India wears its beautiful qualities as proudly as it does its ugly vices. Its ugliest vice is its general apathy towards the well-being of its women stands out the most. In examining the issue throughout the last century, one could not deny that at least some progress has been made. Yet, the Indian government does not act upon many of the laws and measures that focus on protecting Indian women. This exposes them as performative activists of feminism.
Not only this but harmful, misogynistic ideologies stemming from India’s age-old patriarchy have continued circulating throughout the generations. This results in generational trauma among Indian women. Integrating feminist values into Indian society would reverse the blind eye to the various problems faced by Indian women. It would also challenge the Indian government’s lack of action regarding the issue. Of course, this would result in the proposition and development of even more effective solutions.
Why so serious?
It would be an understatement to say that within Indian society, the majority of hatred points towards Indian women. The daily battles and struggles that Indian women face have amalgamated in such a manner that they have become normalized. These normalized plights include toxic beauty standards such as colorism, domestic violence, rape, etc. The sad consequences of these predicaments become increasingly evident as both intergenerational trauma and internalized misogyny within Indian women.
Prejudice based on colorist beauty standards has comprised a large percentage of harmful attitudes towards Indian women. The idea that a lighter skin tone equates to beauty and overall success in life has circulated for too long. Mothers often tell their daughters to avoid going into direct sunlight to avoid their skin getting darker. They shame them by saying that no one will want to marry a dark-skinned girl. What must be noted, however, is that these harmful ideologies did not originate in India itself. Colorism there came to be “when the British Empire, ruling India at that time, kept light-skinned Indians as allies and gave them extra advantages over the rest of the ‘blacks’” (Mishra, 731). The continuation of such ideals even carries certain hypocrisy within itself as in Hindu mythology:
Lord Ram and Lord Krishna, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, were dark in complexion. Old temples have idols showing them dark, though most of the new temples have idols showing even Ram and Krishna with fair complexion. This obsession with fair skin by the common man that outreaches and perceives even gods as fair-skinned is alarming. (Mishra, 740)
Furthermore, the normalization of colorism within Indian society increases the encouragement, advertisement, and regular usage of harmful skin-bleaching products. Skin-bleaching cream Fair & Lovely underwent a name change earlier to Glow & Lovely. This action indicates a basic awareness of colorist ideals that they promote. A simple name change is meaningless when looking closely at the adverse effects the product has on impressionable adolescents.
A study on the effects of colorism
Neha Mishra’s study focusing on the effects of colorism on young Indian adults’ self-image reveals the truth. It involved a survey asking numerous questions regarding the participants’ own ideas about beauty. The survey also asks about participants’ own usage of skin-bleaching products. The results of Mishra’s study truly unmask the toxic influence that colorism has had on Indian beauty standards. It reveals “71% of the total sample size included the words ‘fair’ or ‘light’” (Mishra, 742) when describing beauty. This mindset has led many people to continue to use skin-bleaching products despite knowing their health hazards. Mishra’s study fortified this truth by showing that:
36% of the total sample population uses bleaching products. 55.36% of the total number of women bleach and 9.25% of the total number of men use bleaching to lighten their skin. Again, what was surprisingly sad was that out of the males and females who use bleaching products themselves, 60% of males and 83.87% of females were aware of the pathological harms of the products they have been using. (Mishra, 743)
Violence against women
Indian women also face other glaring threats to their well-being, most notably both domestic violence and rape. India’s largely patriarchal mindset normalizes these horrific crimes. By Indian standards, a suitable woman is one who is submissive to her husband and those around her. These standards have led to Indian women being dependent on Indian men. This dependency, unfortunately, contributes to the despicable belief that they are less capable than their male counterparts.
This belief has been around for enough time to widen the power struggle between Indian men and women. Many times, men act violently against women. It stems from a toxic desire for power over them. Psychiatrist Indira Sharma highlights this power struggle in her article, “Violence against women: Where are the solutions?” by citing reports from India’s International Center for Research on Women. Sharma particularly brings to light reports that:
85% of men admit they had indulged in violent behavior against their wives at least once in the last 12 months. 57% of men admitted to have sexual abuse with their wives. 32% of men admitted to committing violence on their pregnant wives. (Sharma, 133)
How do abusers justify their crimes?
Sharma blatantly states that “the men indulged in violence to establish their power over the weaker sex” (Sharma 133). The behaviors of hindsight bias and victim-blaming protect these abusers. They insist that the women subject to these crimes should have been “obedient” or were “asking for it.” In other words, the abuse gets justified as punishment for women who don’t submit to the requirements of toxic patriarchy.
