Monday, August 06, 2012

Why it is easy to molest a woman in India?

In the last few months, we have seen hundreds of incidents where a woman in India was molested, teased, sexually harassed, and stripped in public, sometimes in the view of cameras and bystanders.  One woman was thrown out of a moving train, another was attacked by acid, and others were physically molested.  

One of the immediate reactions from the media is that it is a 'law and order' problem. What they mean is that we don’t give strong punishment to the offenders, that the law is vague on these offences, or that the police officers are not very keen on registering the cases or following up on the case.  

I, on the other hand, don’t think 'law and order' is the main problem.  While 'law and order' is  one of the problems, it is not the primary one.  There are few countries, like Saudi Arabia, where the law is extremely strict, so much so that a convicted thief’s hand may be cut, and yet there is rampant mistreatment and abuse of women in that country. 

Also, I tend to think that most of these offenders, in countries like India, take a high moral ground because many people tend to sympathize with the offenders.  In the recent past, many administrative officers, police officers, organization heads and elected political leaders have all blamed the woman when such harassments happened.  They blamed the woman for inviting the man to molest her by dressing provocatively. 

If dress is indeed the cause for such molestation, we should see no sari clad woman getting harassed.  And yet, the evidence points out that most of the incidents happen in rural India where such provocation by the women is not a relevant point.  In fact, if we were to go by the number of incidents that happen in India, one can say that wearing a sari is the best invitation for getting molested. 

Some authority figures and religious heads in the country have concluded that such molestations are on the rise because of the ‘liberalization’ of woman.  They believe that since the woman has become more liberal she is drawing attention from the men.  However, this argument does not make sense.  Mistreatment of women, which includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, has always been part of Indian history, and there is no evidence that suggests it has suddenly increased in the recent times.  What has increased is the reporting by the news media because of proliferation of regional news channels and TV cameras.  Nowadays a video recording device is in the hands of common people in the form of mobile phones. We are now able to watch something that has always been happening in this country for centuries.

Recently a woman was thrown off a moving train.  She was a worker in a garment factory.  She was wearing a traditional salwar kameez.  She was approached by few young men who offered her money – this seems to be one of the established methods to show to the rest of the crowd that the woman is a prostitute.   After that they started molesting her with full freedom.  None of the passengers stepped forward to protest, protect or object.  When the woman did not get any support from the fellow passengers she ran towards the door.  One of the young men kicked her out of the train.  She fell off a bridge onto the dry bank. 

In another widely publicized case, a girl in teens was molested for nearly forty-five minutes on a main street of Guwahati in full view of many bystanders.  Many of these bystanders joined the melee and started tugging the girl’s t-shirt and her bra, and kept hitting her physically.   One of the journalists covered the entire incident to be later broadcasted on TV to the whole country. 

A week ago, a group of men barged into a house in Mangalore where some young men and women were celebrating a friend’s birthday.  They did this to stop activities that were ‘unacceptable to Hindu culture’.  

Initial reactions by authorities to all such molestations is that the victim is actually a prostitute, or that she is a woman of loose character, or that she invited the trouble by dressing provocatively, or that she induced the men by staying up late in the night, and so on. 

Lot of people in India tends to carry the same opinion.  They blame the woman.  They look at the man as an innocent man who was beguiled, seduced, and provoked into doing something that comes very naturally to him.  The blame is laid squarely on the woman.  Even some woman officials join the men officials to blame the woman.  

Even the offenders tout the moral authority when they blame the victimized woman.  This is the common thread in most of these molestations- that the woman needs to be taught a lesson for crossing the moral code, that the women should be taught a lesson for partying at nights, that the woman should be taught a lesson for dressing up boldly.  

So, why do these officials, these politicians, these religious heads tend to blame the woman?  Where do they get their moral authority to blame the woman and completely excuse the man? Where does one get legitimacy for such warped moral code, wherein the offender feels proud of his actions, where the officials and police seem to sympathize with the offender instead of protecting the victim?

It is my contention here that it is the religion, combined with a bloated sense of pride of one’s culture, that gives these offenders and their supporters the moral authority and the legitimacy.

It is the religion, either it is Hinduism or Islam, which gives these men the confidence to molest a woman and then look straight into the camera with pride – because they believe that they are in fact protecting the culture, protecting one’s way of life from getting corrupted by Western influences. 

Here in this article, I would like to establish the correlation between religiosity of a nation or a state or a group and its mistreatment of women.  Higher the religiosity and higher the belief that one needs faith to be moral, higher the mistreatment of women and higher the gender inequality. 

The statistics from gender inequality are used in the discussions below.  Note that a conclusion on mistreatment of women does not directly follow from statistics on gender inequality.  However, the nations which score low on gender inequality are also the nations voted as the worst places for women.  Upon observation, one finds that the nations with low gender equality also treat women as inferior, not accepting them as equal.
What does religion do?

