Edit/Op-Ed

India’s Cities: Idols of Goddesses in Temples and Sexual Harassment of Women on the Streets

Kaleem Kawaja for BeyondHeadlines

The heritage: India’s civilization is very ancient, very rich and very sublime. And we are justifiably proud of that heritage. In the Indian Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, there are many goddesses, the more popular ones being Durga and Kali (protection from evil); Lakshmi (wealth); Saraswati (knowledge); Sita (faithfulness); Parvati (kindness).  Throughout India countless temples have existed for millennia in the name of these goddesses; their graceful idols have added holiness to the temples and men and women have prayed to them for the removal of their afflictions.

In India’s many ancient legends and stories that are part of our folklore and culture there is much affectionate emphasis on the female form of mother, sister, daughter, and sweetheart.  All that has distinguished the Indian culture and society in a very unique way.

In the Indian society men are taught from an early age to be more respectful of women per se and especially not treat them as sexual objects. But in the last several decades as the culture in the cities has modernized and westernized and many more women are out on the streets, going to colleges, offices, public events etc. the reality has become opposite of the sanctified heritage.

The reality: Go to any major city and try to travel in trains, busses and public transport, or visit public places like entertainment complexes, sports stadiums, major public events like New Year Day, Independence Day, Republic Day, Diwali, Holi, Christmas, Eid, Baisakhi, sporting events where crowds throng. You will observe all sorts of men, older and younger, trying to take sexual advantage of women.  Touching women in-appropriately, making obscene sexual gestures, making lewd verbal comments and taking physical-sexual advantage of women in crowded public places has become commonplace and is euphemistically termed, “eve-teasing”.

Whenever a woman or girl finds herself alone after sunset in a place where there are a few men, she worries. Even in big, world-class metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore, women worry when going outside their houses alone after dark for fear of molestation.

But with much modernization and development in India’s cities, many a career-women and girl-students have to go around by themselves and return home by themselves at night.  It is no exaggeration to say that they become vulnerable to molestation by praying men.  The women from the upper class families generally travel by car and do not face predatory men.  But most women from middle class families who do not have cars available to them and travel by public transport face this risk every day.

In 2012 alone, in New Delhi, police reported about 600 instances of actual rape (molestation and harassment cases not being recorded by the police). And in the same year only one man was actually convicted of rape in New Delhi; the remainder being acquitted. Even those few men who are convicted of rape, receive light sentences and are out of jail in a few short years. Thus predator men are not that afraid of the consequences of raping or molesting women.

One of the major reasons for such inordinate increase of rapes of women is that the police often decline to record complaints of rape from women and in fact discourage them from even reporting the crime. The courts follow very cumbersome and long winded procedures to try the rapists and put very difficult burden of proof on the victim women.  That results in encouraging the predatory men from being fearless in their ugly pursuits of women.

The upsurge of a modern lifestyle that entails the mixing of men and women and its proliferation on TV, internet and flashy magazines in the last decade in the big cities in India, has further heightened the libido of the sexually frustrated unmarried men, in a society where most young men know females only as either mother or sister.  Having no interface with women outside of their close family, but a heightened desire for physical contact with women, drives some of these men up the wall and prone to molest women whenever and wherever they can find an opportunity.

The gruesome gang rape and murder of a young college student girl in a moving bus in the suburbs of New Delhi in mid-December has shocked the conscience of India.  A huge number of men and women including many youth have staged massive rallies in the heart of New Delhi and Mumbai and other big cities and the prestigious seats of the Indian government.

The remedy: So as India modernizes and westernizes rapidly, its men have to accept an equal space for women not only in professions and careers but also to stop looking at them as sex objects. Men need to resolve the contradiction between their reverence for the goddesses from the pantheon and their lack of respect for the ordinary women whom they perceive from a carnal angle.

There is an immediate need for India to change its laws on rape, molestation and sexual harassment of women by instituting harsh punishments through the court system at a fast pace. And ensure that policemen drop their casual attitude towards molestation of women and view it as a serious crime. The roles and responsibilities of policemen on the streets should be changed making them more responsive to safeguarding women from sexual harassment.

Indeed since a large number of sexual harassment of women involves powerful politicians and officials and their kin, the government should ensure that the said laws are actually applied to all men, regardless of their status in society. The Indian government needs to learn a lot in this respect from other countries where men responsible for sexual harassment of women are punished severely for their crimes.

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