Millennium Post

Wife material? Oh, please!

After a long, stressful day at work, I was returning home in a taxi. It was a cold evening in London. As soon as I closed my eyes for a few minutes of rest, the taxi driver started talking. He looked at me through the front mirror of the taxi and said, 'I really want to come to India to find a wife for myself.' Taxi drivers in London are amazing conversationalists and provide fantastic insight into the society. I personally love chatting with them in London. The conversation continued. I smiled back and asked, 'Why India?'

He replied, 'Because Indian women make for good housewives. They don’t cheat. They listen to you. They are not dominating.' I smiled, despite not minding the 'they don’t cheat' bit, I was not sure if I wanted to take this as a compliment.

The short conversation started a string of thoughts in my mind, about myself and millions of women living in India. Is this image of a demure, docile Indian woman, who is submissive and lives within the four boundaries of her house, responsible for our vulnerability?

Is this perception responsible for the sexual assaults that are inflicted on Indian women? Do the offenders attack women because they think we are easy victims to target?

The recent case of gang rape in Delhi has renewed the debate on the status of women in India and millions are waiting for the judgement to be announced in the case. Born and brought up in India and having spent most of my adulthood in the capital, I am not surprised with the statistics on violence against women in India that have been widely quoted in the wake of the tragedy.

However, I was shocked to come across a global poll by Trust Law, a news service run by Thomson Reuters. The agency ranked India, the place where women are supposedly worshipped, as the 'worst place to be a woman' among the world's biggest economies.

In this survey, India, the world’s biggest democracy and the fastest-growing economy, fared worse than countries like Saudi Arabia.

Watching from London the passionate protests in Delhi and other parts of India, with people taking to the streets despite severe cold and other odds, I am moved. But amidst these spontaneous civil outpourings, I also hear shrill demands for chemical castration or death penalty for the rapists.

I don’t think such measures would address the root of the problem which, I believe, lies in the patriarchal set-up of the Indian society. We are missing the bigger point here. To me, the main question is, how we change attitudes towards women in a society which, by and large, still prefers boys over girls and 'grades' boys above girls in a lot of ways. How do we ensure complete stop to objectification of women – in society in general and Bollywood in particular, an institution that influences Indians in a huge way?

To set things right, better law enforcement, speedy justice, and a victim’s perspective as the starting point for the law are needed but there is also a need to change culture and the way girls and boys are brought up, the way an Indian woman is defined in an image.

Accomplishing this will take a long time and will require huge efforts. It will involve change in many spheres, ranging from education to economy but the question is, are we ready for it? Do we have what it takes to transform the patriarchal attitudes which lie in the root of the problem? And is the political class ready to take on this daunting task?

Rupa Jha presents the BBC Hindi weekly TV programme, Global India

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