‘I Thank My Good Fortune That I Wasn’t Born a Woman in India’
In India, where girls are married off at 4, where a woman is murdered every hour over dowry and where sexual violence is a form of pushback for progress, being female is an unbearable fate, an Israeli expert says.
Talking to: Moran Kushnir, 40, lives in Beit Hashmonai, engages in cultural research specializing in India, lecturer and tour guide abroad.
So what is it with you and India?
For me, India is home. It’s the place I return to over and over. For my master’s degree I concentrated on Hindu thought and the study of women in India, and at the same time I studied Hindi at university. After two and a half years of study, I still find it difficult to speak Hindi, but I understand it well and read the newspapers. In recent years, I have earned a living from lecturing and being a tour guide. It’s both my professional world and my essence, even though my connection to India is very concrete. I don’t connect with the spiritual aspect at all. I am interested in India because of its fascinating contradictions, and I am truly making an effort to understand a host of phenomena and to explain them to myself and to the people to whom I give talks. My thrust is academic and critical.
Obviously we’ll have to speak in generalities… India is developing at a truly accelerated pace. To what extent are women part of this process, if at all?
Of course, we won’t refer to the wealthy who live in towers in Mumbai or Bangalore, and who are just as modern as we are. But most of India’s Hindu inhabitants are believers – there aren’t actually any secular Hindus. The vast majority follow traditional ways. The country is undergoing a slow process of change in regard to women. The symbolic value of women in India is still very low, the practice of aborting female fetuses is still very widespread. That derives in part from conceptions that have their origins in ancient religious beliefs. For example, women are prohibited from lighting their parents’ funeral pyre and thus releasing them into nirvana. And there are also other practices that exist today, such as the matter of the dowry.
The rate of reporting of sexual assaults in India is constantly rising, and more and more stories of such attacks are reaching the media and the courts.
Sexual assaults against women in India are not new, unfortunately, but the fact that these cases are being publicized does signify a change. In the past, the family usually hushed up cases of sexual assault for fear of damaging the family’s reputation and reducing the prospects of a match for the victim’s siblings, but today it is becoming increasingly accepted to report, complain and condemn.
Which is effectively a positive development.
Accelerated modernization is fomenting a tremendous clash between tradition and religion, on the one hand, and the reality of the developing country, on the other. You have to grasp the full weight of religion and tradition, which are thousands of years old, yet dictate the way of life of women in 2018 India. Though increasing numbers of women are working and going to school, the vast majority of the women in traditional society can only dream of that; and, by the way, it’s often the case that the attempt to put women in their place, in the light of these changes, takes the form of sexual violence. Not only are they raped, they are also [murdered and] hung from a tree, for this purpose, to make an example of them. There are many cases of gang rape in villages by young men who have no education and are unemployed. They are idlers, but they understand that the country and the economy are moving ahead while they’re being left behind. One way to reclaim their manhood is rape.
That was the bitter fate of Asifa Bano, an 8-year-old girl from the Muslim minority who was raped and murdered by a group of Hindu men a few months ago. The case led to violent disturbances and there was genuine fear of a religious war.
The story of the abuse and rape of Asifa Bano in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir brought the anger and the bitterness over the epidemic of rapes in the country to a fever pitch, along with the fact that since Narendra Modi’s far-right party took power, the differences between the communities are becoming more acute and the attacks on minorities in the country are increasing. That’s unusual in the long history of India, which has been a haven for multiple minorities. The appalling rape of the girl has stirred a great deal of anger, because it’s reminded Indians that the situation hasn’t actually changed since the rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2014.
The anger is aimed also at Modi, who was silent for months and then made do with a bland condemnation, even though part of his election campaign dealt with the strengthening of Indian women.
The anger is justified, I think, even though Modi is doing many things that are strengthening women indirectly. For example, his CLEAN-India campaign, one of whose declared goals is to get a toilet installed in every home in India. [CLEAN stands for Community Led Environmental Action Network.] When the project began, there were about 600 million households in India without a toilet. For women, this causes many diseases, because the women have to wait until evening before going to the fields to relieve themselves, because during the day there are male workers there. Second, many rapes and other sexual assaults, particularly on girls, occur when they go to the fields alone to relieve themselves, when they are an easy, convenient target. Precisely because it’s such a conservative society, in which premarital sexual relations are forbidden, the sexual assaults are a twisted escape hatch for repressed needs. It’s part of the tremendous array of contradictions in India. Nonviolence is also an important value in the Hindi society, yet so much rage is channeled toward women.
It’s a conservative society, but if we compare it to, say, ultra-Orthodox society [in Israel], in India women are present in the public space. There are businesswomen, female politicians, there was a female prime minister, not to mention Sonia Gandhi, who is one of the strongest women in the world altogether.
