Indian women’s plight will not improve until issue is debated honestly
India is a country of many minorities: Muslims and Christians, Dalits and tribals, Jains and Buddhists. But arguably the largest minority community in India — so large that it is almost a majority, which itself demonstrates the scale of the problem — is women. Gender trumps everything else: Irrespective of their religion, class, education or employment status, women are subjected to severe and disabling stresses in almost every sphere.
Women in India often face — and therefore always fear — a wide range of everyday infringements, from casual harassment on the street to actual physical assault and sexual violence. The first thing that any visitor to India notices is the almost complete masculinization of public spaces (a fact to which many Indian men still remain astonishingly oblivious). Although this is slowly changing in the big cities, most Indian women still walk on the street with their eyes downward — a sign that this is not yet a society where they may hold their heads up, literally or metaphorically.
But it is one thing to admit to a problem (after all, every country has problems); it is another to be the worst in the world. Therefore, when the Thomson Reuters Foundation released the results last week of a survey called “The World’s Most Dangerous Countries For Women 2018” — a follow-up to a study first done in 2011 — many Indians were indignant when their country emerged as top of the list, up from fourth place seven years ago. This was an insult, a conspiracy, a scandal. The writer and parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor spoke for many Indians when he said he was “quite astonished that India would rank above Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and many other places as the world’s most unsafe place for women.”
As a liberal democracy, India owes more to its women than to condemn them to the perpetuation of their miseries by pointing out that life is much worse for women in some other parts of the world.
Point taken. But let us stop for a minute to look at the specifics of the survey. First, the poll, which is based on the responses to a detailed questionnaire of 548 experts on women’s issues globally, does not claim to be a factual description of an existing reality. Rather, it somewhat disingenuously calls itself “a global perception poll.” It is a survey, therefore, of the country perceived by those polled to be the most dangerous country for women, with all the flaws and loopholes inherent in such a method.
In such a survey, big countries always have a high recall value. Since each respondent was asked to name five countries that were most unsafe for women, it was very unlikely that they would not think of India even if they had never visited the country. Incidents such as the horrific Delhi gang rape of December 2012, for example, have greatly influenced the perception of India internationally, and without context might be seen as a guide to everyday realities.
Moreover, it is very likely that many respondents would have, whether consciously or not, made their judgments according to both absolute and relative standards. Even if India is not, as Tharoor rightly says, as unsafe for women as Pakistan or Afghanistan, it is in a way more unsafe relative to the rights and freedoms granted by Indian law to women on paper.
The lack of safety for women in India, then, is a matter not just of bad practice but also of bad faith; it is a sign of a promise made and not kept.
For the same reason, it is not impossible that, in judging India so harshly for its record on women’s safety, the respondents were also indulging an activist impulse. In other words, they may believe that, by calling attention to the glaring failure on women’s rights of the world’s largest democracy, they might be helping to initiate a public debate and bring about a change on the ground, which would not be the case in more closed, unabashedly patriarchal societies.
Criticizing the survey, the chairperson of India’s National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, remarked that “the countries that have been ranked after India have women who are not even allowed to speak in public.” True enough, but perhaps that was the point. As a liberal democracy, India owes more to its women than to condemn them to the perpetuation of their miseries by pointing out that life is much worse for women in some other parts of the world.
And, for a liberal democracy, the picture of violence against women in India is indeed a horrific one. The National Crime Records Bureau recently released statistics that showed there were nearly 40,000 rape cases (and these were only the declared ones) in India in 2016, of which more than 40 percent were against minors. These are signs of a shocking crisis in society, one that does not need pointing out.
But such statistics rarely agitate politicians and ideologues in India as much as easy-to-smear surveys by international organizations. One recalls that when, in March 2015, the British documentary filmmaker Leslee Udwin released her unsettling documentary “India’s Daughter,” showing the testimonies of some of the perpetrators in the Delhi gang-rape case, the reaction of India’s Minister of Parliamentary Affairs M. Venkaiah Naidu (today the vice president) was that the film was “an international conspiracy to defame India.”
For now, though, the survey has only started off a new political slugfest between the government and the opposition, with one side claiming the survey is frivolous and inconsequential and the other alleging that the government is responsible for the dismal plight of women in India. The lack of nuance or honesty in this domestic debate shows that India is not just one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, but also for reason.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy.