How Indian Attitudes Toward Sex Are Hurting Rape Victims

We won’t see real change until my Indian parents and their generation change how they see women’s sexuality.

Amit Dave / Reuters

A student prays during a December 31 vigil for the Indian woman who died after being gang-raped.

When I was 27, a cousin got pregnant out of wedlock, and our extended Indian family, horrified, swooped in to organize a wedding in less than six weeks. During “the crisis” my mother repeatedly told our family that she was so glad she didn’t have to worry about her own daughters – they would never act like this. Two weeks before the wedding, as she cleaned the house top to bottom, she came across a pile of my old journals and said that as she was moving them a chunk of pages fell out. She read them and then put a lit match to them. The pages described my decision to have sex for the first time when I was in college. It’s a situation no mother or daughter wants to be in, but we were Indian and the shame associated with a woman’s loss of virginity was so strong that in the subsequent weeks and months it felt like my mom went crazy.

The current riots in India over the death of a woman who was gang-raped has brought sex front and center in a country that traditionally shuns public discussions of it. It’s caused the public to demand the death penalty for rape and more prosecutions. Since the protests began, more mishandled rape cases have emerged. In one example, a young woman in a rural area committed suicide after she was told to marry her rapist by the police. Women are shamed for having sex out of the bounds of marriage, and despite India’s fast development as an economic competitor with the West, its traditional attitudes to the role of women have not caught up.

Raising their children in the United States, my parents presented India as a land of moral superiority, where the taint of a hyper-sexualized Western culture had not entered. And they were not alone. Among Indian-Americans, the shame associated with sex is so high that you can leave India, raise your children in the U.S., and still pass it on. Case in point: A good friend won’t tell her parents she’s moved in with a guy. She says hiding it is normal. She has Indian friends back in Chicago who are in their late 20s and early 30s who also won’t honestly tell their parents the nature of their relationships. In one example, anytime her guy friend’s parents are in town, his girlfriend (also Indian) packs up her things in a suitcase and stays with a friend for the weekend. The couple pretends to live separately and engages in a bi-monthly ruse anytime either set of parents are in town.

These are Indian-American kids, raised in the U.S., educated as doctors and bankers and lawyers, who are so frightened of their parents’ reaction to having sex before marriage that they’d rather live in a web of lies. You can only imagine what it might be like for a young woman in a traditional state who has to tell her family and the authorities that she was raped. The question she will most likely face is what had she done to expose herself to being raped. And we saw that happen when some Indians publicly questioned why the young woman was out alone at night in the first place.

Amit Dave / Reuters

Students praying at the Dec. 31 vigil.

Chastity has deep cultural and religious roots in India, and its a code that’s carried across continents and into different cultures, similar in some ways to fundamentalist Christianity. A loss of virginity is literally associated with the destruction of a woman, a trope best seen in the ancient Indian myth Ramayana. Sita the wife of King Rama, who had been captured by an evil king was forced to walk through fire after she was rescued to prove that she was still untouched by another man. Despite passing the test, her husband eventually still banishes her because the men in his kingdom claim that accepting a woman who even had the suggestion of impropriety was setting a bad example for women everywhere. A woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Political leaders in India, despite all the protests and promises of change, still think its appropriate to say that women shouldn’t go out at night and should cover up more and schools girls should wear pants to avoid attracting too much attention. In saying this, they place the burden of responsibility equally if not more so on the actions of the woman rather than her attacker. Even educated Indian women perpetuate this view. In commenting on the case of the woman who was gang-raped, a female scientist at a woman’s rights conference said that the young woman gang-raped shouldn’t have resisted and that resistance is what caused the severity of her injuries. She also asked, “Why was she out with her boyfriend at 10 P.M.?”

Some Indians, especially young women, are pushing against those boundaries. I studied with a large group of Indian classmates in graduate school in the U.K., and young Indians were doing the same thing that Indian-American kids were doing — hiding who they were dating from their parents, pretending to live alone when they lived together, and calling for more gender equality. But many stepped back into the traditional family structure once they got married. Young women and men in India still agreed to arranged marriages, especially in middle and lower middle class families. Only one member of my extended family in India chose to marry someone their parents didn’t help pick out for them. Many of my graduate school classmates, who were from wealthy and more cosmopolitan backgrounds, also chose to have arranged marriages. Parental involvement inevitably binds young Indians to tradition and helps to bolster traditional views of sex and gender.

Bollywood has built an industry out of upholding and defacing women’s chastity. Though the industry has been turning out hyper-sexualized movies with scantily clad women, kissing is rare and nudity is forbidden. What isn’t forbidden? Rape. Some of India’s most famous movies, like Sankarabharanam, depict the rape of virtuous women who resist but ultimately succumb to either the story’s villains or anti-heroes. Men are given their way sexually in movies, and women are expected to take the punishment and carry on. Is it any wonder that sexual harassment is seen as an accepted form of behavior?

The focus on traditional sexual values is hurting India. Anecdotally women report of being terrified on being alone on the streets after dark, but India’s National Bureau of Crime Statistics reported only 24,000 rapes in 2011, or less than 2 cases per 100,000 people. The United States reported 27 per 100,000 people and in Scandinavia 60 rapes are reported per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs & Crime. It’s seems highly likely that rapes in India are under-reported. Reporting also doesn’t ensure justice: in New Dehli in 2012, six hundred cases of rapes were reported and only one conviction was obtained. And the process of reporting a rape can lead to degrading and unscientific medical examinations, according to Human Rights Watch for South Asia.

We know that misinformation, stereotypes and ignorance of rape occur across the world. And the protests in India demanding more prosecution of rapes are a huge leap forward for women. But it’s not enough to just prosecute more; the conversation about sex in society needs to expand to women’s sexual roles, identities and gender equality in India.

This will require education and reform from the grassroots level, addressing attitudes in rural villages and in government, allowing more women into politics to support gender rights legislation, and instituting laws that allow rape to reported and prosecuted quickly. Changing the portrayal of rape in Bollywood movies and campaigning against street harassment would also help. Most importantly the conversation has to continue. Talking about sex is never easy, but not acknowledging it can be fatal. It’s time to lift the veil on the sexual myths Indians like to tell themselves.

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