In a sense, to be a woman in India is to straddle two imprisonments: the idea of the goddess and the idea of the slut. Both extreme repute and extreme disrepute can be a form of enslavement. In between, there lies a whole spectrum of other staggering disempowerments.
Earlier this year, after the horrific Delhi gangrape that caught world attention, I worked on a cover story on male attitudes to women in India. The story was purely anecdotal, but it threw up fascinating insights into the nature of misogyny in India. Male after male – cutting across class, strata, region and religion – spoke of women as either property or provocation.
For instance, a banker in Srinagar said, “To me, a woman is a pearl that is safe inside a shell. Keep it open and everyone will try to snatch it."At the other end, an autorickshaw driver in Delhi said, "If someone offers you fruit on a plate, will you deny the invitation? Delhi girls are like mangoes. What do you do with the fruit? You eat it, suck it, and throw it away." And here’s what an office bearer of a lawyers’ association in Karnataka said, "Women today have become too wayward. They have moved away from Hindu culture. Boys always know when they see a girl who is ready to sleep around. Why can’t women wear churidars instead of skirts?"
Together, these men present a sort of DNA of the dominant male attitude to women in India: they have no concept of male accountability; no concept of the hijab of eye and action. Women, for them, are never victims, they are the agent provocateurs. The burden of social order lies only with them.
In a nutshell, in every way possible, a woman in India is likely to live as an inferior being
But sexual violence – or sexual blame – is only one chilling aspect of the brute reality the Indian woman lives with. The truth is, from birth to death, women are subject to a vicious cycle of discrimination and violence that is terrifying in its proportions. Very literally, the girl child has less of a chance to be born than a boy: the current gender ratio in India is 915 girls to a 1,000 boys. Multiply that to a scale of 1.2 billion people, and one might understand just how many million baby girls are exterminated every year: poisoned, buried alive, left out to die in hot sun or freezing winter or, most often, just scooped out of the womb.
If they do win the macabre obstacle race to birth, in a poor family, the girl child is less likely to be fed and less likely to go to school than a boy. Further into her life, be it in rich or poor settings, she is less likely to have a say in her life, more likely to be married off early, be killed for dowry, sold into prostitution, have acid thrown on her face, or die during childbirth. She is more likely to have anaemia and calcium deficiency and less likely to have a right over property. She is also less likely to get the job of her choice. In a nutshell, in every way possible, a woman in India is likely to live as an inferior being.
But this is only to look at the dark side. No story about India is ever simple or monochromatic. For every account of despair, there is always one of hope.
Customarily, defenders of a feel-good India focus on the surface gloss: the fact that India has more women leaders than any other country in the world. It has had a woman president, the speaker of the Lok Sabha is a woman, it has four powerful women chief ministers (a fifth is likely to be elected soon), and of course the president of the Congress Party is a woman.
But in itself, all this means nothing. The hopeful story about India is located elsewhere. The success of these women has a deeper foundation. Crucially, unlike almost every other democracy in the world – unlike either the US or UK – equal rights for women were enshrined in the very conception of the nation. Unlike First World countries, where women had to fight elemental battles for something as basic as suffrage rights, the Indian Constitution recognised equal rights for women from the very moment of India’s birth. No matter how imperfect the practice therefore, what we have as moral ammunition, are sublime articles of faith.
It would’ve been wondrous if these articles of faith had worked as a miracle cure. But pitted against centuries-old social attitudes, they function rather as slow oxygen in the system.
This oxygenation, however, should not be underestimated. Over the last few decades, many significant (structural) changes have been achieved. Women are beginning to be elected as sarpanches (council head) at the village level; government schemes are increasingly being disbursed through women rather than men, there is a sharp jump in school enrollment for the girl child, governments are taking greater interest in the human development index, and more women have been absorbed into work spaces than ever before in the history of the civilisation.
This "stepping out", this slow economic empowerment, will have – and is already having – an exhilarating snowball effect on old, settled patriarchies. Self-respect and assertion are the natural codicils to economic independence. In millions of homes across the country, in small towns and villages, as young women are starting to work, tiny unseen rebellions are triggering massive social change. The boundaries are being pushed. In the unrecorded arguments between daughters and fathers, sisters and brothers, the grand spirit of the Constitution is starting to bear slow fruition.
Some of this was evident in the unprecedented protests that followed the rape of a young girl in New Delhi last last year. The language of female autonomy had seeped into the streets. Women were not just screaming for protection: they were demanding the right to be gloriously individual, to work, love, dress and think as diversely and independently as it is humanly possible to be. They were demanding a right over their own lives.
These protests had several effects: they resulted in a more enlightened legislation on rape; they caused a shift in vocabulary; and, for the first time, they made it politically and socially embarrassing to blame the victim.
But even more tectonically, the protests displayed another slow but profound change coming over India: a discernible shift in male thinking. There were as many young men as women shouting for women’s rights and an end to sexual violence in these protests. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The reality of women’s lives cannot change unless there is this companion shift in men.
In this tug and pull; in this tension between the old and the new; the men who speak of women as pearls and mangoes and those who march with them as equals; in this unequal graph of victories and defeats, the modern story of India is playing itself out.
The journey may be full of contradictions and riddles. But, hopefully, the destination is firmly a brighter one.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.