India’s Missing Women
In 1905, the wife of a magistrate in rural India published a short story in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine called “Sultana’s Dream.” In this science-fiction fantasy, which describes a utopia named Ladyland, the sun’s energy has been harnessed for cooking. Scientists have discovered how to control moisture in the atmosphere, eliminating rain but capturing plenty of water for farming and bathing. All travel is done by air. Crime has been eliminated. The architects of this world—its safety as well as its solar power—are all women.
What was most radical about the future imagined by the Bengali feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was that the women who inhabited it had been liberated from purdah, the practice that for centuries had kept them in enforced seclusion, behind the veil or at home, hidden from the gazes of strange men. Assuming public roles in politics, the academy and the sciences, the women of Ladyland walk the streets freely and keep their men confined indoors, where they do the cooking and tend to the children. The narrator is Sultana, who visits Ladyland in a dream. Astonished to find the streets empty of men, as well as to learn that they are “in their proper places, where they ought to be,” she struggles to understand how this reversal was accomplished, and why. Wasn’t the zenana, the separate sphere set aside for many women in India, for their own good? Her guide to Ladyland gently remonstrates:
“But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.”
“Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.”
“Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.”
“Of course not….”
“As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?”
The story, written by a woman whose husband encouraged her in public roles as a writer, social worker and school founder, turned on its absurdist head the connection between women’s seclusion and their safety.
The belief that women are safest when secluded still holds sway in India. On the sleek Delhi metro, there are cars exclusively—though not compulsory—for women, and at their entrance guards outfitted in navy-blue saris stand sentinel to deter male passengers from entering them, whether by mistake or to make mischief. The threat of sexual harassment, from incidents of aggressive ogling or groping (known euphemistically as “Eve teasing”) to rape, discourages women from venturing out alone, especially at night. And if, having gone out, they are harassed or assaulted, they are often told it was their fault. In 2008, a mob molested two Indian-American women as they left a Mumbai hotel after midnight for a New Year’s stroll with their husbands. The chairman of a state human rights commission said of the incident, “Yes, men are bad…. But who asked [the women] to venture out in the night…. Women should not have gone out in the night and when they do, there is no point in complaining that men touched them and hit them.”
The history of publicly engaged women in India—especially those from elite backgrounds, such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and her publisher Sarojini Naidu, the independence leader and future president of the Indian National Congress—is long and vibrant. What’s relatively new are the employment, educational and leisure opportunities that globalization has created for middle-class and lower-middle-class Indian women, who by working in offices, commuting on trains or buses, or shopping in cafes and malls have staked a certain claim. The ranks of women with roles outside the home—once filled mostly by those at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder or by those, like Hossain, at the top—are expanding, fulfilling the prophesy of Ladyland at least slightly. Yet Hossain’s dream of freedom from crime remains unrealized in India.
There, as across much of the world, violence against women appears to be escalating. The number of reported rapes in India has surged by 792 percent in the past four decades, making it the nation’s fastest-growing crime. To an extent, the statistics reflect greater reporting, but they also point to a substantive issue. In late 2012, the unspeakably brutal and fatal rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a charter bus in Delhi focused the world’s attention on what the headlines decried as “India’s rape problem.” The economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recently pointed out that India has far fewer reported rapes per 100,000 people than several Western countries, including the United States. But there can be no denying that Indian society is profoundly patriarchal, with deeply etched attitudes about the inferior value of girls and women and their appropriate place in society.
The way women navigated the boundary between the home and the world was a question with great resonance and imaginative significance for India’s anti-colonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. (The title that Rabindranath Tagore gave his 1916 novel about a progressive landowner who nudges his reluctant wife out of purdah, only to be cuckolded, was The Home and the World—Ghare Baire in Bengali.) As India wrestles with what is frequently cast by parties across the political spectrum as a new foreign onslaught, through the influence of global capital and Western culture, the free movement of women between the private and public spheres continues to be central to the nation’s reckoning with itself. Does the growing visibility of women in public explain the increased sexual violence against them? Or, to the contrary, does their relative ongoing invisibility continue to make them vulnerable? Two and a half decades ago, just as India was opening itself up to free-market capitalism, Sen coined the phrase “missing women” to describe the acute gender imbalance rooted in bias against females that existed across much of Asia. But the term can be applied as much to the women missing from India’s streets as to those missing from its population.
* * *