Unfortunately, abusers also use the Hindu religion as a means to justify violence against women in India. This is hypocritical as true Hindu texts state that “…man and woman represent the two halves of the divine body. There is no question of superiority or inferiority between them” (Sharma 132).
How can the integration of feminist values help?
Feminist values should be integrated into Indian society to fortify the general idea that women are not the weaker sex. Those in positions of power should be willing to discuss the long-standing disparity between Indian men and women. This acknowledgment would be vital to the progression of the feminist movement in India. Feminist values can reverse the normalizations of atrocities such as colorism, domestic violence, and rape. To do so, instructors should teach these values in schools. Well-known, prominent people within Indian society should express these values. These values can prevent the progression of intergenerational trauma between women.
Abusers are being protected
One might ask why nothing has been done to protect these women after years of abuse, mistreatment, and misrepresentation. The overall lack of action to protect Indian women, again, has ties to a patriarchal society. This is because Indian society creates a stigma against any active resistance towards violence against women. This influences the Indian government to remain silent when Indian women cry out for help. It’s true even in high profile cases of violence against women, such as the infamous Nirbhaya case of 2012. The integration of feminism within Indian society could ensure the reform of the Indian government. It could address its failure to acknowledge women’s safety as a serious and valid issue.
Indian society places high stakes on both honor and reputation. Because of its largely patriarchal standpoint, this honor and reputation often get related to the man of each family. Thus, any news that could potentially ruin a man’s public reputation will be hidden. Of course, this creates an unsafe environment for women suffering at the hands of a man. This is because they risk facing shame and further abuse for ruining a man’s reputation.
How to break the stigma?
The stigma against reporting violence against women, therefore, results in the lesser availability of data on the subject. The majority of the data that does exist on the subject becomes “unreliable as many cases go unreported” (Sharma 132). Psychiatrist Indira Sharma gives a clearer insight into better approximations of the increasing frequency of various violent crimes against Indian women. She reports that “there is one dowry death in the country every 78 h, one act of sexual harassment every 59 min, one rape every 34 min, one act of torture every 12 min and almost one in every three married women experienced domestic violence” (Sharma 132).
Undoubtedly, the Indian government’s minimal action to deter the increase in such horrific crimes speaks volumes. It reveals truly how much influence the patriarchy has on both the political and judicial agendas. Additionally, it is concerning that “the Indian judiciary has a serious deficit of women” (Joshi, 13). Electing more women into the Indian judiciary would be a progressive step towards pushing the Indian government to take women seriously.
The Nirbhaya case
Perhaps the most shocking case of violence against women in India is the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. It is more famously known as the Nirbhaya case. Medical student Jyoti Singh (named “Nirbhaya,” meaning “without fear”) was brutally beaten and raped by four men on a bus. This was while she was out with a male friend. Her friend, who tried his best to protect her, was severely beaten as well. Unfortunately, the nature of her injuries was so severe, leading to Singh’s inevitable death. The barbarity of the crime “spurred thousands to pour onto the streets and sparked a national conversation about violence against women” (Joshi 13).
Has there been a difference?
Laws against rape and sexual assault were widened in response. Additionally, “fast-track courts were created for the prosecution of rapes” (Joshi, 13). The Indian government also responded with the creation of the Nirbhaya Fund. The purpose of the fund is to support the government’s initiatives towards protecting women’s health and safety. Since 2012, little seems to have changed due to ineffective implementation of these laws, fast-track courts, and the Nirbhaya fund. The rapists responsible for Singh’s death did face punishment; however, only in January of this year.
The Times of India reports that the “conviction rate in rape cases just over 32% in 2017” (“Nearing closure”). They also report “the Nirbhaya Fund remains unspent with less than 20% used nationally between 2015 and 2018” (“Nearing closure”). Because of this, the Indian government seems to put on a performative face when it comes to protecting women. They create various methods combating the issue to stop women from complaining. However, they refuse to act upon their promises to protect women and implement their creations genuinely and effectively.
