On New Year’s Eve in Mumbai I stopped on my way to a friend’s house to pick up pastries for the host. My car was parked 20 feet away from the entrance of the cafe, which happened to be next to the Gateway of India monument, a hotspot for local revelers. Groups of men filled the sidewalk between the cafe door and me. After a moment’s hesitation, I chose not to get out of my car and instead headed to the party empty-handed.
I know wearing a short dress is not inviting rape, that my being out at night is not inviting rape. However, I also know I cannot be out past a certain hour unless I am in a group. I avoid skirts or shorts if I have to take a taxi, walk on the road, or be in any public space where most women aren’t dressed like me.
Being a woman in India is about continuously making such decisions for your security, about keeping a mental list of perils that range from catcalls and groping to, after December 16, abduction and gang-rape.
I know how to ignore the men singing lewd Bollywood songs at me on the road or the delivery boy in the elevator who stares at me for 12 floors. I know how to angle sideways at the last minute while walking past a man so I don’t get brushed against. I always sit on the left in an auto-rickshaw or taxi to make sure the driver cannot leer at me in the rearview mirror. Being a woman in a public space in India is an unsettling experience. An entire lifetime here has not taught me to shake it off.
Yesterday, my father, like any parent shaken by the gang-rape incident, told me, “It doesn’t matter that your behavior or your clothing is not inviting anything. If the guy on the street thinks it does, and that’s reason enough to touch you, that’s all that matters.”
I don’t want to add to the xenophobic commentary I have seen on the Internet about “India’s rape problem”—misogyny, sexual violence, “slut-shaming,” and victim-blaming happen everywhere. (As does gang-rape, as the recent case in Ohio reminds us.) What is unique to India is the pervasiveness and mundanity of harassment. In no Western country is it such a continuously uncomfortable, restrictive experience to be female, not just in public spaces but at home, too. India’s gender ratio is 917 women per 1000 men. Girls are aborted—not just in rural areas, but across every strata of society in India, because girls are inconvenient. Boys are the real pride—they earn money, inherit businesses, bring dowry.
I attended college in America and studied in the U.K., and I live in a bourgeois bubble of privilege in Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city in India. The sort of people I know—as opposed to the men I avoid on the streets—converge at protests, write angry tweets, point fingers, blame the government for its apathy and the police for its incompetence and insensitivity in dealing with violence against women. We say we are above sexual harassment, bride-burning, female infanticide, and forced child marriages—that this depressing laundry list of side effects of being female happens in a different, “backward” section of India. We tell ourselves that worshipping goddesses is hard-wired into our culture. We elected our first woman prime minister 30 years ago. Our president is a woman, and our ruling party is run by a woman.
The well-bred Indian men around me are in many ways more respectful of and attentive to women than most of the American boys I knew in school. It is a sum of little things—some of which you might call chivalry or gentlemanliness. In college I could walk to my dorm room struggling with two suitcases while a guy walked alongside me obliviously. By contrast, none of my Indian male friends or even acquaintances would let me go back home alone at night in Mumbai—or in Palo Alto or New York—even if it meant accompanying me for a cab ride in the wrong direction. I never experienced or heard of an American guy spending an extra hour at night to drop a girl home (unless he was trying to get in her pants).
At the same time, every single Indian I know, no matter how forward-thinking, no matter how many years he or she has lived abroad, has double standards for men and women, and I don’t exclude myself. On every official document here, women are asked to fill out “Father’s name/Husband’s name.” Men have their own identities, but women are either daughters or wives. Everyone understands that the birth of a boy is greater cause for celebration than that of a girl. Parents look the other way when boys take the car out, stay out late. Girls behaving the same way are frowned upon—not just for their security, but because these are things girls with reputations to protect simply shouldn’t do. Most Indian children never move out of their parents’ homes, and I myself accept unquestioningly that when I get married I will move into my husband’s parents’ home, and will have to fulfill all my social responsibilities as a daughter-in-law of their house (responsibilities that are largely non-existent for sons-in-law). It seems to me that the dogmas about gender roles are so ubiquitous and deeply ingrained that they carry on into the public sphere: into harassment on the street, into our workplaces, into politics. Perhaps the very reason I find Indian men gentlemanly is that they accept these roles, and believe they are supposed to look after women.
It is also hard to square male chivalry with some of the nonsense I’ve heard from these very same sensible, educated, well-traveled people these past few weeks. Statements like: “Ninety percent of rape cases are women framing men—why else would it be that 90 percent of rape cases fail to earn convictions?” Or: “But nowadays women dress like that: they are asking for trouble.” The protestors and bloggers may have loud voices but, sadly, this attitude prevails across the nation.
Politicians, simply echoing what most people think, have already begun changing the focus of the political rhetoric to ways women can avoid rape (some choice selections: don’t wear jeans, don’t use cell phones, don’t step out after dark, get married early to control your base desires). Never mind that most rapists are relatives and neighbors, and more women are raped in their own homes. If the vast majority of us are too busy praising and protecting our hallowed Indian culture to see the harsh truth of where it places women, what hope can we have that the people controlling the laws and the justice system will implement any real change?
The horrific death of one young woman in Delhi may catalyze a change in some laws, but I’m less optimistic about its changing their enforcement. I do think things are changing slowly, that every generation gets wiser and less bigoted than the previous. But I don’t see an end any time soon to the small discriminations in our daily lives, or consequently to the violence in which our double standards manifest themselves. If we refuse to change the culture that we all participate in and protect, I do not believe that women in India can live with dignity or be treated as anything more than second-class citizens.