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A few days before I arrived in India for the first time, a young Indian woman was tortured and gang raped by six Indian men in the nation’s capital, setting off a massive wave of protests.

As I read about this awful story, I was reminded of two novels that had inspired my trip to India: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924) and Jewel in the Crown (1966) by Paul Scott, both stories of highly charged accusations of rape which inspired nationwide protests.

Though both books take place during the colonial time period, much of their content seems all too relevant to the modern India.

Perhaps the most glaring similarity between the India of these two novels and the India I visited was the presence, or lack of it, of Indian women in the general culture. The books above introduced me to the concept of “purdah,” a custom in both Hindu and Muslim cultures in which women are hidden or removed from the culture at large, which is predominantly male-dominated.

During my two weeks traveling throughout India, I had very little interaction with Indian women. Not once did I ever have a female server in a restaurant (or even see a non-Western woman in a restaurant). I never saw women working in shops or as tour guides, except once in Delhi, where I saw a woman guiding a group of female tourists. As I passed them on the street, most women quickly averted their gaze or pulled the edges of their saris over their eyes.

Yet at the same time, images of women in India were everywhere: in ads promoting products to whiten skin, in pictures on the covers of magazines and newspapers, and on television complaining about the staring, catcalling, and even groping they endured as they went about their daily lives.

I asked one of my tour guides if he thought the story of the rape was indicative of something deeper and problematic about the role of women in Indian culture.

“No, no, absolutely not!” he said. “How is this possible since women are the symbol of India? Mother India, the most revered of the whole nation.”

Evidently he had not heard of the Madonna-whore complex.

“It is not Indians who are doing this to the women,” he said. “It is the people from the poor countries who come to India for work. They live in groups of men with no women, and they don’t know the proper way to behave.”

I heard variations on this theory throughout India. It was not the people from India who did this, not the people from Delhi who did this, not the advanced people from the cities who did this. It was those other people, from Bangladesh, from the countryside, from anywhere else but here.

According to the Indians I met, the problem was that there were too many more young men than women in India, or that there were too many scantily clad women on the streets and on television, or that there was too much corruption among the police and the judiciary, so that anyone could get away with any crime, provided he had enough money, connections, or both. In fact, the only other topic I heard more about during my trip was frustration about the country’s endemic corruption, personified, ironically, by a woman, the powerful head of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi.

As a tourist and outsider in the country, I had no way to judge the accuracy of the things I read and heard while I was there. And yet now that I’m home, I’m still haunted by the stridency of the discussions I heard, particularly the impassioned cries of mobs demanding the death penalty for the rapists and their underlying anxiety that somehow these men, though they’d been caught and put in prison, would escape punishment.

The story these people were telling with such conviction is an old one in India, a story as old as or even older than A Passage to India or Jewel in the Crown. A story that leads to the same sad conclusion — namely, that if you’re looking for justice, you’d better look elsewhere than India.

Women's Rights

 

About The Author

Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Random House), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and the Village Voice. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as residencies from Yaddo and Djerassi. He has also taught writing at Columbia University, NYU, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.

  • Priyanka Kher

    Hi Aaron,

    The title of your article drew me in. At the end of it, I have mixed feelings. I don’t know if I can answer your questions but I want to at least try and shed some light on what’s going on in India at the moment. I’m from India, living in the States temporarily, but born and brought up there. Also, I was in New Delhi when the rape incident happened and was a first hand witness to all the protests, the reactions, everything.

    India is an evolving society at the moment but this evolution is not balanced. As a result, it’s a huge paradox. Because there are that many people and the rate of exposure, the rate of education and awareness is not distributed equally what we end up with is skewed opinions over a large population- the likes you have mentioned in your piece about the rapists being from another country, not from Delhi, women being scantily clad etc etc.

    One of the troubles with India is this- there is one section i.e.people in the cities etc that is growing and changing very quickly but there is this huge other section- the smaller towns, the villages, the districts where the age old dictums of sham traditionalism still exists and it’s so deep-rooted that wiping it out and even beginning to try and wipe it is a huge task at hand.

    On top of this, there is a Govt in power at the moment that frankly just does not seem to care. In fact, it seems like it’s in their favor to keep a majority of the population uneducated, unaware and ignorant.

    Obviously this isn’t helping. As far as women are concerned, it’s a fight tooth and nail. Every step of the way. the only good part is, it’s happening. The agitation that you saw on the streets, the discussions regarding the corruption, the frustration all point towards the fact that people have had enough and they are fighting.

    Double-standards regarding women exist but voices are being raised. And that’s great.

    Reg your limited interaction with women- again, I am not sure why that happened, since I don’t know what cities you visited.