Scared into silence
The factors of societal stigma and an apathetic government combine and threaten victims into staying silent. Journalist B.L. Himabindu makes a note of the government’s slow action on reported cases. She indicates that “54.6% of rape cases reported in 2011 are yet to be investigated, while 30.6% are waiting for trial” (Himabindu, B.L., et al.) and that “only 16% of the cases have resulted in convictions” (Himabindu, B.L., et al.). Victims often don’t report the abuse that they have faced due to the little empathy they receive from authorities. Officials often blame the victim by typecasting them”as possibly having contributed to the perpetuation of the crime” (Himabindu, et al.). Furthermore, Himabindu reveals a gap between governmental promises written in law and reality by stating:
The law states that a female police officer should record the victim’s statement, as well as assist her with medical and legal support. However, female police personnel accounts for only 6.5% of the police force, which makes it difficult to implement this. Further, the government health services in the country lack the infrastructure and resources needed to implement care for rape victims as specified by the law in most district and sub-district hospitals. (Himabindu, et al.)
Feminism against folly
Feminist values would highlight the flaws behind the hindsight bias and poor treatment that victims face. These values could enforce the proper education and training of these authorities in empathy. By doing so, these authorities themselves may be more of an incentive for victims to report these crimes. Of course, the task of progress would be impossible to accomplish without any form of change. The integration of feminist values into Indian society must be accomplished through various small yet effective steps.
Teaching feminist values in school could be one such effective first step in ensuring that the misogynistic cycle breaks. Electing more women into the Indian judiciary would provide a platform for women, placing a higher priority on issues affecting them. Reform should not just take place at the educational or governmental levels, but within all spheres that affect Indian society. This includes the Indian entertainment industry (which often glorifies violence against women), the socioeconomic level, and the cultural level.
A closer look at the Indian film industry
The Indian film industry normalizes violence against women, leading Indian society to believe that it is not so serious. The industry force-feeds the audience’s toxic patriarchal values. It only portrays female characters as good people if they have submissive qualities. When Indian movies contain strong female characters who stand up for themselves, those characters are villainized. They suddenly become meek when threatened by the male “hero” of the movie. An example of this is a strong female character hearing that they need to learn their place as “a mere woman.”
Furthermore, the shocking disparity in censorship of certain material within the Indian film industry has misogynistic roots. To elaborate, directors censor kissing scenes for their “vulgarity”, however include uncensored scenes involving the sexual assault of a woman. Journalist B.L. Himabindu expands upon this by explaining how:
Rape and subsequently avenging rape often forms the central narrative of many films. Rape also appears as a sub-plot to reinforce the heroic role of male actors in films. The familiar portrayal of rape and sexual assault of women in cinema, however tacit, is disturbing in its lack of censorship (versus censorship of acts like kissing, for example) and its conflicting pervasiveness in a mainstream form of entertainment. (Himabindu, et al.)
The active inclusivity of such violent scenes and their justifications within the films only add fuel to the fire. The Indian film industry’s representation of Indian women as weaker creatures or as mere objects must be halted.
Progression within the Indian film industry
Fortunately, a couple of steps towards this goal are presently being made. In fact, India’s #MeToo Movement “was sparked by social media, and the early effects took aim at the Indian film industry, media, and politics” (Joshi 12). Additionally, the film industry has introduced younger directors whose values do not align with that of the unwaveringly patriarchal mindset. Such a director is Anubhav Sinha, who in February of this year, released a movie entitled “Thappad,” or “The Slap.”
The movie depicts a housewife who wants to divorce her husband after slapping her for the first time. Because Indian society has a very family-oriented view, divorce is a highly frowned upon and taboo subject. The housewife faces backlash from her husband and his family, from her own family, and the lawyer that she hires. They attempt to dissuade her from divorce by asking her why she is escalating the situation over just one slap. She tenaciously manages to convince them that divorce would be the right path to take since one slap is enough.
Sinha’s film challenges the patriarchal mindset that threatens women to stay in abusive relationships and the patriarchal taboo over divorce. As long as more such efforts are made, the Indian film industry can be free of misogyny. India can work on reversing the normalization of atrocities towards women through the denormalization of them in popular media.
An economic perspective
Men have dominated over economics and production in India. Thus, they have organized both the household and the society outside of it to be more patriarchally-oriented. In other words, because of their status as breadwinners, they were given more power. This caused women to lack the same amount of control and placed them in subordinate roles. As Basanta Nirola writes, this “fall in status has led to a socio-economic and religious-cultural deprivation of women” (Nirola). The viewing of Indian women as incapable leaves them dependent on the male figures within their lives, especially their husbands. Integrating feminist values within Indian society is pertinent in ensuring that these women feel empowered and become less dependent.
Journalist Pami Vyas expands on how Indian women’s dependency can factor into their abuse. Empowering women to bravely take on the tasks that Indian society assigns to men would reduce doubts over women’s capability. Vyas stresses the point that “economically empowering women may encourage women to demand control over their economic resources and to take active steps to prevent further domestic violence” (Vyas 203).
