Vishakha N. Desai: Attitudes on women must change

by Vishakha Desai – June 27, 2015

The Gulf Today

Recently, I was at a meeting with senior Indian diplomats. After a healthy discussion on India’s recent foreign policy accomplishments – defence agreements with the US, trade deals with China and Japan, and a general feeling of confidence surrounding the proactive international agenda of the Narendra Modi government, one of the members of the group raised the question of the appalling treatment of women in India.

“This is one of the hardest questions I encounter as a diplomat,” the senior-most diplomat said. He went on to elaborate that this is not a country-specific problem. After all, he said, in total numbers the US has more cases of rape and sexual assault than India does, including aggressive sexual assaults in university campuses. So, he concluded, the media, especially the international media, should stop singling out India on this issue.

I found myself both distressed and slightly sympathetic on hearing his answer. On the one hand, as a historian and daughter of a Gandhian woman who fought for India’s independence and helped establish one of the first women’s organisations in the country, I know that explaining the role of women in India is complicated. Whenever I am asked this question in the U.S., I often say that it depends on the context.

It is very confusing for outsiders to make sense of the multivalent nature of Indian women’s position in society. They wonder: how is it that India can produce women political leaders, from a Prime Minister to Chief Ministers, but also rank amongst the countries with the highest levels of infanticide, with millions of “missing girls” as the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has pointed out? How is it that India can boast of female executives in national financial institutions, but its women rank 140 out of 179 countries in the Mother’s Index Rank (compared to China, which ranks 61)?

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