India’s Missing Women
The British-born novelist Rana Dasgupta moved to Delhi in 2000, about a decade after India embraced capitalism. The nation’s founders—who viewed the free market as the “economic system with which,” in Dasgupta’s words, “Britain had pauperized India”—had constructed a closed, centrally planned economy instead. By liberalizing it in 1991, India was doing nothing less than demolishing the protective walls between the home and the world. Dasgupta recalls that when he arrived in the city, it was a time of “utopian clamor.” His cosmopolitan community of artists and intellectuals imagined a new Delhi of social and economic mobility, freed from its clannish ethos and its devotion to bureaucracy and hierarchy. What they envisioned was not necessarily Western-style wealth, but rather an indigenous prosperity rooted in Indian sensibilities, including a deep suspicion of the corporate ownership of common goods. In Dasgupta’s first book-length work of nonfiction, Capital, he explores how those hopes were dashed.
“The future had arrived,” he writes, “and it was not very impressive.” That future consisted of “a spiritless degraded copy” of the West: gated apartment complexes, office blocks, posh malls for the nouveau riche. He tracks the surge in urban crime, especially sexual violence, as part of the betrayal of possibility. Women from elsewhere in India go to Delhi guardedly, taking special precautions for their safety. The crimes have been gruesome, quasi-ritualistic in some cases. Dasgupta reports victims “left in the street in such mutilated and abject states that one was put in mind less of sex than of retribution, extermination and war…. What was going on in Delhi was precisely that: a low-level, but widespread, war against women, whose new mobility made them not only the icons of India’s social and economic changes but also the scapegoats.” The media have branded Delhi, the Indian metropolis most transformed by neoliberal capitalism, the country’s rape capital.
Dasgupta argues that young women are “the most unequivocal adherents of the new India.” They are “model corporate employees, for they had no stake in old, entrenched systems.” Economic liberalization offered them disposable income and new independence. Many have moved out from joint families, embraced hanging out at coffee shops or nightclubs, mingled more with the opposite sex and cast off traditional clothing for jeans. Dasgupta interprets the violence against women in Delhi not as a persistent problem unrelated to rapid economic growth, but as a heightened problem partly caused by it. The issue isn’t simply how many women there are in Delhi (or India as a whole), but their increasing visibility in public and how they dress and act while there. The violence is a backlash, Dasgupta writes, “a redoubling of men’s efforts to remind women that their place was in the home.”
During the fight to oust the British, the figure of the secluded Hindu wife became a key weapon in the nationalist arsenal. Outside the home, Indian men were ruled by Britain—its language, laws and dress. The duty of Indian women in the anti-imperial struggle thus became, as Dasgupta explains, “to remain in the home and maintain it as a bastion of spiritual purity: a defence against the colonisation of the soul.” It is in the context of this “very extensive emotional and historical network,” and in the “wrench of a globalising society,” that the violent reaction by men can best be understood.
The anxiety about women’s growing visibility in public has repercussions off the streets, too. In fact, Indian women experience more violence—both sexual and physical—in the home than outside it. One story related in Capital captures how tense the boundary between home and world can be. Whenever Sukhvinder, a married business executive whose husband was threatened by her success, started answering work calls at home, her mother-in-law got angry. She accused Sukhvinder of trying to prove that she worked harder than her husband. At the threshold of their home, her mother-in-law performed Hindu religious rituals that perplexed Sukhvinder. “There would constantly be weird things in the doorway when I arrived to stop the evil coming in,” she says. “My mother-in-law was terrified about bad stuff coming in from outside.” One evening, Sukhvinder rushed into the house after work without changing her shoes, something her mother-in-law insisted on “to make sure there was no contact between the inside and the outside.” This sparked an argument that ended in her husband hitting her for the first time. Sukhvinder finally left him after enduring years of domestic abuse.
