Indian girls are contradiction, aren't they

India

Dorothea Riecker

is an Indologist and foreign correspondent for Focus. She has lived in New Delhi for ten years. Before that, she had repeatedly spent language courses and studies in the country. She has retained her fascination for India, which seeks its way between tradition and progress, to this day.

Women fight for self-determination and equal opportunities

Women and girls are disadvantaged and oppressed in Indian society to this day. Again and again you become a victim of sexually motivated violence. Female fetuses are specifically aborted. Men determine the course of things in almost all areas. But there is resistance. Especially in the big cities, more and more young and increasingly emancipated women are revolting against the patriarchal power structures.

One year after a young woman was gang raped on a bus, the protesters are calling for better protection for women. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The past year and a half have been dramatic for Indian women. When the brutal rape of a young woman in the capital New Delhi came to light on December 16, 2012, it shocked the nation. But the date was both a tragedy and a turning point for the women's movement in India: On the way home from the cinema, a young physiotherapist boarded a bus with her boyfriend. The driver and passengers, six young men in all, seemed to have been waiting for just such an opportunity. They brutally raped and mistreated the 23-year-old. A few days later, the young woman died of internal injuries inflicted with iron bars.

"Enough is enough," shouted angry Indian women (and men) at demonstrations in front of the parliament building in Delhi. Many had long-pent-up anger against a patriarchal system that oppresses, abuses, enslaved and exploited women. The demonstrators denounced the passivity of the government, judiciary and police. They called for a crackdown on the increasing number of sexually motivated acts of violence in India - the official crime statistics speak of one raping every 21 minutes. The number of unreported cases is likely to be even higher.

In the past, calls for change have often gone unheard. Protests fell silent after a short time and there were no consequences. But this time it was different - not least because the Indian media dealt with the topic with previously known intensity. For the first time, sexual violence and the role of women and girls in Indian society were discussed in detail, openly and controversially. Reporting and talk shows increased solidarity with the victims of attacks and anger against inactive security agencies and politicians. It seemed as if India, the most populous democracy in the world, had first "needed" a victim from the ranks of the urban, aspiring middle class to become aware of the often desperate situation of its women.

"A woman's body is hers"

The public pressure had an effect. Less than two weeks after the crime, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a high-ranking commission examine the existing laws. Civil society was invited to participate in the process. More than 80,000 suggestions for changes were received. A month later, the experts put on the table a ruthless report addressing almost every issue - from domestic violence and marital rape to sexually motivated crimes committed by Indian police officers and soldiers on duty. Not all aspects were incorporated into the new legislation, but the legal situation as a whole has been considerably improved.

For example, special courts have been set up to quickly try sex criminals. The penalties for perpetrators have been tightened drastically, in extreme cases rapists now face the death penalty. A new anti-rape law no longer only criminalizes coercion of sexual intercourse, but interprets all forms of sexual harassment as rape. This is a radical departure from the traditional view that women are man's property. Now it is for the first time anchored that a woman's body belongs to her and must not be at the mercy of the man.

The new law is a powerful tool in the hands of Indian women. How powerful was shown at the end of 2013. A young employee of the renowned news magazine Tehelka is sexually harassed in a hotel elevator by the newspaper's founder and publisher. She makes the incident public and reports her boss. He is now being tried for rape. Until recently, such a step seemed unthinkable in an India with its patriarchal power structures.

"We broke the barriers"

The brutal gang rape in Delhi at the end of 2012 showed India's women their vulnerability. They had to painfully realize that protection and security are the basic prerequisites for being able to enjoy their newfound emancipation and the modern lifestyle that goes with it. They are now demanding this freedom. Admittedly, the modern urban Indian women who work, study, like to go out and have fun with friends are still a minority. But they are increasingly shaping the streetscape. They wear figure-hugging designer jeans and mini-skirts. They meet in shopping malls, cafes and discos in the megacities.

Yakshita, 23 years old and with orange-black manicured fingernails, defines her current attitude towards life: "We have broken through the barriers that held us back for decades." Laughing, she interrupts her friend Meena, pushes the Gucci sunglasses into her hair and adds: "Indian women are in no way inferior to men. It is men who cling to traditional norms. We women have long since arrived in the 21st century." An entire urban generation between 18 and 25 thinks like the two students. The young Indian women are convinced that there is hardly any difference between them and their contemporaries in the West.

"Women are treated worse than cattle"

Almost none, because even young Indian women are still deeply conservative when it comes to questions of sexuality and marriage. Even if the Indian media keep running lurid cover stories about the allegedly liberal sexual behavior of 15 to 29 year olds, according to a BBC report, less than one percent of all unmarried Indian women have sex. The example of arranged marriage shows how they manage the balancing act between tradition and a modern lifestyle.

