described by the former as ‘too modern’.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:41h, 24 October

      Vinod: You mentioned in your earlier comment that Indian women were surprised by how much less harassment there was in Western countries. How about Eastern countries – what is the trend as one moves from Malaysia and Singapore to Indonesia? Is this kind of attitude really a South Asian phenomenon?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:33h, 26 October

      I asked that question to a female colleague of mine who grew up in Malaysia and settled in Singapore and has travelled in the region. She says she has felt absolutely secure and never had to be on alert.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:56h, 25 October

      Of course rural women in India are subjected to a whole host of disabilities. These are issues of rights and life, but I dont think they experience ‘eve-teasing’, the same way that urban women do.

      One could compare per-capita rape figures for rural and urban areas, but again we would be hampered by the same bias in reporting. I guess direct contact with a spectrum of urban and rural women is the best way forward. Unfortunately, few in India do that kind of thing.

      But, on the question of why urban women are targets. Lets go back to this quote, “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”

      One can reason that working class males in urban India are ‘colonized’ by the middle class and of course, the elites. They cannot direct violence against that class because they depend on it for livelihood and because that class controls the police and government. So the targets become women of that class and women of lower classes who are enroute to the middle class due to their jobs and education.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:31h, 25 October

      Vikram: My guess would be that an underlying attitude towards women is driving the exploitation. After all, urbanization in South Asia is a very recent phenomenon – fifty years ago the region was largely rural. The nature of exploitation in rural and urban areas is different because the locales are so different – the density and anonymity of urban areas creates opportunities for random ‘teasing’ as a new phenomenon.

      You are postulating violence against women primarily as a function of the resentment of working class urban males. This would not be able to explain the exploitation of the large number of urban working class women who are not enroute to the middle class. It would also not address rural exploitation if such exploitation exists. I agree we need input from someone who has researched this subject.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 04:27h, 25 October Reply

    From a column by Maureen Dowd (The Nuns’ Story):

    In 2004, the cardinal who would become Pope Benedict XVI wrote a Vatican document urging women to be submissive partners, resisting any adversarial roles with men and cultivating “feminine values” like “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.”

  • ModerateIndianHindu
    Posted at 19:56h, 11 January Reply

    I grew up in a rural town and can tell from experience.
    Eve teasing in rural setting is nonexistent due to everyone knows everyone…. if I were to do anything “unbecoming” I am sure a well meaning uncle or auntie would be informing my parents and you can imagine the consequences… In addition I would be labeled a pervert for the whole town….
    An urban setting would provide that cover to be able to do something anonymously and not face the consequences… the lure of a transgression with a good chance of getting away scot-free would also provide such opportunity in an urban setting.

    Now this is not to say that “conduct unbecoming” does not happen in rural areas. Abuse happens in the confines of closed doors. Only a few limited cases that come to light as a tip of the ice burg.
    It is not uncommon for a joint family to have a male member in the military. The wife and kids are left behind and abused(physically, mentally and at time sexually) by the males AND females in the household.
    Women working in the fields or relieving themselves in the fields in the early or late hour are jumped upon and raped. They fail to report due to “shame” they would bring to the family and hope not to get pregnant. If unmarried pregnancy happens they are either forced to abort in hush-hush unsafe back alleys or occasionally killed in honor killing.
    Household servants in both rural and urban areas face the same risk.
    Rural poor also have very limited access to resources and local unscrupulous money lenders also abuse the needy by demanding sexual favors from needy women who needs to buy food for kids or pay for medicine for elderly in her care.
    Women whose husbands are working in the army or in the city and are away for long stretches suffer from sexual frustrations and either fall a victim or use young Horney boys in the household or in the village to help satisfy the lust, resulting in child “abuse” (that the young boys willingly signup for)
    The bottom line is that the women in our culture have limited options as they don’t wield the authority or the power that comes due to position in the family or having access to resources (money). Most women are dependent on men for their upkeep and hence the cycle of abuse continues.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:05h, 27 May Reply

    In an op-ed (Raiding a brothel in India), Nicholas Kristoff mentions some horrible facts and statistics and one intriguing observation. Both are contained in this quote:

    “India probably has more modern slaves than any country in the world. It has millions of women and girls in its brothels, often held captive for their first few years until they grow resigned to their fate. China surely has more prostitutes, but they are typically working voluntarily. India’s brothels are also unusually violent, with ferocious beatings common and pimps sometimes even killing girls who are uncooperative.”