    ‘As I passed them on the street, most women quickly averted their gaze or pulled the edges of their saris over their eyes.’- You may have been in a smaller place, as far as I know this is not a universal trend in India.

    Anyway, this comment is getting too long. Hope I’ve been able to provide some insight. Other than that, I agree when you say that two weeks is too little a time to understand the Indian social structure. It’s too complex and operates on too many levels.

    I do appreciate you writing about this. It provides insights into what affects visitors when they visit India as of today. That’s pretty important too.

    Thanks.

    Priyanka

  • Renu Rawat

    Men and women are treated equally in my culture. Women and men work together in fields. There is no purdah system. If there are girls in India who are forced to stay behind the doors, then on the other hand there are girls like us who are free to do anything. So, I guess the different customs and cultures are bringing mixed feelings about India..

  • Renu Rawat

    Men and women are treated equally in my culture. Women and men work together in fields. There is no purdah system. If there are girls in India who are forced to stay behind the doors, then on the other hand there are girls like us who are free to do anything. So, I guess the different customs and cultures are bringing mixed feelings about India..

  • Joao Marcos Campos

    Dude, you’ve travelled through India for 2 weeks and want to make a point of how women are treated? This is a very equivocated argument. FYI: there are women in restaurants, lots of them actually, especially younger women. There’s plenty of businesses run by women too. I do believe that the poorer they’re, it’s more likely that they won’t frequent restaurants, but that’s not a rule.

    I think you probably didn’t stay there long enough to see the reality of it. The bottom line is that “yes”, women suffer prejudice and are victims of a sexist society, but it’s really not the drama that some people picture. What happened there is restrict to a particular group of people that barely symbolizes the Indian society. It’s just like going to an alley in New York city and being robed just so you start assuming that the whole USA is like that. It’s wrong to assume that when we have just one single fact in your hands…

    Every country is sexist, has prejudices and demonstrate some sort of xenophobia at some level, so does India, but it’s REALLY not as bad as media and some misinformed people say it.

    Cheers!

    • Aaron Hamburger

      Dude, did you actually read the line in my article that says, “As a tourist and outsider in the country, I had no way to judge the accuracy of the things I read and heard while I was there”? Did you read the title “The search for answers…”? This is the experience that I had, the things I heard while I happened to be in the country during an important time, not a sociological report. If you read the article closely, you’ll see I’m saying, “This is what I saw, this is what I heard Indians tell me, and now I’m sharing it with others and trying to make sense of it.”

      If you want me to read India more carefully, maybe you should lead by example and read the articles you choose to comment upon more carefully as well.

    • Joao Marcos Campos

      Well, respectfully I have to keep my stand and disagree with you. These two pieces that you highlighted are true, yet they only come way down in the article, after your made your first assumptions.

      When you say statements like “Not once did I ever have a female server in a restaurant (or even see a non-Western woman in a restaurant)” or “I never saw women working in shops or as tour guides, except once in Delhi, where I saw a woman guiding a group of female tourists”, it’s very clear that this is your point of view, not anyone else. If you didn’t want people to read it like that, then maybe you should have stated right in the beginning that your thoughts and ideas of India are based on arguments from other people. “I never…” and “… did I ever…” directly refer to your experiences.

      And that’s the point here, you said that you never saw a female server or female guest in a restaurant, and this is equivocated. It’s not the true whatsoever. However, I’m not here to fight or enter in a tiresome discussion, because this is really not what I do. I will gladly assume that the fact that you didn’t see these women while in India was purely coincidental.

      By the way, the point you raised is true, women are victimized and disrespected in India. But they’re not discriminated to the point that they can’t frequent restaurants. India is not a backwards society in that sense. Besides, many of the points that the news channels lead us to believe – that Indian women are discriminated – come from a western-oriented mind, which isn’t exactly applicable to India and many oriental cultures, so I believe that only people who belong to that society can raise their voices.

      Peacefully and friendly,

  • Darcey Wunker

    I’m a whiter-than-white American expat who lives in India, and in nearly three years here, I’ve only had three incidents; two of which would as easily have happened in New York City or Toronto as they would in Delhi. The third? Fairly unpleasant, but it was just words. It happens here – and it happened in Minnesota where I went to college, it happened in the little town in Connecticut where I grew up, and it happens all over – or my mother wouldn’t have had to work as a rape crisis counsellor for over 20 years.

    Justice is slower to come in India – and they’ve taken the British red tape and run with it like mad! -but there are women in the US who fear justice for themselves after a rape or beating, and they question whether their country can provide it. It’s not just India that sees gang rape and abuse problems: stop focusing just on it.

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