Mainstream views on gender equality don't match reality

The tumult over one horrible rape case reminds us that India faces several grave and windespread problems in the role of women in society.

One result of the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in Delhi has been the popular outrage on the streets across India. Thousands of Indians, from all walks of life, are demanding change; this has engendered hope that India's long tolerance for patriarchy and abuse of its female population may someday end.

But Indian women are a long way from burning their dupattas and enjoying parity with men in the country. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that India has made little real progress on gender equality since the last societal upheaval following economic liberalisation in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most disheartening evidence has been the bizarre game of misogynist one-upmanship occurring within India's political elite.

Mohan Bhagwat, head of the right-wing Hindu volunteer organization Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), implied that loose western mores creeping into urban India were causing women to dress promiscuously in jeans and driving men towards unchaste emotions.

That is, of course, ridiculous, but he did not stop there. A day later Mr Bhagwat said marriage in India was a contract where the woman is duty-bound to keep the house, while the man provides for her.

The RSS is a conservative paramilitary organisation that operates as a feeder system for the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the BJP has had its share of missteps after the rape protests. Kailash Vijayvargiya, a member of parliament, said that women should not cross the "lakshman rekha" or they open themselves to abduction. He was referring to an ancient Sanskrit text that describes a protective boundary set by the Hindu god Lakshmana for Sita, the wife of Rama.

When Sita crossed this so-called boundary anyway she was abducted by demons.

But right-wing India does not have a monopoly on patriarchal beliefs regarding women.

Abhijit Mukherjee, a member of parliament and the son of president, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, is a member of the nominally liberal Congress party. Yet in reference to the massive demonstrations in the centre of the city, the younger Mr Mukherjee said that they did not represent mainstream India. He said that the protests were like what happened in Egypt, where, according to him, a small minority of idealistic students sparked a revolution that a majority of the country did not want. He also said protesting is "fashionable".

Mr Mukherjee has since apologised, but Abu Asim Azmi, a member of the purportedly secular Samajwadi party, has not. He blamed "fashion" and "nudity in films" for rape. He went on to say that women must be escorted by male relatives to ensure they do not get raped.

Then there was the so-called "god man" Asaram Bapu who said that "the victim is as guilty as her rapists," that "she should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop. This could have saved her dignity and life."

The problem, India's political and religious elite seem to be saying, is the loosening morals of its women and the country abandoning its traditional values.

If you were to simply watch Indian television news, the castigation of these men would seem to show that they are the fringe. The numbers, however, seem to show the opposite. As ludicrous and outrageous as their statements are, they represent a mainstream view across India.

Employment figures for women in India, particularly in urban areas, are appallingly low. According to India's last census in 2001, women make up just under 12 per cent of the workforce in urban areas. What is more troubling is that the figures have remained flat since the 1980s, with a mere two per cent rise in the employment rates for urban women.

That this has occurred despite sharp rises in literacy and participation in higher education, indicating women are becoming more educated, but no more liberated.

Overall, more women are going to work in India, but the majority of the growth is in rural areas. Rural employment figures show that the number of women participating in the workforce has risen from 23 per cent to 30 per cent. That seems to indicate that women in India work only if they have to, such as on farms.

Only around 20 per cent of Indian female college graduates find work. The numbers do not say why, but anecdotally they face pressure from their husbands and in-laws to stay at home. Middle class India sees a woman working as a sign that the man cannot provide for his family.

What, then, of the gang-rape victim and the many thousands of women across India like her, who go to school and work nights in hopes of a better life? A quick survey of outsourcing firms in Delhi, following the news of the rape, showed that one in three women in call centres had either stopped working nights or quit her job. Women have been reporting that their families do not want them to go to Delhi to study or work, out of fear that they too could end up the victims of sexual violence.

The real concern now is not whether India will wake up to the patriarchal mindset that is feeding a culture of misogyny, or that the Indian government and police force will fail to institute real reforms to combat rape and sexual harassment. The real concern is that India has made little to no progress on female emancipation and that it will be a long time yet before women can go to school, seek careers and strive for parity with men without fearing a societal backlash.

Sean McLain is a freelance journalist in India and a former features writer for The National.

On Twitter: @McLainSean