India’s Missing Women

India’s Missing Women

Why does the belief that women are safest when secluded still hold sway in India?


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 WorldGhare 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.

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In January 2012, a bruised and unconscious baby girl was admitted to the trauma unit at a public hospital in Delhi. She had bite marks scarring her cheeks and leg, and gashes covered her head. Baby Falak, as she came to be known over the next two months, had been left in the care of a 14-year-old girl. The identity of the infant’s parents and the cause of her injuries were unknown. Confronted with this mystery, the national media and the millions following her progress in the ICU guessed at an all-too-common scenario: perhaps her parents had tried to kill her because she wasn’t a boy.

The story, recounted in the e-book Crimes Against Women: Three Tragedies and the Call for Reform in India, broke on January 26, India’s Republic Day. According to the authors, all of them Wall Street Journal reporters, it was fitting that the country’s conscience would become riveted to “the plight of a battered, abandoned baby girl on a day that celebrates India’s achievements.” The unclaimed girl, not yet 2, became a symbol: “India’s Baby.” And if she belonged to the whole nation, then the nation as a whole was responsible for what had befallen her. The book, a compilation of articles that originally ran in the Journal, narrates two other heartbreaking stories, unfolding over the course of little more than a year: the gang rape of the physiotherapist in Delhi, and the ax murder of a Catholic nun who had intervened when police refused to register a rape complaint in a remote tribal area.

Baby Falak’s story was much more complicated than first imagined. It twisted and turned through a labyrinth of crimes against women: intimate partner violence, human trafficking, prostitution, the sale of brides, child marriage, rape, and abortion or infanticide based on a preference for boys. The various kinds of misogyny and chauvinism present in her tale form an interlinked network, each manifestation feeding the next, each contributing to an entire system of neglect and disempowerment that in 2012 earned India the ranking of the worst G-20 country for women. Some of these forms of violence are not as sensational or as viscerally harrowing as the Delhi gang rape (the victim was violated with an iron rod, her insides mutilated), but they are no less disturbing.

Baby Falak’s father had fled to the capital from rural Bihar, one of India’s most tradition-bound and impoverished states, after being accused of rape. The baby’s mother, Munni Khatoon, was a child bride and a domestic violence survivor. Munni was 13 when she married. Her husband had asked for a dowry of $180, but her father—who had arranged for her to marry someone else—refused. The lack of dowry may have explained the physical abuse against her. Weekly, her husband banged her head against a brick wall. Once, he attacked her with a knife. When her husband fled, Munni was left with three small children to support. A stranger she met at a train station promised to marry her and take her to Delhi, and she thought to herself: “My life is already a hell but at least by marrying this guy…I can give my children a good future in the city.”

She accepted the offer, leaving one daughter in Bihar and taking her 5-year-old son and Falak with her to Delhi. But it turned out to be a scam, and she ended up ensnared by a woman who ran a prostitution racket. Munni was able to refuse sex work, but there was a price: the madam arranged for her to wed a prosperous farmer, a conservative Hindu from the nearby state of Rajasthan. On the strength of a picture, and the assurance that Munni was a Hindu virgin named Anita, he paid about $5,000 to marry the Muslim mother of three.

Munni had become a pawn in another racket. The farmer had not been able to find a bride largely because Rajasthan has one of the most imbalanced sex ratios in India, the result of generations of parents preferring sons to daughters. Boys are seen as earners who will “inhabit and inherit the family home,” in the words of the Journal reporters, while girls are perceived as financial burdens who, when they marry, will leave with a dowry provided by parents and later care for elderly in-laws. In extreme cases, this favoritism leads to female infanticide, but more often it is the subtle neglect of girls that has led to their higher mortality rate relative to boys. In families with limited resources, boys might be fed first; they might get immunized and taken to the doctor, whereas girls might not. Technology that allows parents to learn the sex of a fetus exacerbated the problem, leading to a boom in the abortion of female fetuses in the 1980s. By 1994, India found it necessary to ban all forms of sex determination. Signs at public hospitals warn that it is illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus, but the ban is often subverted and sex-selective abortions continue. All told, there are approximately 37 million fewer women than men in India. The shortage varies from region to region, but it’s a problem for much of the nation.

Through a complex demographic chain involving unwanted girl children and a keen shortage of brides, “India’s Baby” ended up in the hands of a man who ferried prostitutes around Delhi in his taxi. One 14-year-old girl he transported, who was also the victim of abuse and neglect, beat Falak so severely that the baby ultimately died.

That India’s bachelor glut might partly explain the country’s rise in sexual violence is the argument made by journalist Sunny Hundal in India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women, a Kindle single published last year by The Guardian. Hundal points to research by sociologists indicating that unattached young men, whatever their nationality, tend to congregate in groups and engage in riskier behavior than they would alone. He also cites work by economists and political scientists linking a shortage of women in certain countries, including India, to higher rates of violent crime. According to this theory, unmarried men—the segment of a population most susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse—are the most dangerous in any society. And scarce women, instead of being highly prized and protected, become more endangered: they’re exposed to a greater range of harm, from being groped on the streets or trafficked as prostitutes to being sold as a bride to several brothers at once, a practice that Hundal documents in the northwestern state of Punjab. It has one of the most imbalanced gender ratios in India, and its rate of violent crime is much higher than that of Kerala, a southern state with a normal gender ratio. Within India, there are crucial regional differences in both gender ratios and reports of rape: Sen points out that the northwest—including Rajasthan, Punjab and Delhi—has the highest incidence of “missing women” in India. Separately, he also notes that Delhi, with a rape rate more than nine times worse than Kolkata’s, “has a very special problem that may not apply…to the other megacities in India.”

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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.

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