Being a woman is hard, no matter where you are in the world. Every culture has unreasonable, impossible, and even contradictory expectations for its women. When asked what one thing I wish that Indian women didn’t have to face, I had to really think about it, because the reality is that there are quite a lot of things that I wish Indian women didn’t have to face.
I thought back to my younger years and thought about some of the challenges that I personally faced as a girl, and some of the issues that friends and relatives of mine had to endure, and it occurred to me that as a culture, we collectively shame women simply for being women.
This applies to all Indian women, whether they’re born and raised in India, NRIs living abroad, or even multi-generational diaspora Indians. Arguably, this extends to women of other, or maybe even all cultures as well. Indian women are simply discriminated against or belittled simply because they are women.
There is so much shame and stigma associated with being an Indian woman. We teach our girls that they are dirty, impure, not fit to go to the temple or cook someone else’s food when they are menstruating. Some women are even forced to sleep outside when they are on their periods. As if menstruation isn’t a natural bodily function or part of the circle of life.
We raise our daughters to think that body hair is something that doesn’t belong on our bodies or that their body parts are shameful and not to be discussed. We shame new mothers for breastfeeding, not breastfeeding, breastfeeding for too long, not breastfeeding long enough. We decide on the ‘marriageability’ of a woman based on things like her skin colour, her weight, her physical appearance.
Education rates and vaccination rates are higher for boys than for girls – simply put, when a mother can only afford to educate or vaccinate one child, it’s going to be the son over the daughter every time.
Abortion has been legal in India since the 1970s, but they are largely conditional and are only allowed to be performed as a result of mental illness or difficulties due to rape or incest, if the mother’s life is at risk, or if there’s a substantial risk of disability to a child. And, at the same time, India has some of the world’s highest rates of sex-selective abortions.
You can clearly see the bias against women and girls when you look at India’s census statistics that report the sex ratio: boys are simply more valuable. Indian women and girls are seen as replaceable, sometimes even tradable commodities. Think about the prevalence of bride burnings and acid attacks against women.
The commonplace use of violence against women and girls is generally due to refusal of marriage or sex, accusations of adultery or when a woman has decided to take a decision that conflicts with the wants of her family or community. These types of violence are expressions of control over women’s and girls’ bodies. There is clearly a problem when women are attacked simply for making
their own choices.
We don’t even speak out when we are assaulted or raped, for fear of being seen as damaged goods. Think about that for a minute. When a woman is trafficked, she becomes the stigmatised one. Why are we blaming women when others do bad things to them?
We teach our girls to dress modestly and cover-up. We don’t teach our boys to respect women or not to rape. When rape cases make the headlines, everyone asks what the girl was wearing, not why the boy thought it was acceptable to violate her. We even have the appalling and demeaning term zinda lash (living corpses), to refer to rape survivors, placing the blame once again, on the woman.
It makes me feel sad that feeling shame for things that inherently make us women is something that Indian women constantly have to face. Discrimination within a family, or within a culture, breeds an acceptance of violence against women. Although things are changing in India and for Indians all around the world, misogyny is still deeply rooted within our culture and there are still large numbers of Indian women and girls that are facing these extremities, particularly in more rural communities.
I truly hope that things change for the better, and that we learn to value women as equal to men. Because it’s completely unacceptable that Indian women (and all other women) still have to put up with any of this.