Religion comes in three forms: philosophy, spirituality and orthodoxy.  The dominant form being orthodoxy – involving a set of rules for conformance and set of rituals based in blind belief, faith and superstition.  This dominant form of religion, referred to as religiosity here, subdues your rational thought.  It makes you bend down to a higher moral authority without questioning.  That allows some custodians of the religion to usurp that moral authority to hold sway over the religious people, even the most liberal and broadminded of them.  It allows these custodians take matters into their own hands to set the right moral example without honoring the civic code.

Only those nations which have reduced religiosity either through Scientific Revolution or through modernization of thought (not modernization of infrastructure) have been able to respect the woman.  All other nations, where religion is paramount, continue to mistreat their woman.  Per Capita or GDP doesn’t really matter.  A country like Saudi Arabia with very high per capita and world class infrastructure continues to mistreat its woman.  On the other hand an East European country with very low per capita and really bad infrastructure seems to treat its women well.  So, what is the difference between these two countries?  Religion.

There is a strong correlation between religiosity of a nation and its treatment of women.  Taking two statistics, the percentage of people in a country who think ‘religion is important in their daily life’ and gender equality in that country, we see that the nations that score high on religiosity also score low on gender equality.  

In another ranking, where G-20 countries were rated on which nation is good for women, India scored the lowest, lower than Saudi Arabia, which is usually known to have worst laws for women.   The bottom three countries, India, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia also score very high on religiosity.  In India a staggering 92% think that religion is important while in Indonesia it is 95%.   The top three countries, Canada, Germany and Great Britain invariably score very low on the same index- at 30%, 21% and 33%, respectively. 

The countries where people think religion is important in their daily life also vouch that morality is defined by religion.   98% in Indonesia and 66% in India believe that one has to believe in God to be moral.  Whereas, only 30%, 39% and 22% in Canada, Germany and Great Britain believe that morality derives from God.

In another ranking, India ranked amongst the five worst countries in the world for women joining ranks with Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. 
In the above correlation between religiosity and gender equality, the two exceptions seem to be Japan and US.  Japan scores low on gender equality though low on religiosity while US scores high on gender equality while it is moderately religious. 

In addition to religiosity, the countries which believe they are culturally superior are also the ones which tend to treat its women as inferior. [Note where India stands]

Japan now falls close to the trend line.  Though people are less religious in Japan, they tend to think of their culture to be superior and this seems to explain their low score on gender equality. 

United States stands as an anomaly or exception in the White Christian West.  It is the only country with high religiosity, where nearly 59% believe religion is important in their daily life.  But it has much better track record of its treatment of its women, either it is owing to their rule of law, strong democracy, higher transparency, or immigration.  However, upon closer inspection within individual states, the same pattern emerges.  The states which boast high religiosity are also the ones where the representation of women is the least.  For example, the representation of women legislators decreases with increase in religiosity amongst its states.

Therefore, it does not matter where you live on the planet.  The mistreatment of women is highly correlated to the following:
  1. The belief that religion is important
  2. The belief that one’s culture is superior
The countries which believe that 'religion is important' also believe that 'morals are derived from one’s religion'.   The countries which believe that 'one’s culture is superior' also believe that 'their culture needs to be protected' from foreign influences.  Also, these countries conveniently mix religion with culture - showing a strong correlation between 'religious nations' and 'superior cultured' nations.  

The above attitudes of religiosity and pride in one’s culture creates a sense of high moral ground, not based in civic sense or rule of law, but in one’s religion or culture, one’s historical past; and such bequeathed heritage involves a track record of treating woman as inferior being, as weak and dependent, someone who is vulnerable to seduction of modern and liberal ways, someone who should be protected from such evil influences.  In such cultures, there is a tendency to protect the women, and in that effort, one creates rules and mores which tend to chain the woman.  Most of these cultures tend to tell the woman that it is in her best interest she be confined to home, that she be attired in conservative clothes, that she does not liberate herself, that she does not think for herself.

Such religions and cultures allow organizations and individuals to rise up to take the role of custodians or guardians of the religion and culture, with a duty to protect them from the influences of the westernization, which is sometimes considered synonymous to modernization.    These custodians, the upholders of one’s faith and culture, get the desired legitimacy when they harass a woman who is clad in modern dress, or who is partying late at night, or who is considered to be of loose character.  Such custodians are hailed and paraded as heroes and get support from many people in the country who oppose westernization, modernization, liberalization, rationalization; they get support from those who fear their religion is dwindling, or that their culture is getting diluted, or that their way of life is being radically changed.  All these insecurities translate into upholding one’s faith and culture which tend to sympathize with these self-proclaimed custodians. 

That’s why we see so many officials, middle class men and women, come in hidden support of these men who harass such women.  They blame the victimized women and ask, ‘what was she doing so late at night?’, ‘why did she have to wear that provocative dress?’, ‘why is she still single at such an old age?’ and so on. 

The hidden consequence of blind pride in one’s culture and blind belief in one’s religion is the subjugation of woman.  Rise of blind faith in religion goes hand in hand with suppression of woman.  Witch hunting of thousands of woman in medieval Europe would not have been possible without the support and sanction of religion.  Religious leaders in India protested whenever an attempt was made to emancipate and empower the woman – first it was Hindus and then it was Muslims.   When Nehru tried to pass Hindu Code Bill, the religious Hindus leaders protested and warned that it would lead to dissolution of Indian family.  When Shah Bano tried to get her rights, Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to the Muslim leaders to chain the Muslim woman forever. 

Extreme emphasis on religion and pride in one’s culture are the strong reasons why Indians sympathize with or turn blind eye to men who harass women.  Even if we were to stop the harassment by penalizing the men, our country will continue to see prejudice and discrimination against the woman, because we continue to be one of the most religious people on the planet with bloated sense of cultural superiority.  We will continue to see female infanticide amongst upper middle class; we will continue to see dwindling women to men ratio, and we will continue to see harassment and molestation of women.

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  1. Good article. It also is to be noted that gender equality is not a western concept in the first place. Gender Prophet Muhammed has spoken about women’s education, rights in property, marriage and divorce thousands of years ago. Everytime you mention the word gender, they think of it as a western concept. Jesus, Gupta and Prophet Muhammed everybody had their own concepts of gender equality it is just the so called spiritual and religious leaders have conveniently forgotten it.

  2. @vidya

    you must read the quran fully to understand what rights the women have in islam.

    1. and you must look around to see how much "freedom" muslim women enjoy in society..

  3. gender equality is better in states which value individualism over social conformity. social conformity in india is in the form of culture, religion and caste. In japan, it is in the form of tradition and culture. In some states in the US it is in the form of religion and color.

  4. Ha Ha Ha.. Sujai, did you see where pakistan is on the graph? How come other muslim countries are not on the graph? I wonder which end of the graph they are on..

    On the one hand you are fighting for the religious cultural rights of muslims in India and on the other you turn a blind eye to their pervasive denial of rights of minorities and women. Looks like you just reeeally want them to like you.. :))

  5. Great article. From your plots above, I think the stronger indicator is (2).
    1) The belief that religion is important
    2) The belief that one’s culture is superior
    A closed mind is a dead mind. A closed culture is a dead culture. Unfortunately most religions help make a culture closed.

  6. A typical Hindu turned atheist idealist...

  7. well said Anonymous. The next logical step is for this man to turn to Islam. :)

  8. I think you are just throwing in some graphs whose sources cannot be verified. There are many sources that claim that all through the civilized world there are numerous cases that are reported on the mistreatment on woman and many cases go unnoticed. And how can you say that "Mistreatment of women, which includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, has always been part of Indian culture". From what source are you saying this. On the contrary I can say that Indian culture is one of the good ones to give equal rights to woman, and I have proofs to my claim, if you require one.

    1. I agree that there is much abuse of women in western countries like the US. There are high rates of rape, molestation, harassment etc.and discrimination as well.

      We US people need to change this and stop violence towards women.

      The US does fairly well with job opportunities and education but there is much much room for improvement.

      We deserve critisizm for our shortcomings.

      And there is also a lot of abuse of women in India, and in many many other countries. That does not mean that India or Indians are bad people. There are many great things about Indian people and culture.

      I think that you do not have to overlook the good in India and you can still acknowledge the problems women face.

      Change the things that are hurtful and celebrate what is good.

      joy song

    2. What proofs of "equal rights" for women are you talking of? Yes, first mention those proofs and then i will carry the matter forward.

    3. There are high rates of rape and mistreatment in West because there definitions are different from ours. In India marital rape is hardly considered rape, domestic violence goes unreported all the time. Do you know the cases under which Julian Assange was tried wouldn't even have been considered for FIR in India. Please read the definitions of rape laws of different countries and you will get the difference.

  9. ...violence towards women...
    If it can be explained as part of a culture or tradition, it will forever go on. So far all religions & cultures i have seen, have screwed up. In my humble opinion, the real explanations are:

    1) The power of stupid people in large groups.
    2) People not willing to take a stand against it.

