The State of Women’s Rights in India

One of the biggest debates in international relations today is over the pros and cons of globalization. Many believe that globalization is causing a resource imbalance, and that the increased movement of money, goods, and so on, is disproportionately benefitting those who are already wealthy. Others claim that globalization is improving the lives of all, and while some might benefit more than others, it has allowed society’s overall quality of life to improve. Whatever side of the controversy one stands on, it is clear that technological advancements and the mobility of talent, ideas and information are connecting diverse nations more than ever. As one country celebrates a success, the rest of the world can now celebrate with it in real time. Likewise, countries can engage in discussions together about larger, cross-cutting problems. One such problem is the battle against gender stereotypes. It is one that both developed and developing nations are facing, and while nations are in different stages in this struggle against prejudice, people who have never met, and likely never will, can join forces to erase the hardships this issue causes.

The Back Story

One recent example of this is emBODYindia, a photo campaign and movement that, at first glance, seems only to show the struggles of women in India. The campaign, which was initiated by the undergraduates of the US-India Initiative at Harvard College, has inspired people from around the world to come together in defense of Indian women. The premise is simple: women and men alike write messages and pose for the camera, pictorially representing their stance against injustices they have observed, read about, or, in many cases, experienced firsthand. The concept behind this movement has gone viral, touching cultures, ages, and genders of all kinds. The brief messages supporters share are powerful as they encompass some of the most important challenges facing Indian women today.

What initially sparked emBODYindia was a tussle between The Times of India, India’s most reputable newspaper, and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The Times of India posted a tweet reading, “OMG: Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show,” eliciting a fiery reaction from the actress. It was offensive and shocking to many Indians that such a well-respected news source posted something that many perceived as hurtful, discriminatory gossip. The Times followed up defending its position, and apologized for the headline, but did not apologize for the article. In response it stated, “as one of the largest media houses in the world with interests in print, TV, radio and online, we approach each medium differently as do our audiences,” and defended its right to comment on Ms. Padukone’s appearance. Despite the newspaper’s defense, Indian men and women alike rushed to the actress’ defense. People hosted a number of conversations over social media outlets discussing the outrage of the scenario. People showed their solidarity, standing in support of the actress and against the abuse of women through articles, commentary, and various media outlets.

The Dowry System

Yet the heated reactions and frustration many felt does not entirely bring to light the true gravity of the underlying issue about women. It is a symptom of more widespread discriminatory attitudes towards women in India today. Women face challenges not only in the media, but also in deeply-rooted Indian societal infrastructures, such as the dowry and a woman’s rights in marriage. Although legally women’s rights are supposed to be equal in marriage, in practice a large number of women and their families are still supposed to provide large dowries to the bridegroom and their families. Dowries can include cash, jewelry, or other expensive gifts and can be an enormous financial burden on the family of the bride, especially because the dowry becomes an increasingly large burden with decreasing socioeconomic status. If the bride’s family refuses or fails to pay the dowry that was originally promised, this can lead to violence, extortion, or both, which are most often directed at the bride.

According to an article published by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, trends regarding the prevalence and frequency of dowries differ greatly across India. In southern India, for example, money traditionally flows from the groom to the bride’s family; this is true of lower and upper castes. In the northern Indian castes, both upper and lower, the dowry system is also very prevalent. Traditionally, the dowry system is more prevalent in the upper castes, which is often due to the fact that upper class women in India are unlikely to work. However, the dowry system is still an important factor in the lives of the lower castes, and the financial and emotional burden is so significant that it is seen as one of the main causes for female feticide in Indian families. The issue of sex selection is a prevalent issue; according to the 2011 census, there are 940 women per thousand men in India. The Dowry Prohibition Act, passed in 1961, made it illegal for the bridegroom’s family to demand a dowry, but the law is not well enforced, as is proven in part by the significant gender imbalance in India.

Sex Selection and Violence Against Women

Sex selection in India, in conjunction with the increasingly young age of brides, in India is currently creating what is known as the “marriage squeeze.” This refers to the decreasing relative numbers of marriageable men for women, according to Ranjana Kesarwani in A Study of Marriage Squeeze in Selected Asian Countries. Therefore, sex selection is only propagating the dowry problem that Indian families are working to avoid, as women are forced to vie harder for their husbands by paying more in dowries. Furthermore, dowries are considered to be a major contributor to domestic violence in India. The dowry promotes the power and influence of men over women, and has been attributed by the National Crime Records in India as the cause of 6,000 to 7,000 deaths and approximately 43,000 to 50,000 mental and physical torture accounts from 1999 through 2003.

The trend also appears to be getting worse: the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council estimated in 2009 that the dowry tradition was the cause of 25,000 deaths in India for women between the ages of 15 and 34 each year. The most dangerous dowry-related violence occurs when the husband’s family has a significant amount of leverage over the bride’s family, such as in cases where the bride is especially young or pregnant. This is an issue particularly in India, which currently has the highest percentage of child brides in recent years: 47 percent in 1998 and 30 percent in 2005. Despite the government’s efforts to discourage parents, through monetary payments, from marrying their daughters at a young age, the numbers remain high. If the dowry issue is left unchecked, India will likely continue to fall behind in women’s rights.

