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India, from the outside in

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/6/2014 (1162 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

India was outraged again this month, with a new case of rape in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where two young girls were sexually assaulted, then hanged from a tree.

Shortly after, the home minister of a neighbouring state said rape was "sometimes right, sometimes wrong." Another politician noted rape was never deliberate, "it is committed by deceit."

In this May 31, 2014 file photograph, members of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) shout slogans during a protest against the gang rape of two teenage girls, in New Delhi, India.


In this May 31, 2014 file photograph, members of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) shout slogans during a protest against the gang rape of two teenage girls, in New Delhi, India.

After the highly publicized 2012 Delhi rape case, mass protests forced the government to tackle the widespread problem of sexual violence against women. New laws were brought in with tough penalties for rapists and fast-track courts for sexual assault cases.

Yet comments like these from politicians in India remain common, and the rapes go on. They remain mostly unpunished, despite the laws -- at first, the police refused to even register a complaint for the two girls hanged from a tree.

What's up with India? Why do police and lawmakers still hold such cavalier attitudes towards rape? Part of the answer may lie in deep-seated views on morality and the role of women many Indians still hold.

A good example is how Indians perceive their countrymen who have moved abroad, or Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). In one of the country's many contradictions, Indians yearn to move abroad and admire those who have managed to set up new lives in the West -- yet they expect those NRIs to hold on to "Indian values," usually much more restrictive for women than men. Scan the matrimonial ads in any Indian newspaper, and you will find a familiar pattern under the 'NRI' section. No matter how long the prospective NRI bride has lived abroad or how many foreign degrees she has amassed, the ads always make it clear she has "Indian values." Some ads make it even clearer: She is "homely," they say.

Bollywood, that final arbiter of Indianness, also loves to depict the hard-partying, decadent lifestyles of NRIs, yet makes a point of showing how empty their lives are without the traditions and religiosity of the motherland.

The movie Cocktail (2012) had a familiar storyline: NRI boy in London had to choose between an NRI girl who drinks and goes to nightclubs and another NRI girl who dresses modestly and prays every day. While he sleeps with the former, he chooses the latter for marriage.

An exposé last year by Tehelka magazine, a muckraking weekly based in New Delhi, saw reporters go undercover and secretly record police officials throughout the city talk about their views on rape. They caught 17 senior police officers in the Delhi area blame rape on everything from staying out late to drinking to working with men.

These biases go deep in Indian society, and while they may not explain the high incidence of the rapes themselves, they do contribute to why lawmakers and lawmen still tend to blame victims instead of prosecuting these crimes in earnest. Victims are asked not only about whether they were drunk or what they were wearing but also why they were working late or with a man at all.

While stronger laws are helpful, India will never be able to tackle its epidemic of sexual violence if its lawmen don't enforce those laws. That means Indians collectively will have to change their views on how women are 'supposed' to behave.

The mass demonstrations are reassuring to NRIs like me, who see them as a sign things are changing. Seeing women's rights activists take to the streets makes us believe many Indians are changing their perceptions.

Those attitudes were the reason why many NRIs left India. An ad in the matrimonial section asking for a 'homely' bride does not sanction sexual violence, but it does represent what the public, the politicians and the police believe is the 'right' place for women.

Until those perceptions are changed, India will remain a dangerous place for women.


Inayat Singh is a Carleton University journalism student interning at the Free Press. His parents moved to Dubai from India when he was five.


William Pesek examines "Chindia," resurrecting the idea China and India might join their economies.


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Updated on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 9:01 AM CDT: Adds photo, adds link

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