Wednesday, 20 February 2013

It's not all sandalwood and sanskrit

Black bullock statue It's always catches my attention when I hear a news story about somewhere I know and India has been in the news a fair bit at the moment. Firstly because the Prime Minister is there on a trade mission and secondly because of the growing media interest in women's rights in India following a brutal rape that caused the death of a student in Delhi.

The PM's visit to Amritsar today caused a flurry of Radio 4 consternation as he visited the memorial site of a massacre undertaken by the British in 1919 and the question was asked if he should apologise for this historical event. Hubbie and I have visited Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and it is a moving tribute to the 379 demonstrators who were shot there by British soldiers. This one event was key in leading to India seeking total independence from the British and it is part of the Sikh 'tour' you do taking in the Golden Temple and the tribute to the 'martyrs'. Apologising with hindsight has become a standard following the belated apologies for Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough, but is it so much going through the motions ? Does the catholic church apologising for child abuse in any way reduce the suffering of those who experienced it ?

The handwringing about how women are treated in India comes in response to a vicious and brutal attack by a group of men on a woman and her boyfriend. Big questions are being asked about how women are viewed in indian society, but it's not like these are new questions or new issues. What is new is that people outside India are taking an interest where they previously thought it was none of their business or was culturally appropriate for women to be subjugated.

My parents are Indian by birth and I have visited a few times since I was a child. Both my parents went to university in India, they had an arranged marriage and my mother has always worked as well as raising a family of four children. They - like a lot of their contemporaries - have a vision of India that is preserved in aspic from the time they left. In their minds it is like a Bollywood movie starring Saira Banu and Dev Anand with a swinging soundtrack and colourful frocks as well as insane eyeliner and beehive hairdos.

dancing indian women on elephant
On my visits to India I used to only stay with family so for years I didn't see how people other than my family lived. My educated, female dominated, feisty and hilarious family. I had no idea that outside the door was a culture where women were not permitted to go to school, to speak up or to talk to men in public. In recent years I've been to India as a 'tourist' and seen a whole other side to how women are treated.

While I can't comment on how the entire country operates I can recount my own experiences of women not being treated with respect as a matter of course. On our last visit to Bangalore where there is a culture of 'pubs' (what we would call a club) there was a disturbing new trend. Mobs of men would protest outside these pubs and drag women out who were drinking and smoking as a way of 'preserving indian culture.' There is so much about this that is wrong I don't know where to begin. Suffice it to say that the men who smoke, drink and associate with these 'bad women' aren't castigated or punished in any way.

India has always had a problem with honesty. It pretends to be a very moral society and yet young girls are forced to marry making paedophiles of their 'husbands.' There is a lie that says women are revered (separate seating on public transport, modest clothing is encouraged) yet men leering, propositioning or touching is considered acceptable. I recall being very uncomfortable being stared at as an 11 year old and my parents said to 'just ignore it' which is hard to do when you are still a child. There is also a culture of grown men being highly inappropriate with women and children which is overlooked as they are 'friends of the family.' In a society where respect for elders is more important than the right to personal space it is difficult to make a stand against what is essentially molestation.

Bhagvad Gita cover with image of Krishna and white horses I now travel to India with Hubbie and because he is not indian we are treated very differently. I do not expect to be harrassed by indian men as I did when I travelled with my sister or my mother. I recall how hilarious I found my auntie battering a man with her handbag for accidentally brushing her arm as he passed her in the street. Not all women are that bolshie and no woman should feel she cannot go out with her friends (male or female) or have a drink without fear of being attacked.

India wants to be seen as a powerhouse in the world of IT and trade. Women go to university, work alongside men and run businesses that trade internationally. Yet the movie business still portrays women as either sexual objects or mothers. The Karma Sutra outsells the Bhagvad Gita the world over. Girls are treated as second class citizens and left to die in their millions by poor families who cannot afford to pay a dowry, despite this practice being prohibited since 1961. This is in a country that had a female Prime Minister before the UK.

It would appear that India is now being pressured to deal with its schizophrenic attitude to women and girls. Until half the population are treated as something like equals I'm ashamed to say I can't be proud of my indian roots.

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