New Opportunities for Women also bring Risks

Stephen DeAngelis

September 4, 2008

I have asserted in past posts that no society can hope to compete successfully on the global stage using only half of its brains and brawn. Too often women remain uneducated and their skills, talents, and brains are underutilized by the societies in which they live. Indian women, however, are learning a hard lesson — men can get jealous when they see women progress faster than they are [“In India, New Opportunities for Women Draw Anger and Abuse From Men,” by Emily Wax, Washington Post, 25 August 2008]. Unfortunately, few cultures seem to learn from the mistakes of other societies that have trolled these treacherous waters and mostly made the transition. I say “mostly made” the transition because even in nations like America there exist glass ceilings and wage discrepancies. Men simply don’t give up their traditional privileged positions easily. Ms. Wax begins her article with the story of a 17-year-old Indian girl who arms herself each day as she attends high school.

“Every morning, Gitanjali Chaudhry, 17, walks to her high school through a labyrinth of temples and vegetable markets. Along with her books, she carries an Indian version of Mace — a bag of chili powder and a pouch of safety pins — to fend off the often boorish men who loiter in the narrow passageways. ‘We learned that women have to be brave,’ said Chaudhry, a loquacious, ponytailed girl who wants to be a lawyer. She has started attending increasingly popular neighborhood classes on self-defense for women. Chaudhry is one of the brightest students in her working-class district. But since several local men started following her to class, she sometimes stays home now. She has friends who have been raped or are constant victims of ‘Eve teasing,’ when men on the street spew lewd comments or aggressively paw women’s bodies. ‘We thought opportunities were getting better for young Indian women. But the harassment only seems to be getting worse,’ Chaudhry said, as friends gathered at a recent ‘self-respect and self-esteem session’ held by the nonprofit Smile Foundation.”

Getting beyond hundreds (sometime thousands) of years of tradition is difficult. Change is always hard, especially for those on the front line. Women now manning those front lines are, in a very real sense, pioneers paving the way for those who will follow. Wax continues:

“For India’s middle-class urban women, the past decade has brought unprecedented opportunities to advance in a social order long dominated by men. But a powerful male backlash has accompanied the women’s revolution, an upwelling of resentment that has expressed itself in sexual violence and harassment. In India today, women are working in lucrative retail and technology jobs, sometimes in cities far from their home towns. Economic independence has, in some cases, allowed them to delay marriage and early childbirth. Social mobility among India’s young is also undermining the country’s traditional joint-family system, in which couples are expected to move in with the husband’s parents. The shift has empowered the modern Indian wife, freeing her from the scourge of the bossy, nosy mother-in-law. At the same time, however, the number of reported instances of domestic violence, rape and dowry killings is spiking in South Asian cities, according to women’s groups, demographers and sociologists. Violence against women is the fastest-growing crime in India, a recent study concluded. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested, every 34 minutes a rape takes place, and every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped, according to the Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau.”

Statistics, as we all know, don’t always tell the entire story. India is a large country with an enormous population so one would expect something to be happening somewhere to someone much of the time. Although appalling, one could even argue that India’s 19,000 annual rapes compares favorably to the U.S.’s 95,000 annual rapes (the highest in the world). Wax reports, however, that the statistical differences are probably meaningless since most rapes in the U.S. are reported and most rapes in India are not.

“Women’s groups say fewer than 2 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted in India report the crime to police, largely because the social stigma attached to rape may undermine a woman’s chance for marriage. … In the past few months, newspapers here have dubbed New Delhi the ‘rape capital’ of South Asia, with more than 330 rape and molestation cases reported in the first four months of 2008, including one high-profile case in which a 12-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by a Delhi police constable and an accomplice. Experts predict that the number of sexual attacks in 2008 may exceed the total in 2007, when 544 rapes were reported in the city. ‘The latest statistics are terrifying. And it clearly points to male rage,’ said Shobhaa Dé, a novelist and popular social commentator. ‘Underneath our incredible social change, the Indian male is experiencing nothing short of a psychological frenzy.’ Part of the problem is also that men’s expectations of women have not kept pace with the changes women are experiencing at home and at work. Many matrimonial ads in India’s Sunday newspapers — often written by parents — include descriptions of potential brides as ‘economically independent, but homely.’ That’s code for a working woman who can happily organize a proper 10-course Indian dinner even after a long day at the office. It’s a fantasy that many urbanized Indian women are rejecting, much to the dismay of many men.”