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It may be true that more women are asserting public identities in India, but even in the most liberal cities, they are still largely absent from public spaces. In terms of safety, this is a Catch-22, argue the authors of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The greater the incidence of rapes and assaults, the more women’s movement outside the home is restricted in the name of security. But when fewer women are seen in the parks, on public transportation and on the streets, the ones who do venture out become bigger targets, their bodies and reputations vulnerable. Women in public, the authors indicate, are often mistaken for “public women,” which is why they do not meet the gazes of strangers or loiter, as soliciting prostitutes might.
The authors—the sociologist Shilpa Phadke, the architect Shilpa Ranade and the journalist Sameera Khan—conducted a three-year study on gender and space at an urban research collective in Mumbai, perhaps India’s most liberal city for women. Yet they concluded that Mumbai women enjoy only conditional, limited access to public space. Like Sukhvinder, they have to think consciously about how to move between the home and the world. They must negotiate and strategize. When outside, they emphasize two things: their purpose and their respectability. To signal that they’re heading straight to work, school or home, they favor clutched bags and deliberate strides, or stand at bus stops even when they’re not waiting for a bus. (Those clutched bags, incidentally, often contain pepper spray, safety pins or brass knuckles.) Married women call attention to the mangalsutras around their necks or the sindoor in the parting of their hair, both of which cue their status as wives. Other women’s conservative dress or body language—books or files clutched to the chest, for instance—convey that they are serious, barricaded, ready to defend themselves.
Women must carefully tread the boundaries of time as well as space. As the authors put it, “to be out late after dark, particularly without male companions, is an act pregnant with fear, excitement and bravado, not short of outright rebellion, for women.”
The new global economy enticed many middle-class, English-speaking women into such rebellion, including the woman in Delhi who was gang-raped in 2012. In order to pay for her physiotherapy training, she worked from 7 pm to 4 am at a call center, advising Canadians about mortgage issues. In many ways, she embodied the promise and mobility of the new India. She was the daughter of an airport baggage handler from an agricultural caste who had moved his family from rural Uttar Pradesh to a working-class neighborhood on Delhi’s fringes, and yet she was poised for a well-paying career in medicine and, perhaps, marriage to an upper-caste lawyer’s son. The couple, though not technically dating, had gone to see Life of Pi at a mall the night she was raped. She was challenging the traditional limits of class, caste and gender in many ways; working in the business-process outsourcing (BPO) industry was just one.
Until 2005, under an old federal factories act, it was illegal for women to be employed between 7 pm and 6 am. The law has been amended to meet the needs of the IT-BPO industry, the country’s largest private-sector employer with more than 1.6 million workers, a growing number of them women. But various other state and local laws have been used to erect obstacles to women working at night, and employers sometimes have to negotiate particular permits. The night does pose real physical danger for commuting women; in a few cases, women were raped and murdered on their way home by company drivers. Safety is such a concern that some call centers now have armed guards accompany female employees who are being driven home. But the culture also sees the night as morally dangerous for women. In language and in the imagination, “call center girls” are confused with “call girls”; they’ve been labeled as Westernized and loose, and the job can affect their marriage prospects. As the authors of Why Loiter? express it, “the night was out-of-bounds to women,” and still substantially is.
As part of their project, the authors asked students to read “Sultana’s Dream” and imagine their own utopia for women. Disheartened that the younger, globalized generation—Hossain’s rightful heirs in boldness—could not envision another city, they did so themselves. Why Loiter? is that vision, an elegant and insightful manifesto calling on Indian women to do what men do: hang out chatting at tea stalls, gaze at the sea, lounge on park benches, occupy public space simply for fun—loitering as a feminist act. The book argues that in order to be equal citizens, Indian women must claim an equal right to risk, as men do. Men, unlike women, are attacked more often in public than at home, yet the male presence in public is never questioned. “We need,” the authors proclaim, “to see not sexual assault, but the denial of access to public space as the worst possible outcome for women.” The world they describe, where neither men nor women are missing, should no longer be considered a radical utopian dream.