India also has the largest number of female pilots, but conservatism is dominant nonetheless. Under the law, a man and a woman are not allowed to display physical closeness in public, and it’s the duty of the police to separate them.
More contrasts. Women in India hold key positions in large companies, but there is also an insane rate of illiteracy among women, of 30 percent. And there are marriages of minors. And the frightful phenomenon known as “dowry death.”
All the country’s religions have matchmaking; about 90 percent of the marriages in the country, overall, are prearranged. There’s an expression in India: “To raise a daughter is like watering someone else’s garden.” That’s said in connection with the notion that it’s not worthwhile to invest in girls, because they leave home after the wedding. It’s not customary to celebrate when a girl is born in India, in part because it’s a heavy economic burden even for the rich. A dowry starts at $600 a daughter. The poor of India earn about $1.50 a day. A family might have four or five daughters, and it’s inconceivable not to marry them all off, because that’s the obligation of the parents – it’s part of their dharma [duty]. So what do you do?
After the wedding, the wife leaves her parents’ home and becomes the exclusive possession of the husband’s family. The dowry negotiations are conducted like a financial deal in every respect. The groom’s parents state their demands in detail.
Nevertheless, in a great many cases, after the wedding, the husband’s family simply blackmails the bride’s parents despite the agreement between them, and demands more and more. A large portion of the loans in India are made in connection with dowries. If the bride’s family doesn’t have money, they undertake to pay the groom’s family in installments, and if the money stops coming in, the latter may start to abuse the bride, verbally and physically.
And it can end in murder, too, and on an incomprehensible scale.
A woman is murdered almost every hour in India against the background of disagreements over the dowry. Naturally, a negligible percentage of the cases gets to court. The murder is usually presented as a cooking accident – she was cooking something in the kitchen and suddenly she caught fire. Or her suicide will be staged. The groom’s family will not be accused, and they usually just go on to the next bride. It’s so twisted. The truly great irony is that the dowry issue is not a religious precept or an Indian custom. It became rooted in the higher classes during the period of British rule, and the lower classes were quick to emulate them. These days, the matchmaking ads that appear in the Sunday paper indicate that the couples are more modern, and even though they marry by arrangement, they forgo the dowry. The ads state, “No dowry.”
That’s a symbol of progress.
It signals that one identifies with the values of the West, and not the traditional, outmoded values of India. And in addition, of course, the message is, “My economic situation is so good that I don’t need it.”
Abortion black market
Last January, a report stated that India is “missing” 63 million women. In other words, according to the probabilities of having boys or girls, there should be many more women in India. The reason for the disparity is abortions based on the gender of the fetus, and better living conditions and medical treatment for boys.
There are more men than women in India. Since 1994, there’s been an ultrasound law in place. The law stipulates that ultrasound technicians who see the sex of the fetus are prohibited from passing that information on to the parents. The reason, of course, is that women carrying a girl usually had an abortion. Every ultrasound clinic is required by law to display a sign stating that it’s prohibited to reveal the sex of the fetus. Of course, that’s mere lip service. I myself saw in one such institution, directly above the sign mandated by law, another sign that said, “Today it will cost you 500 rupees, afterward it will cost you a lot more” – referring, of course, to the dowry.
That’s not legal, so an abortion black market has developed that rakes in billions. Abortions aren’t the worst of it, either. In the lower classes, where they don’t have money for ultrasound tests, they wait until the birth. If it’s a girl, they simply get rid of her. Often they also try to hide the pregnancy, too, so questions won’t be asked afterward, and of course there are no statistics about this. Even those who have money prefer not to have girls, not for economic reasons, but simply because girls have a low symbolic value.
Another sign of change is a revolutionary ruling by the Supreme Court banning sex with minors, even in the context of marriage.
According to the 2011 population census, 30 percent of the marriages involved minors aged from 4 to 15. Yes, girls of 4 are married off in India. The reason for that, in general, is that the economic situation is difficult, so the girl is married off to a man of 70, let’s say, and the dowry is very low. But of course the girl doesn’t [immediately] move in with the husband. The estimate is that the next census, in 2021, will see a significant decrease in the rate of underage marriages, from 30 percent to 20 percent. I think that the court ruling makes less of a difference, because it’s very difficult to enforce.
Of course, but it’s of great value at the level of declaration and delegitimization.
At the declarative level, definitely. Look, there is a very high rate of marriages with minors in the State of Rajasthan, for example. Let’s say a little girl is going to be married off in some village. Who’s going to know? What’s the chance of enforcing a prohibition like that? And if an attempt at enforcement is made, what’s the problem in conducting the marriage in secret? There are many campaigns on the subject, and let’s hope that they’ll help. By the way, the fact that there are more men than women leads to other unpleasant phenomena as well. For example, one woman is compelled to marry a number of brothers. Or, there is trade in women for marriage purposes. A few years ago, the BBC did an investigative report about a region in the State of Haryana, which is close to Delhi, not exactly a remote region, and interviewed a few such women. The women related that they had simply been kidnapped when they went to the fields, and their parents had no idea what happened to them. Others were simply bought from the parents; they told about being abused and being treated like handmaids.