True, they dream of romance and marriage for love. But if that doesn't happen, they have no problem accepting a bridegroom chosen by their parents. Between the traditional family structure and the modern life of their choice, they negotiate their options almost calculatingly. You know what's best for you. And in order to do this, they try to avoid conflicts that are hindering them on their way up. What drives them is what is good for them. They are individualists and above all want to advance professionally. If tradition serves them, then they are traditional; if not, then do what they want.

Women during a village meeting in Maharashtra
Photo: Rainer Hörig
But India is not a homogeneous society. The reality of women in metropolitan areas cannot be compared with the problems of women in rural areas. Women there have almost no voice. "They are treated worse than cattle," says a doctor, describing his experiences from his rural practice in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. In many places, male dominance is cemented by a traditional feudal structure. Under a caste system that still exists, lower-caste women repeatedly fall victim to sexually motivated assaults by upper-caste men who think this is their innate right. So far, the state has done too little about it.

"The most dangerous country in the world for girls"

The majority still see girls as a burden, for which a ruinous dowry system is partly responsible. In order to be able to marry a girl, a family often has to meet the high demands of the groom. That is, whoever has a daughter loses money and property. As a result, an estimated three to four million female fetuses are purposefully aborted each year.

The fatal consequences of this can be seen in the village of Devda in the state of Rajasthan, where there are only 20 girls for every 300 boys. The village has not seen a wedding in decades. Neither the ban on dowry payments that has existed since 1961 (Dowry Prohibition Act) nor the Sex Determination and Illegal Abortion Act of 1994 - Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act - could change something about that.

Since the practice continues in the urban middle class, the gender ratio has shifted more and more to the disadvantage of girls in recent years: According to the 2001 census, there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys in the age group of up to six years, compared to 2011 still 919. The disregard for women is seldom more evident. It is above all the systematic abortions that make India the "most dangerous country in the world for girls" according to a 2012 report by the United Nations.

"The primal force is female"

What happened in India, a country that once adored its women? The sociologist Ashish Nandi tries to explain: "In the past, women were associated with magical powers and respected as healers. In Hindu texts such as the Vedas, women are the active principle of the universe. The primordial force is feminine. Experienced the loss of their cosmic, divine power women through a modernization of the religious sphere in the last centuries. There are exceptions in tribal structures with matriarchy. Here women still have enormous power, since they inherit family property. "

Studies by the economist and feminist Bina Agarwal in the southern Indian state of Kerala confirm the connection between non-possession and violence. According to this, women without possessions were significantly more likely to be victims of sexual violence than those who had property in the form of a house or land.

But not all women in rural areas accept the oppression. More and more people are running for offices in local self-government institutions, the so-called panchayats. A state-set women's quota of 50 percent helps them to penetrate this once male-dominated area. Two years ago, the energetic Arati Devi was born in the village of Dhunkapada in Orissa Panchayat elected. The 28-year-old with a master's in Business administration has assertiveness. Not only does it ensure the construction of a long-overdue infrastructure, it also helps peasant women without schooling to exercise their rights by helping them to apply for pension payments or other state aid programs.

Courageous initiatives by women have been revolutionizing the Indian hinterland for decades. Sampat Pal Devi from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh rebelled against discrimination as a member of the lowest caste. For 30 years now, the daughter of a shepherd founded the self-defense group Gulabi gangwhose trademark is the pink saree. The group now includes more than 40,000 women, to whom Sampat Pal Devi gave a voice. She teaches women to lift their saree veils and to speak openly to their husbands. Combat training in handling a stick gives you additional self-confidence.

"Changes don't come overnight"

India is currently experiencing several parallel transition phases. With women breaking norms at a rapid pace, many Indian men feel intimidated and threatened. "And because these men feel threatened, they let their fear out in aggression against women," says the feminist Bina Agarwal.

In the meantime, new acts of violence are reported almost daily in the median. At the same time, the increased awareness of this topic and the large media public is a positive sign that Indian society is changing. The old, encrusted structures are increasingly being questioned and can no longer be maintained. Traditions collide with modern ideas about life. It is women who are at the center of this change. Another step towards the emancipation of women in India could be the planned quota for women in parliament. Should the law - the Women's Reservation Bill - passed as planned, women in the upper and lower houses in Delhi and in the state parliaments would each be entitled to a third of the seats.

"All of these changes didn't come overnight," recalls the artist and feminist Sheba Chhachhi. The Indian women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s prepared the ground for many women today to be able to look confidently into the future. 28-year-old businesswoman Akansha Hazari is enthusiastic: "We are the generation Next, our dreams have no limits. We are better connected and better informed than any other generation in human history. This feeling gives us women incredible power. "