IndiaWomen: India lags behind neighbors in women’s participation in politics

The World

For Sonia Gandhi and company, it's lonely at the top.

Despite high profile leaders like Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Sheila Dikshit, India ranked a dismal 105 out of 150 parliamentary democracies analysed by the United Nations. 

That puts it behind Bangaldesh, Nepal, and even Pakistan, writes the Hindustan Times.

Only 11 percent of the lawmakers in the lower house of India's parliament, the Lok Sabha, are women, while women account for only 10.7 percent of legislators in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, the paper said.

Among its immediate neighbors, only Sri Lanka and Myanmar rank lower in the index.

So how did India acquire its reputation for respecting women's rights?

Most female visitors are shocked to hear advisories that they should wear full-sleeved, loose-fitting garments and avoid shorts unless they like being pinched and groped in the street and on public transportation, due to the mistaken impression worldwide that India is leaps and bounds ahead of Afghanistan and Pakistan when it comes to attitudes toward women.

But even if that's true, the bar those countries have set is pretty low, and the situation for Indian women is woeful — particularly as you move down the economic ladder.

On the occasion of the Hindu holiday of Holi Thursday — when businesses remain closed so that revelers can douse unsuspecting neighbors with water and cover them in colored dye — many of the local newspapers took the opportunity to address violence against women and sexual harassment. Why? An ongoing debate about rising rape statistics, and insensitive reactions from various police and government officials, sparked their interest. But the news peg was Holi, when the less devout simply get smashed on booze and bhang (cannabis) and prowl the streets to harass and molest any woman who dares step out her door.

Despite the "Incredible India" photos that inevitably result, it ain't a pretty picture.  

According to a Hindustan Times survey, 91 percent of urban Indian women say that they have been sexually harassed, most of them in public places, and a whopping two-thirds on a regular basis. Meanwhile, only a third say they are willing to go out late at night.

Statistics on rape have come into question recently, as a journalist or two has questioned the scare headlines in the Delhi papers, drawing attention to the fact that incidence of rape is actually significantly higher in New York City. But that's a ludicrous comparison, implying that the percentage of rapes that are reported is the same in New York and New Delhi — where such statistics have only been gathered since 1972 and a lax attitude from law enforcement discourages already-reluctant women to come forward. (Recently, police announced the alleged victim of a gang rape on television and blamed her for drinking vodka along with the male acquaintances accused of assaulting her, for instance).

The Hindustan Times writes that even under those conditions the number of rape cases reported nationwide has increased nearly eight times since 1972, though the overall stat remains relatively low compared with India's huge population, at 22,172 cases. It's just possible that some of that increase reflects a better attitude from the police about taking complaints and registering cases, or women's greater willingness to come forward and damn the consequences. 

But, apart from the media outrage, there seems to be little sign of such a change in attitude, despite the tremors of sexual revolution being felt across the country. Not only do police officials continue to blame the victim for dressing provocatively, drinking, or daring something even more rash, such as getting a divorce. Even some of the country's most prominent (and rare, it turns out) woman leaders are guilty of accepting rape as a "just punishment" for violating arbitrary social norms regulating what women are allowed and aren't allowed to do.

After the alleged gang rape of a 37-year-old woman in Kolkata who dared to drink alone in a bar and accept a ride home from a group of men, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed the incident was concocted to besmirch her government, for instance, while Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit warned that women "should not be adventurous" after a young woman journalist was murdered on her way home from work at 3 a.m. in 2008.

The interesting thing here, apart from the "she said what?" factor, is the logic behind these statements. They reflect the reality that Indian women are (implicitly) being punished for daring to get jobs and demand other freedoms. It's commonly asserted that rape is about power, not sex, of course. But in these instances one can see sexual violence being "used" — unconsciously, here — in much the same way that it has been used on the battlefield: As a weapon to constrain and destabilize the "enemy."

In that sense, writer Urvashi Butalia, nails what's happening when she recasts Dikshit's "adventurous" comment with the correct spin for the HT:

"More women now work at all hours, creating strong competition for jobs that challenges some men and makes them hit back."

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