What’s amazing is that they weren’t referred to as “my wife,” but referred to by a different title, which indicates that they had been bought for marital purposes. And if the family that bought them doesn’t like them, it can simply sell them.
After marriage, the bride becomes the property of the groom’s family. In practice, she is managed by her mother-in-law.
The custom is that the bride is allowed to sleep on the night of the wedding, which in many cases is also the first time she will have laid eyes on her husband. The next morning, she is already supposed to report to the kitchen and start working. The Indians love food and have a high regard for it, and it’s not customary for there to be leftovers, so the bride has to learn the mother-in-law’s cooking and prepare fresh food three and four times a day. What this means is that she simply spends the whole day in the kitchen, and at the same time takes care of the children and serves the husband’s parents. A foot massage for the mother-in-law is totally part of the custom.
In the higher classes, where the household includes a cook and servants, the wife has to supervise them. The irony is that the mother-in-law herself, like the bride, also underwent serious abuse at the hands of her husband’s family, but when she becomes a mother-in-law, she abuses the bride. In any event, the prevailing concept is that the new bride needs to be educated, needs to be put in her place, that she needs to go through basic training in order to enter the family, and so forth.
And the option to leave the husband’s home and return to her parents is totally nonexistent.
A married woman moves to the husband’s home not only physically but also symbolically. She has no more backing. Her parents can’t really help her. Even if they commiserate with their daughter, their hands are tied. They certainly can’t bring her back, and in the few cases where that is done, they are forced to bear the consequences, which are multiple and severe. India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world.
That’s no indication of good marriages; if anything, the opposite.
True, the divorce rate is low because it’s difficult to impossible for a woman to leave her husband or get out of a bad marriage. She simply has nowhere to go. A few years ago, a global survey set out to discover the most dangerous places for women in the world in terms of rights, violence, access to economic resources, white slavery and so on. Afghanistan was first, followed by Congo, Somalia, Pakistan and India.
Let’s talk a little about the [custom of] sati. I think that’s one of the immediate associations with regard to women in India: the widow who throws herself onto her late husband’s pyre. It’s actually relatively rare.
It’s also prohibited by law. There have only been a few cases of sati in the past decade. The latest of them occurred a few months ago, and it’s still not clear whether the wife did it of her own volition or was coerced into it. No explicit religious precept exists for this phenomenon, either. There are references to the custom in the holy writings, but as an option, not an obligation. A woman who is burned on her husband’s pyre ensures paradise for them both. It’s not clear how it became entrenched as a custom. One theory is that it’s an economic interest. If the widow has a claim to her dead husband’s property, certainly his family will prefer to see her go up in flames. I also read op-eds maintaining that the sati cases in recent years occurred because the women simply didn’t want to be widows. It’s not easy to be a widow in India.
Widows, especially if they are young, are a magnet for sexual assaults. A young widow needs to be very careful when she is walking in the street, because it’s known that she has no support, that she doesn’t belong to anyone who can protect her. Even the widowhood ceremony itself is extremely violent. It’s not enough that the wife has just lost her husband: The wedding necklace is torn off her, all her bracelets are smashed, her head is shaved. In the first year of mourning, her head remains shaven and she does not leave the house. One time, on a train in India, I spoke to a few female students about widowhood. One of them replied disdainfully, “No way, widows don’t wear white anymore, India is a modern state today.” I asked her how she identifies a widow in the street, and she replied, “She has no wedding necklace, she has no bracelets or anklets, there are no flowers in her hair.” In short, everything still happens, other than the white sari.
Remarriage is not customary.
Not really. Under the British laws, a widow is allowed to marry, but it’s not done, according to the religious laws and tradition. Widows of sound economic status, who can offer an attractive quid pro quo to the husband’s family, can perhaps remarry, but will have to compromise. Usually the prospective groom will not be fully sound, mentally or physically.
Anything optimistic to offer in conclusion?
You know, it’s very complex for me, too. It’s hard for me with people who think of India in clichéd terms – of the beautiful and colorful place, of people who have nothing yet are still so happy, because I know the bitter truth. Many times, when I’m invited to give a talk about women in India, people expect a lecture in that style, and when I start to speak I see the shock in the audience. I too live that dissonance. On the one hand, I love India so much. When I go there, even before the doors of the plane open, I feel I’ve come home. On the other hand, I thank my good fortune that I wasn’t born a woman in India. In most cases, that’s an unbearable fate.