  10. There are only 3 primary reasons why men rape:

    1.Their (obnoxious) cultural attitude towards women – they consider women to be “properties” and “sex objects”
    2.Sexual repression – which is a wide-spread Indian malaise
    3.Lack of sex education

    So what are the solutions? These are:

    1.Legalization of prostitution (through which govt can also earn taxes)
    2.Enforcing sex education
    3.Spreading gender sensitization messages in all schools (starting from the villages)

    Although the above solutions do not guarantee 100% elimination of Rape as a crime, they will significantly reduce the no. of rape incidents.

  11. I think you hit the bulls-eye in this article regarding these gender related issue... At least in India, as you pointed out, the first question people will ask after a rape incident at night will be that 'what was she doing at that time of the day....?'
    We believe that ours is a great culture... but I think we are at the bottom now and we should be ashamed of the current state of affairs.... Only if we realize this fact that we can start seeking solutions....

  12. The first questions we ask after we come across a rape are "was she a woman of strong morals" "was she out late" etc. Somehow, these questions are supposed to make us feel better about the sorry state of affairs in our country by making us feel that those women had it coming. Also, the feeling of 'our culture is the best' is so prevalent, its sickening. Whats so good about our repressive and regressive 'culture'?

  13. Hmmm... The article is thought provoking. I admire your insight on the grounds of religion and culture. But I would like to differ a bit in my opinion that the nation where the level of satisfaction in terms of family security, basic needs of life, education and an ample opportunity where individuals have goals in life, things simplifies in terms of women security and equality. Scandinavian countries are one set of example.

    However the thoughts you have put in are very fundamental to begin a thought for implementation.

    1. I agree completely. It's not that in Scandinavian countries or certain other european countries there is less emphasis on being religious or they think that religion is not an important part of their daily lives - its the whole gamut of their society, government, 'attitude' to human life, humanity and humaneness.

      High taxes are converted into VERY high benefits and security for the citizens - thats considered as one of the reasons for the low crime rates (which have gone up by opening up the borders because of the Euro Zone) including lower crimes against women. Two very good examples are Denmark and Sweden. Denmark - you're paid by the govt to go to college and other forms of advanced degrees (every single one of their citizens) - even in some parts of Switzerland. Sweden - it is frowned upon if you are a woman and you get married in your early or mid-twenties - because apparently then you dont take your career seriously (which is a bit much though).

  14. the hypocrisy and apathy of our people saddens me the most ... they get all religious and take the moral high ground as & when it suits them ...
    the cause is also deeply imbedded in how our men are raised vis-a-vis women (at least in most cases)... if the girl child survives foeticide, then there's a possibility of infanticide, then preferential treatment - the list never ends ... I guess we can at least start teaching our sons better ...

  15. While it seems that the result is derived from the statistics and while the numbers look convincing - I would not go so far to agree that the degree of being religious is directly proportional to gender inequality and thus molestation, etc.

    While religion is a huge proponent (I'm still agreeing that it is in fact A proponent than THE proponent), the general quality of elementary and secondary "education" (not literacy, or basic education where you can read, write do a bit of math and know a little vague history or science) is LOW, that is where the behaviours stem from. In India's case it is the complete lack of a good education. For example US, to broaden the argument, the quality of education in the Bible belt is very basic or non-existing.

    The fact they can read and write their own language and follow traffic signals is not enough. Those states rank high in school dropouts (as in India), they also rank low on number of students that have a well-rounded education, read, have awareness of world issues, cultural contexts, sociology, etc.

    Education should also not be co-related to modernism. But, in fact to a understanding of the world at a global level which includes as you've put it well (but with too much emphasis) on secular education.

  16. Very nice article.
    Graphs make sense, but I just want to point out one thing. In India, I have seen multiple temples where females are not allowed. The reason being that the God there is Bramhachari and he will get distracted with women around. This concept so clearly shows that even our Gods don't take responsibility of their desires, they blame women. Religion is a big time reason for what is happening to women in India. I hope men in this country get some brains and start treating women as equals.

  17. The main reason for such rampant mistreatment of women at large in India is not religion as you said but it is the wanton manipulation of the religious texts to justify their barbaric acts. This stems from the patriachal nature of our society. It is true that authorities try to find fault with the victim, it is mainly due to their callous attitude towards their duty. The police want to reduce their work. Thats all. The author has no knowledge of the true interpretation of the religious texts and ideals. The Hindu philosophy no way sanctions violence against women. Many of us do not know that dowry is prohibited by Hindu code. How many of us follow that sincerely?
    The real reason behind the crimes
    1. The false sense of male superiority over the female
    2. The tendency of the law enforcement to wash their hands off the responsibility in such cases.
    3. The general attitude of the society to think that a girl who talks freely with boys is of "bad character".And holds the victim as guilty as the accused.
    Just because you are atheist don't demonise those who believe in religion. Even Joseph Stalin was athiest, was he as "humanitarian" as you claim that non religious people are?


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