Unsafe at all times: perils of the sexual revolution

It's official: we are the fourth most dangerous nation in the world for women. Yes, we're worse than Somalia, though happily better than Pakistan. The numbers tell a sorry tale: 12 million female foetuses aborted in the last three decades; 100 million enslaved by human trafficking; 3 million prostitutes, of whom 40% are children.

"I'm completely surprised because I thought Somalia would be first on the list, not fifth," said Somali women's minister Maryan Qasim, and truth be told, so are we. We are a modern, liberal democracy in the midst of vast social change. We don't put our women in burkhas, kill our female news broadcasters or policewomen, stone women for adultery or use them as sex slaves for our military. And then there's all the good stuff that's happened over the past two decades: the women who now enter schools, colleges, offices, and even bars and nightclubs, in greater numbers than ever.

How can we possibly be in the same league as Afghanistan, Pakistan or even Congo, the so-called rape capital of the world?

Or do the glittering images of female emancipation that surround us point to a different reality – or rather two very different, parallel realities, where progress in one universe has little effect on the other? That's the easy answer, the one we eagerly embrace: the two-India theory of everything.

It's time that we stop pretending that there are two Indias, one shiny and progressive, hurtling into the 21st century, leaving the backward, conservative one behind. Kainaz Amaria/The New York Times

The truth, however, about women's liberation in either India is more subtle and less reassuring. The two Indias share far more in common that we'd like to believe. And perhaps for once, instead of tut-tutting as usual at the sad state of that 'other' India, we should perhaps take a closer look at the India we the rising, shining urban classes live in.

The so-called sexual revolution

Our India wears a bold air of permissiveness. The so-called lifestyle sections in every newspaper feature barely clad celebrities and pin up girls. The once-feared decolletage is now de rigeur for television anchors, models, actresses, and college kids alike. Nightclubs and bars are crammed with girls in little halter tops and skimpy dresses.

Yet this is a revolution mostly in appearance, not so much behaviour. It helps us pretend that we've come a long way, baby, when we've at best taken a few steps in the right direction.

"Cosmopolitan represents the phenomenon of women's empowerment. I believe that this is the biggest change that has taken place in India in the last decade — even bigger than the process of liberalisation," claimed Aroon Purie at the launch of the magazine.

In one fell swoop, he reduced feminism to a lot of racy talk about multiple orgasms, sexual flings, and the perfect thong. And let's politely ignore the fact that much of it's content is ripped straight out of the pages of American magazines without any concessions to Indian reality. But when juxtaposed against that retrograde 'other' India — where even talking about sex is taboo — it's easy enough to sell "54 Crazy Hot Sex Moves" as feminist fortitude.

The cultural tug-of-war between "new" and "old" India is both intractable and many times expedient for those involved. The barely dressed model confirms the religious right's prediction of moral decay, and their rabid opposition happily allows a publisher like Poorie to recast his sexual pandering as a brave act of feminism. It also helps cement the self-serving claim that sex-as-commodity is the form of sexual liberation.

We end up arguing over whether Indian women – especially young women —should have sex outside marriage instead of asking the important questions about the kind of sex they're actually having.

In an Outlook magazine piece titled 'Early to Bed', a 16-year old girl confesses:

We were shooting tequilas at a club and chasing them with vodka mixers. Arjun was drunk, too, and on the way home, we parked in a quiet bylane. He got aggressive, and I wanted to say no, but I don't think I said it loud enough. I was almost unconscious, I don't know, when he had sex with me, or whether he used a condom. I only remembered what had happened two days later.

The article never raises the question of consent — likely because it is too busy shocking readers with the spectre of sex-hungry kids. Her drunken but ineffective resistance is slyly offered instead as a mitigating factor, a reason why a teenage girl from a 'good home' would step outside the bounds of society.

In the same article, a prominent sex therapist says young girls often seek help after losing their virginity for "genital injuries". "The boys are too eager, they're also in a hurry, and they have no concept of foreplay, so injuries are bound to happen," explains the unruffled Mr. Bhonsle.

These things are indeed "bound to happen", and happen far too often. For all our talk of sexual liberation, we secretly believe that young girls lose the right to be safe if they challenge convention. Don't want to get hurt? Then don't be getting your boyfriend all hot and bothered.

Consent, pleasure, agency, there's not much talk of that kind of stuff in 'our' India. Reading about sex is hardly the same as having it. There is difference between consensual sex and assault — even if you are drunk and half-naked in a car. And having sex is no guarantee of sexual pleasure or empowerment. These are inconvenient distinctions rarely made in a popular culture that peddles the "hot babe" version of feminism.

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The working girl

Economic freedom is the bedrock of all liberation, sexual or otherwise. The driving engine of social change in India is the increased presence of women in the workplace, be it as call centre workers, sales clerks, mid-level managers, or high-ranking executives. Their presence has doubled over the past 15 years. But all that much-touted emancipation has come at a price to their physical safety. Whether she goes to work, hangs out in a bar, or makes out with her lover, this newfound freedom is hazardous to an Indian woman's health.

Each day brings new reports of gang rape, murder or abduction, be it in Delhi (our rape capital), Bangalore, or even Chennai where a young woman was recently raped on a commuter train. A New York Times article attributes this rising violence to a clash between the two Indias:

In each case there has been an explosive clash between the rapidly modernising city and the embattled, conservative village culture upon which the capital increasingly encroaches. The victims are almost invariably young, educated working women who are enjoying freedom unknown even a decade ago. The accused are almost always young high school dropouts from surrounding villages, where women who work outside the home are often seen as lacking in virtue and therefore deserving of harassment and even rape.

Yet the biggest barrier in bringing rapists to justice is the victim's refusal to cooperate. In the infamous case cited by the article, the woman – gang-raped in Ghaziabad by men who stumbled upon her and her boyfriend – didn't even report the crime. When later asked to testify, she responded with a one line email: “The police will not be able to restore my honor."

The "traditional mindset" that jeopardizes women's safety is hardly the preserve of 'old' India. The burden of shame is borne entirely by the woman, a truth known to both the village-bred attackers and their "young, educated, working" victim. As the deputy police commissioner tells the reporter, "They have no doubt that they will get away with it."

It's time perhaps that we stop pretending that there are two Indias, one shiny and progressive, hurtling into the 21st century, leaving the backward, conservative one behind. The rate of female foeticides, for example, are not an 'old' India problem but a side-effect of upward mobility, as researcher Monobina Gupta points out: "As the middle class comes into more money, it is accessing more sophisticated medical technology either to ensure the birth of a boy or get rid of the unborn girl."

The reality is that Indian women are not safe anywhere, except within a tiny privileged cocoon that the upper class inhabit. But even these wealthy women have to tread the straight line that leads from their gated homes right to that air-conditioned car that will deliver them into the safe bosom of a corporate office, upscale mall or ritzy hotel.

An incautious step outside that lakshman rekha can spell disaster.

Life is dangerous for a woman in India, period. We women have merely decided that we're not going to let that little fact hold us back. And that is the real change to celebrate.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2011 18:30 PM

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