x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Indian culture, not chow mein, is to blame for sex crimes

From personal experience to shocking headlines, everyone can see that Indian women are not safe enough. But change is dreadfully slow to arrive.

The year 1996 marked a new phase of my life. Newly married, I moved with my wife from our home state of West Bengal to a new job in Delhi.

Moving to the city was a dream come true for me, as it is for hundreds of thousands of Indian young people. There I started to achieve my aspirations. But the Indian capital is not etched in my memory for good reasons alone.

Delhi is certainly impressive and dynamic, a food lover's delight and full of art and culture. But it has its darker side as well. I found it indifferent, insensitive, unforgiving and above all unsafe.

Late one evening in our first year there, my wife and I, on our motorbike, were traversing a forlorn stretch of South Delhi. A motorcycle-borne man pulled up beside us, half his face covered with a cloth, a common precaution against air pollution.

I changed speed a few times, but he matched me. Finally he pulled down his scarf, showed that he had a revolver under his shirt, and demanded that my wife shift to his bike.

The next few moments passed as if in a dream, but luckily a police patrol car came into sight and we were saved. The police helped us reach our destination safely, instead of bothering to chase the culprit.

This personal experience, along with others I witnessed, heard of from friends, and read about in the newspapers, all left a bitter taste.

Delhi is not safe for women - even in daytime. It never was. Crimes against women are numerous but only a handful of them come to light. Even fewer get proper attention from law enforcement. Unfortunately, few in positions of power act against social evils unless they are compelled to.

The rape of a young woman on a bus there last December led to a rare level of public outrage, causing many to detect a popular awakening on the issue of safety for women.

The immense pressure of protests in that case compelled the parliament to pass, last month, a sweeping new law against sexual violence.

This law will, when it takes effect, make stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment criminal. Also it provides the death penalty for repeat offenders and for a rape that leads to death. It also requires police officers to open cases when they receive complaints of sexual attacks.

It remains to be seen how well the law will be applied, and how much it will change the situation.

Recent cases in Delhi tend to obscure the fact that the problem is nationwide. Cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, and Kolkata, and Kerala state, are only relatively safe.

In a 2011 survey, 87 per cent of women polled called Delhi the most unsafe city in the country. Mumbai was seen as the safest by 74 per cent. Women in Kolkata felt safer than those in Delhi and Mumbai.

But the truth is that no place is truly safe. The dismal scenario has left many Indian women stoically resigned to harassment, if not worse.

Doubtless, there is little regard for women in society. This is true for reasons that come from the perspective that grows from Indian culture. And rarely has that twisted reality been so palpable as after the Delhi bus rape. Consider the reaction of some political leaders after the tragedy:

"Painted women protesters in Delhi went to discotheques and then turned up at India Gate to express outrage", scoffed Abhijit Mukherjee, a Congress legislator and the son of President Pranab Mukherjee.

Jitender Chhatar, a local official, told the Times of India that "consumption of fast food contributes to rape incidents". In particular, he claimed, "chow mein leads to hormonal imbalance, evoking an urge to indulge in such acts".

And Omprakash Chautala, the former chief minister of Haryana, offered this solution to the frequency of sex crimes: "Marry off girls early to prevent rape". Does he think married women are exempt?

These and countless other examples reveal a bizarre attitude, common among Indian men, that women are mere objects of male whims and desires. Such perceptions damage the whole society, threatening to eclipse many of the gains that India has made on so many fronts over the years.

I am cautiously optimistic about the possibility of change in this attitude. Officials, and parents, must do all they can to encourage that, because therein lies the seed of India's success as a society. But there is no magic formula to make this change happen.