I have a love-hate relationship with India. It started when I was a child.
Every year we would go to India for our summer holidays. We would travel across different states, north and south to visit friends and relatives. Those holidays were the most searing education I was to receive.
It was in India that I first heard the word rape. My cousin was telling my sister about her friend who was attacked. Sadly that cousin too became a victim a few years later. Soon after her marriage, just short of her 28th birthday, she died from domestic abuse.
I also learnt that even at the tender age of ten, you should not show too much skin. It’s best to cover up, or men would touch you and hurt you. It first happened to me on a train in Kerala.
Even then, my initial emotion was shame. After hours of playing it over in my head and wondering how I could have stopped it, I finally told my sister. She said she was molested on that same journey too.
I soon found out it happens all the time. Almost every woman and girl in India has been sexually harassed in some way. There is even a palatable word for it: Eve-teasing, it makes it sound as if it’s not so bad after all. You know, we’re told, these things happen, and it could be worse. In fact there is a rape every 20 minutes, and those are only the ones reported.
So imagine my surprise when I was in Delhi last December, and the story of a young woman gang-raped started making the headlines. And imagine my astonishment that people were taking to the streets in an outcry over how women are treated.
I was the only correspondent for Al Jazeera in Delhi during that period. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about the horror women faced on a daily basis, not just in India, but across the world.
What I remember most about that time was the genuine anger and the solidarity that the country felt in needing to address its biggest failing. I was often working 14 hour days, seven days a week, but I had no time to rest.
This was the first time in my life, and in history that India finally acknowledged how shamefully it treated half it’s population. And for the first time it wanted to do something about it. I needed to make sure we did not miss this moment.
For the few weeks after, I followed the reverberations from the December 16th rape. A whole nation mourned when the young physiotherapist succumbed to her injuries and died. Stories of rape, sexual attacks on children and harassment were moved from an inch long column on page 4, to front page headlines.
For a brief moment, women and girls who were raped were seen as victims and their attackers deserved to be found and punished. Rape survivors were no longer treated as troublemakers, who just ruined their chances of marriage.
Laws were being changed. Fast track courts were being put in place. Court proceedings were to be revamped so female victims of violence were no longer guilty until proven innocent. And every police station was to have a female officer to deal with these crimes. Well that was the plan anyway.
Politics plays spoilsport
My elation at India’s awakening, was soon to be dampened. The protests sparked by pure emotion and disgust, were soon sullied by political parties. The din of minister’s braying their platitudes and disingenuous outrage on 24 hour news channels, was deafening. But India’s ugliness could not be hidden.
High profile politicians were still quoted as saying that women and girls needed to dress more appropriately, and shouldn’t be tempting men with their immodest behaviour. Even Delhi’s female chief minister, who has a daughter herself, had insinuated that it’s the woman’s fault if she is attacked while out at night.
The state of Haryana decided to lower the marriageable age so rape is not a crime. India has no law against rape within marriage.
Several other cities ruled that girl’s school uniforms should cover up more of their bodies. Some villages wanted to stop girls from going to school altogether, saying they were safer at home.
Aside from the brutality of the attack on the 23-year old physiotherapy student, what caught India’s attention were the aspirations of her father. He was a baggage handler at Delhi airport, uneducated and from a humble background, but he saw the value in his daughter.
Most of his meagre salary went to educate her, and in turn, one day she would take care of the family. It is a rare act in this country.
Hoping against hope
Girls are not as precious as their brothers. Boys are treated as princes in their family, they get the best food on the table, their sisters will clean up, wash up after them, and then get their leftovers.
It’s okay if girls get hurt, attacked or defiled. After all they are a burden to the family. They cost so much in dowry, though the practice is outlawed. They are to be married off a soon as possible and bear sons. India has one of the lowest ratios of working women in the world.
I am privileged enough to come from a matriarchal society and a very progressive family. My father always says he is thrilled to have 3 daughters. He once told me that his e-mail password was luckyman as he was so fortunate with his lot in life.
My mother was a driving force in our lives. She made sure her daughters were educated and ambitious. My older sister is now a high profile editor and journalist with one of the world’s foremost international newspapers.
My younger sister is an environmental engineer and is now heading a team on sustainability for a leading global bank. Both of them are bringing up families of daughters.
The events of last December put India’s embarrassing misogyny on stage for the rest of the world to see. It was a revelation to me, that the country, though just for a moment, faced up to its humiliating treatment of women.
The government has since put in some measures, although imperfect, to try to stem sexual crimes and punish it’s perpetrators. To change a nation’s traditions of treating women as second class citizens will take generations.
I once despaired that India’s acceptance of violence against women would just persevere.
But seeing men, women, boys and girls from all walks of life take to the streets in frustration and anger over the death of one young girl has given me hope. Maybe one day we will be recognised as significant enough to be treated as well as our male counterparts.