Male egos are sensitive. As a result, few societies have easily made the transition to gender equality. Many Americans forget how long it took for women to win the right to vote. When men, especially men with families, see women getting better jobs and pay than they do, they become resentful if not angry. Indian men are no different.

“Despite recent growth, unemployment remains high in India, topping 7 percent. Sixty percent of those who do work are self-employed farmers and often very poor, according to World Bank data. Men who earn little or are unable to find work can be resentful when they see women finding well-paid office jobs, women’s groups say. The change in power has been too fast for some Indian men, whose intense curiosity about women can often be traced back to a segregated youth. Some boys hanging out in Chaudhry’s neighborhood said they had spent more time looking at photographs of women in magazines than with girls they knew and were interested in. ‘I was never really taught how to act around a girl,’ said Raja Kumar, 21, who works odd jobs on Chaudhry’s block. ‘I thought teasing was the way to get them to notice me.'”

It is well known that among much of India’s population girls are unappreciated, despite the fact that India has had a female prime minister. One reason is that girls are seen as an economic burden. Wax also reports on that challenge.

“Ram Swarup, 70, the neighborhood elder, a graying retired laundry worker who has six children, four of them boys … said that whenever his wife had a girl, he asked her to try again for a son. Because of the traditional custom of paying high dowries to a groom’s parents, he said, girls were seen in the past as a heavy burden. ‘No one was happy about their birth,’ he said. ‘They therefore got little respect in India.'”

Because girls are considered economic burdens at birth, investing scarce resources in their future is mostly a non-starter. As Swarup goes on to note, those attitudes are hard to change.

“‘When we were growing up, girls were never sent to school. Usually they were married off right away,’ Swarup added. ‘I liked being the breadwinner and king of my house. But India is changing now. My daughters-in-law work and think they can therefore be bosses and queens of the house. Some men find it a struggle. We are trying to adjust to the new ways of girls venturing forth. It may be better in the end, since the women now earn money.'”

As I mentioned above, women’s rights didn’t gain much ground even after India voted for a female prime minister. The reason that Indira Gandhi didn’t become a beacon of hope for young women is cultural.

“In South Asia, the contrast between the achievements of female political leaders and the lowly status of ordinary women has its roots in dynastic traditions. Professions here are inherited, in politics as in industry. In India, former prime minister Indira Gandhi came into politics through family connections, as did former prime minister Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto inherited her station in politics from her father and mentor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.”

As a result of cultural traditions and norms, those women were considered exceptions to the rules. And the rules that kept girls underappreciated held firm.

“Despite the relative abundance of female leaders in South Asia, many women in the region suffer from profound inequalities in access to education and health care, women’s advocates say. According to a study published in the British medical journal the Lancet in 2006, almost 10 million female fetuses were aborted in India in the preceding 20 years. The practice — outlawed, though the law is seldom enforced — is on the rise partly because more people can afford sonograms. ‘If India is really going to become a world superpower, it has to stop killing its girls in the womb,’ said Divya Kulshreshtha, who runs a Smile Foundation mobile women’s health clinic. ‘If India wants to shine, then its women should be allowed to shine.'”

India, of course, is not alone in facing the conundrum of planning for the future while wrestling with the past. Wax reports that Bangladesh, “where more than half a million women have gained employment in the garment industry, has also seen a startling increase in violence against women.” Psychiatrists indicate that rapes are more about anger and the need for control than about sex. The more women are empowered the more anger they seem to generate. Fortunately, the more women that are empowered the better a society becomes. Societies, including the United States’, need to find better ways of protecting its women from social and domestic violence. The world will be a better place when men and women work side by side and receive equal benefits from and accolades for the contributions they make.