Since the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last month, thousands of women in India, who are increasingly working and studying, have repeatedly taken to the streets to express anger over attitudes towards women, calling for major change.
A woman is raped in Delhi, the country’s capital city, every 18 hours, according to official figures, and women across India say they are often subjected to sexual intimidation and violence.
“This is the first time since our Independence Movement that I have seen these huge spontaneous demonstrations and agitations in the streets across India,” said Sucharita Eashwar Executive Director India of WEConnect International, a non-profit that helps women business owners.
Eashwar says in the wake of the attack, Indian women from all walks of life — urban and rural, poor and privileged, across all generations – believe the time has come to take measures to stop the seemingly unabated violence against women.
But one of the major obstacles is what Eashwar describes as a political culture across party lines that openly reflect “the archaic patriarchal attitudes” in India today. “Politicians are saying that the women demonstrating are ‘painted, dented women’, women must wear traditional sarees and salwar kameez and be stopped from wearing skirts as their clothes attract rapists to them.”
As women in India are becoming more educated, finding jobs outside the home, and starting their own businesses, they are doing so in the face of a culture where sexual harassment is widely accepted and personal security is a major concern. We contacted a number of women who submitted their stories of starting a business on The Story Exchange, to find out about the realities of daily life for working women in India.
“It’s really hard for a woman to get out there and work in India; there is no safety,” Gauri Singh, founder of a maid’s agency in Guragaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Singh says she constantly fears for the 130 women who work for her at The Maid’s Company, a social enterprise she started 18 months ago.
One of her employees was raped and murdered in her home, she says, but when Singh went to the police looking for help, she instead was threatened.
“They kept saying ‘What rape are you talking about? She just fell sick and died,’” Singh says. “The police tried to intimidate me by saying ‘You will have to come to the station, we will harass you and it’s going to be a long affair.’”
By the time Singh was able to work her network and move up the chain of police command, about two days later, the woman’s body had been cremated, and the case closed.
Corruption and a dismissive attitude by police toward crimes against women leave many with little faith in those meant to protect them. (See Singh’s passionate letter to her brother following the rape).
Singh says there’s been an incident nearly every week that requires her to intervene on behalf of her employees. One maid has been routinely stalked on the way to work, another threatened by several men driving by in an SUV, and a third one escaped from being kidnapped.
Fearing for her employees and frustrated by the reaction from police, Singh has taken matters into her own hands creating a shuttle system that will bring her employees to and from their work.
For her own personal security, Singh — who like many Indian women we spoke to has been assaulted — has a security guard outside her home and never drives home from work alone late at night.
The ascension of women in India – which means they leave the home more often and are in public alone – is an “outright threat to the patriarchal society,” says entrepreneur Anu Ganesh, founder of Anu’s Bamboo Hut, a restaurant in Mysore, India, near Bangalore, India’s third most populous city.
“Women are proving to be better than men in academics, at the work place, in the domestic situation and are becoming educated and know their rights. They want to be and are wherever men are.”
That is in stark contrast to a culture of female oppression, built over centuries, where women are treated as inferior beings suited for housework, raising children and taking care of their husbands and families.
Ganesh says that the female yoga students she serves in her restaurant are often stalked and groped when walking alone on the way to school.
In an op-ed in The Indian Express Indian author, Kishwar Desai, said that the gang rape illustrated that “a certain class of men is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the work force. The gang rape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.”
Changing that culture may very well prove to be the most difficult challenge in India but Ganesh says she sees young people are looking for change. “They want the girl be looked upon as an equal human being and not as some subservient object for the male to treat as he wishes.”
At the same time, there is pessimism that underlies what the professional Indian women we contacted believe can realistically happen to change long entrenched views.
Ganesh says changing attitudes toward sexual crimes will be difficult: “The nexus between politicians, judicial system, popular and influential personalities is so deep rooted that it will take a marathon and an era of effort on the part of the Indian public to make positive changes.”
India may have finally begun its marathon.
* We contacted many Indian women for this article and were overwhelmed by their passionate replies. Read an email exchange with Payal Gandhi Hoon, founder of Tamarainlp, a training company located in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Dehli. She shares why she is both hopeful and skeptical about the changes that could come for women in India as a result of the public outpouring following the rape.
Also, read Gauri Singh’s letter to her brother that she wrote following a heated argument about the rape.