The BJP, Modi, and Women’s Rights

In working to understand the state of gender rights in India today, it is important to consider what influence the recent election of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have. The voter turnout for the Indian democratic election was massive: 540 million people, 49 percent of whom were women, turned out for the 2014 election. Although this represents a success, concerns have been raised about the literacy rates of women and lack of women’s involvement in local and national political debate, which would limit the presence of women’s opinions. In the 2011 census, only 65.5 percent of Indian women were literate, compared to 80 percent of Indian men. Narendra Modi, the new Indian prime minister, has stated that he is advocating for greater female political participation. However, some citizens are concerned that moving more towards the Hindu right is a bad sign for women’s rights in India. While this remains to be seen, it is no doubt going to be increasingly important for women to become politically active, both in casting their ballots and in vocalizing their opinions through political discourse.

Prime Minister Modi’s own marital scandal is making it difficult for those in favor of increased women’s rights to trust him. Although Prime Minister Modi has championed his unmarried status as a supposed sign of supposed political incorruptibility throughout his career, news arose that he had actually been married for over 50 years. His former wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, is still alive, and is a retired schoolteacher. Ms. Jashodaben has publicly stated that she was hurt and surprised by the separation (Prime Minister Modi had reportedly taken a trip to the Himalayas and never returned), but accepted the act because she understood it to be her “destiny." Prime Minister Modi’s brother has also stated that the marriage did indeed exist, but was forced on his brother due to traditions of the low Ghanchi caste in Vadnagar and was never actually consummated. It is difficult to unearth the implications of an inconsistent story that began 50 years ago, but Modi’s critics indicate that the purposeful coverup is something to be concerned about. Namely, they believe it to be a representation of his overall disrespect for the legitimacy of women’s opinions and their role in society, and citizens have little trust in his claims that he wants to be a champion of women’s rights.

Additionally, individuals have claimed that the primary reason Prime Minister Modi left his wife is attributable to his religion, a confirming notion for those who believe that the BJP party is too religiously radical. According to many, under the BJP and the general Sangh Parivar collection of Hindu right organizations, gender rights are unlikely to be protected. Key evidence in this argument is that Gujarat, where Prime Minister Modi was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, is perceived to be in a particularly poor state relative to national standards in representing women’s rights. According to the 2011 census statistics, Gujarat had only 918 women for every 1000 men compared to the national average of 940 women per 1000 men. In addition, Gujarat has some of the lowest rates of female enrollment in schools as well as some of the low- est conviction rates for rape and the abduction of women. Although it is difficult to definitively blame Modi and his politics for the problems Gujarat faces, it is poor evidence for the BJP’s claim that it is dedicated to the promotion and protection of women’s rights.

The Sangh Parivar's access to Indian politics through Modi's election is a concern for many because of the religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India, which has been a source of gender violence. A group of secular intellectuals has named itself “India United Against Fascism” and has taken on the duty of examining both the BJP’s claim that it is “exemplary in the area of women’s rights” and its critics (mostly Muslim) who claim that it is the exact opposite. On October 28, 2013, India United Against Fascism published a paper entitled The Sexual Politics of Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, which argues that the BJP’s true attitude toward women is based on fascist, communally-based politics in which women are not seen as individuals but instead as representatives of their community and its honor. This can lead to strong protection in terms of the community’s own women, or rape in terms of the enemy’s women. This attitude has made women the victim of much religious conflict, as some men use it as an explanation for sexual violence against women. While it is difficult to say whether or not this is attributable directly to Modi and his party’s philosophies, the mounting evidence is enough to make dissatisfied women’s rights activists and concerned citizens even more alarmed.

By no means does this article exhaustively attend to every challenge women in India face today. Rape violence is one of the most prominent issues in India. While the overall statistics of rape frequency are not especially alarming according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, which states that two women in every 100,000 were raped between 2008 and 2012, which is lower than the UK (3.6), Morocco (4.6), and the United States (28.6), there have been multiple flagrant incidents over the last decade, including the gang rape of a 23-year old student on a public bus in 2012. Additionally, there have been numerous allegations of gang rape by Indian armed forces and Islamist militant groups. While the statistics are not especially significant in defining India as a country with a prominent rape culture, these graphic incidents have provided cause for alarm, and they certainly do not bode well for those hoping to promote women’s rights.

Consistent with the predominant global trend, India has seen significant development in women’s rights in the last 50 years. Not long ago, women in India were still, by law, considered to be the property of their husbands. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 amended and codified the law dictating marriage among Hindus. Separation and divorce were recognized legally for the first time, and a minimum age was put in place for marriage to prevent child marriages. Women in India are legally considered to be equal to men, a privilege that is not present in all countries. However, laws are very different in theory and in practice, and treating and respecting women as equals in India is far from completely realized. Despite legal progress, it is clear that India has many hurdles to face in terms of achieving equal rights for men and women in practice. As of late, it has been argued that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are a significant threat to progress on this front, despite their claims of working to protect and promote women’s rights. Yet, one can be sure that if the people of India and foreign supporters are dissatisfied with the state of affairs they will find a way to tell the broader international community, perhaps in a way that is as engaging as the emBODYindia campaign.