NEW DELHI, India – Every morning, Gitanjali Chaudhry, 17, walks to her high school through a labyrinth of temples and vegetable markets. Along with her books, she carries an Indian version of Mace — a bag of chili powder and a pouch of safety pins — to fend off the often boorish men who loiter in the narrow passageways.
“We learned that women have to be brave,” said Chaudhry, a loquacious, ponytailed girl who wants to be a lawyer. She has started attending increasingly popular neighborhood classes on self-defense for women.
Chaudhry is one of the brightest students in her working-class district. But since several men started following her to class, she sometimes stays home now. She has friends who have been raped or are constant victims of “Eve teasing,” when men on the street spew lewd comments or aggressively paw women’s bodies.
“We thought opportunities were getting better for young Indian women. But the harassment only seems to be getting worse,” Chaudhry said, as friends gathered at a recent “self-respect and self-esteem session” held by the nonprofit Smile Foundation.
For India’s middle-class urban women, the past decade has brought unprecedented opportunities to advance in a social order long dominated by men. But a powerful male backlash has accompanied the women’s revolution, an upwelling of resentment that has expressed itself in sexual violence and harassment.
In India today, women are working in lucrative retail and technology jobs, sometimes in cities far from their home towns. Economic independence has, in some cases, allowed them to delay marriage and early childbirth. Social mobility among India’s young is also undermining the country’s traditional joint-family system, in which couples are expected to move in with the husband’s parents. The shift has empowered the modern Indian wife, freeing her from the scourge of the bossy, nosy mother-in-law.
At the same time, however, the number of reported instances of domestic violence, rape and dowry killings is spiking in South Asian cities, according to women’s groups, demographers and sociologists.
Violence against women is the fastest-growing crime in India, a recent study concluded. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested, every 34 minutes a rape takes place, and every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped, according to the Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau.
With about 19,000 reported rapes a year, India ranks fifth highest in that category out of 84 countries studied, according to a 2006 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But women’s groups say fewer than 2 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted in India report the crime to police, largely because the social stigma attached to rape may undermine a woman’s chance for marriage.
The United States, where the reporting of sexual attacks is more common, ranks highest in the world, with 95,000 reported rapes each year.
In the past few months, newspapers here have dubbed New Delhi the “rape capital” of South Asia, with more than 330 rape and molestation cases reported in the first four months of 2008, including one high-profile case in which a 12-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by a Delhi police constable and an accomplice. Experts predict that the number of sexual attacks in 2008 may exceed the total in 2007, when 544 rapes were reported in the city. “The latest statistics are terrifying. And it clearly points to male rage,” said Shobhaa De, a novelist and popular social commentator. “Underneath our incredible social change, the Indian male is experiencing nothing short of a psychological frenzy.”
Part of the problem is also that men’s expectations of women have not kept pace with the changes women are experiencing at home and at work. Many matrimonial ads in India’s Sunday newspapers — often written by parents — include descriptions of potential brides as “economically independent, but homely.” That’s code for a working woman who can happily organize a proper 10-course Indian dinner even after a long day at the office. It’s a fantasy that many urbanized Indian women are rejecting, much to the dismay of many men.
Despite recent growth, unemployment remains high in India, topping 7 percent. Sixty percent of those who do work are self-employed farmers and often very poor, according to World Bank data. Men can be resentful when they see women finding well-paid office jobs, women’s groups say.
The change in power has been too fast for some Indian men, whose intense curiosity about women can often be traced back to a segregated youth. “I was never really taught how to act around a girl,” said Raja Kumar, 21, who works odd jobs on Chaudhry’s block.
Standing nearby was Ram Swarup, 70, the neighborhood elder, a graying retired laundry worker who has six children, four of them boys. He said that whenever his wife had a girl, he asked her to try again for a son.
Because of the traditional custom of paying high dowries to a groom’s parents, he said, girls were seen in the past as a heavy burden. “No one was happy about their birth,” he said. “They therefore got little respect in India.”
“When we were growing up, girls were never sent to school. Usually they were married off right away,” Swarup added. “I liked being the breadwinner and king of my house. But India is changing now. My daughters-in-law work and think they can therefore be bosses and queens of the house. Some men find it a struggle. We are trying to adjust to the new ways of girls venturing forth. It may be better in the end, since the women now earn money.”
In South Asia, the contrast between the achievements of female political leaders and the lowly status of ordinary women has its roots in dynastic traditions. Professions here are inherited, in politics as in industry. In India, former prime minister Indira Gandhi came into politics through family connections, as did former prime minister Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto inherited her station in politics from her father and mentor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
In India, women were urged by men to take to the streets during the country’s struggle for independence from Britain. But despite the relative abundance of female leaders in South Asia, many women in the region suffer from profound inequalities in access to education and health care, women’s advocates say.
According to a study published in the British medical journal the Lancet in 2006, almost 10 million female fetuses were aborted in India in the preceding 20 years. The practice — outlawed, though the law is seldom enforced — is on the rise partly because more people can afford sonograms.
“If India is really going to become a world superpower, it has to stop killing its girls in the womb,” said Divya Kulshreshtha, who runs a Smile Foundation mobile women’s health clinic. “If India wants to shine, then its women should be allowed to shine.”
Bangladesh, where more than half a million women have gained employment in the garment industry, has also seen a startling increase in violence against women — a development some attribute to working women’s increased willingness to report attacks.
“In many ways, the South Asian woman is out of the oven and into the frying pan,” said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Women’s Council, which tracks violence against women across the subcontinent. “They bring home money, they share in power in the society. But they are also doing something very powerful that may enrage men: toppling the old family structure.”
With South Asian society in transition, the Smile Foundation decided to reach out to men with humorous neighborhood plays and education programs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in New Delhi, shopkeepers leaned out their windows and groups of boys gathered on rooftops to watch a street-theater skit, along with Chaudhry and her friends fresh from an empowerment session.
Wearing a droopy mustache and rubbing his fake potbelly, a man pretended to lean lecherously against a graceful young woman riding a public bus. The audience exploded with laughter as she moved away.
In a more somber skit, a man tried to buy his niece’s affection with biscuits. Then he raped her.
The audience stood silent, stunned. Some women started to cry.
Afterward, Divya Yadav, 20, the female lead, complained that she herself is harassed daily during her bus trips home from her performances.
“Talking directly to the men is the first step,” she said. Lalit Kumar, an 18-year-old high school student who had formed a youth group for boys who wanted to help, and his friends offered to escort the actress home. Things still weren’t safe, they agreed.