    The disturbing facts and statistics are obvious and the question remains why these are not bigger issues in India? Why do outsiders (Kristoff mentions the International Justice Mission) have to come and rescue 10 year old girls sold to brothels?

    The intriguing observation is that prostitution is coerced and violent in India but voluntary in China. If correct, why might this be the case?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 01:58h, 28 May

      Isn’t this the central problem of Indian politics? Why are issues that are serious and really impinge on the well being and dignity of Indians not the key issues during election time ? The answer obviously is not simple and might take years for this anomaly to correct.

      As for prostitution in China vs India, I think this might be a direct consequence of child prostitution being rampant in India. Mature women are more likely to become CSW’s of their own choice than young girls.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:39h, 28 May

      Vikram: To proceed in reverse order. The answer you have offered for the second question has resolved the mystery for me. I am convinced until someone else comes along and disputes it.

      Your response to the first part, which is in the form of more questions simply because answers are so difficult, seems to me to be looking at the wrong source for the solution. Why should child prostitution be an issue of politics to be resolved by the vote? There are no two sides of the issue that have to be balanced; it is not that some are for it and others against. This is an unmitigated social evil that needs someone to crusade against. I would guess there is already legislation in existence against human trafficking that needs to be implemented. The Supreme Court should be the place to look to. This seems to me to be a situation that calls for recognition by civil society of a grave social problem followed by judicial activism not electoral politics.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 00:56h, 29 May

      The nature of the executive is such that laws on paper mean very little. They only mean something when there is political pressure to enforce them. Clearly, the police in Kolkata are not enforcing laws relating to human trafficking and the general public doesnt seem overly concerned about this.

      Now, one can think about how the situation would differ, if the police laxity lead to a spate of rape and murders of college going or professional women. The middle and lower middle classes would exert a lot more pressure on the politicians to get the police to act. Such a spate of murders would almost certainly become a political issue, especially if elections were around the corner.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:09h, 29 May

      Vikram: I see what you are thinking. You are using the notion of ‘political pressure’ in a very broad sense. It is certainly correct that the legislature would respond only to political pressure but that does not say anything about where the political pressure would come from. South Asian democracy is not issue-oriented; it would hard to name any specific issue on which the electorate has exerted sufficient political pressure on the politicians to lead to change. Rather, effective political pressure has sources outside the electoral process, e.g., fasts by Anna Hazare and Medha Patkar or the Supreme Court’s orders to clean up the environment in Delhi. As we can see from the fasts, even corruption and land are not issues on which the electorate directly generates political pressure. So my question really is asking why there isn’t a champion leading the fight to generate political pressure against trafficking like the fight against corruption or pollution?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 05:27h, 30 May Reply

    Interestingly, Kristof mentions that there is civil society pressure on the state to enforce the laws on human trafficking,

    He also makes some rather interesting comparisons between India and China.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:25h, 30 May

      Vikram: It is reassuring that there is some civil society pressure on human trafficking even though it does not seem to have a high enough profile yet.

      In general, I just take the facts from writers like Kristoff and Friedman and ignore all generalizations, e.g, about India and China. This is because they have a strongly preferred ideological position and are always trying to prove it right by selectively picking up things that support their preferences. Kristoff is quite candid when he says that he is in favor of democracy and is quite embarrassed that India does not seem to be doing as well as China. So, he is trolling for anything that would lend support to his claim that India would end up better in the end. It might or it might not but given Kristoff’s biases, his arguments lack objectivity. For example, what would prevent China from following the South Korean trajectory and ending up with a much more inclusive democracy?

      The following article is very useful in explicating this bias:

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