Path to empowerment
In that same light, the economic empowerment of women would encourage Indian society to take on a more feminist mindset. This would reveal depriving women of their economic rights for what it truly is: economic abuse. The normalization of economic abuse has left women dependent on their male counterparts. This dependency has led “to the difficulty in persuading Indian women to report incidents of violence” (Vyas, 203). Feminist values, therefore, would provide Indian women a higher socio-economic platform to become less dependent on men in general.
Looking for effective solutions
The issue of violence against women is at the bottom of the list in terms of issues to fix. The Indian government has failed “to protect the rights and well-being of survivors or punish perpetrators” (UN Women). Therefore, it has reflected a socio-cultural bias of tolerance for such violence. UN Women has pinpointed that “domestic violence and such harmful traditional practices have often been seen as private matters that are ‘outside justice’” (UN Women). To no longer display this tolerance, Indian officials should make it a clear goal in their agenda to punish abusers. UN Women states that effective implementation of laws becomes crucial to ensure that violence against women decreases. As the UN Women further elaborates:
Measures to strengthen effective implementation should include training of officials who handle cases of violence against women, the establishment of mechanisms for monitoring and impact evaluation, as well as accountability and better coordination. Committing adequate human and financial resources is also essential. (UN Women)
Change starts with awareness
With feminist values, Indian society would become more aware of the seriousness of the issue. Thus, they would push the Indian government to implement these laws more effectively. Still, some may argue that the Indian government has been doing enough to combat this issue. There is truth in that some basic efforts are being made towards fighting for women’s human rights. The UN Women recognizes these moments and provides the examples of:
“The Criminal Law Act 2011 for the first time levies prison sentences and fines for acid attacks, which were not recognized as a crime until recently. The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act penalizes cultural traditions once viewed as acceptable, including forced marriages” (UN Women).
We cannot standby idly
However, saying that nothing else needs to be done is simply neglectful towards Indian women. What has been done by the Indian government only serves as the first step to combating the issue. Other than taking these steps, the Indian government has not acted upon or used any of the resources they created. Indian women still face struggles with feeling safe both inside and outside of their homes. More must be done to encourage “Indian society towards a discussion about the underrepresentation of women in positions of power, and strengthen the voices of women in courts, legislatures, and other workplaces” (Joshi, 15). The battle for Indian women’s safety and equality must still be fought tirelessly.
In conclusion, feminist values would serve as crucial to the progression of Indian society as they would highlight the various problems that plague Indian women, push the Indian government to break their lack of action regarding the issue of women’s safety, and serve as a basis for proposing effective solutions to the issue as a whole. Ending the toxic ideologies that the patriarchy implements and normalizes within Indian society is a huge mission. However, this mission is one that must be accomplished. For as long as the patriarchy holds the reigns of control, Indian women will forever suffer at the hands of a system that actively works to put them down. Ensuring that Indian women’s basic human rights are not being infringed upon is mandatory for a fully functional society.
Himabindu, B.L., et al. “Whose problem is it anyway? Crimes against women in India.” Global Health Action, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3402/gha.v7.23718
Joshi, Shareen. “#MeToo In India: What’s Next.” Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, vol. 5, 2019, pp. 11-15, https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/1055361/Joshi,%20Shareen%20GJAA%205%20Article.pdf?sequence=1
Mishra, Neha. “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances.” Washington University Global Studies Law Review, vol. 14, no. 4, 2015, pp. 725-750, https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1553&context=law_globalstudies
“Nearing closure: But delays in Nirbhaya case highlight the continuing gaps in judicial processes.” The Times of India, 9 January 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-editorials/nearing-closure-but-delays-in- nirbhaya-case-highlight-the-continuing-gaps-in-judicial-processes/. Accessed 10 October 2018.
Nirola, Basanta. “Patriarchy And The Status of Women In The Society.” Youth Ki Awaaz, 27 December 2017, https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/12/role-of-patriarchy-and-status-of-women-in-indian-society/. Accessed 10 October 2020.
Sharma, Indira. “Violence against women: Where are the solutions?.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 57, no. 2, 2015, pp. 131-139, doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.158133
UN Women. UN Women, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women-passing-strong-laws-and-policies. Accessed 10 October 2020.
Vyas, Pami. “Reconceptualizing Domestic Violence in India: Economic Abuse and the Need for Broad Statutory Interpretation to Promote Women’s Fundamental Rights.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, vol. 13, no. 1, 2006, pp. 177-206, https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1086&context=mjgl