Women in India are confronting sexism in it’s most primal and unrestrained forms.
This is a story about India but it is not the only story. Change is happening in India. Some of India’s largest private sector banks are run by women. One of India’s largest bio-tech firms is owned by a woman. Men and women of good will are working for positive gender change all across the country. But as we hold up our collective successes in India or in America, we can not turn our eyes away from the challenges.
I’m an American. My wife is Indian. My sister-in-law lives in Delhi, India. She is kind enough to drive us around town when she is not performing her duties as a professor at a prestigious university. She, her sister and I race about in a peppy little Suzuki. And man, does she blow the car horn. For very good reason. Her car horn says to every male driver and pedestrian, “Don’t think you can push me around just because I’m a woman.” BEEEEEEP! Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEP!
For those of you who haven’t driven in India, there is a lot going on. The streets are a rugby scrum of people and vehicles. One in a hundred of these vehicles are driven by women. There are cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, tuk tuks, push carts, animals, fruit and vegetable vendors, pedestrians and beggars. It’s a driving experience like none other and I am supremely glad that my sister-in-law is driving us. I couldn’t ask for a more adept, confident and supremely artful driver.
But there is even more going on when an Indian woman gets behind the wheel. The radically shifting politics of gender in India are clearly evident in how my sister-in-law performs the act of driving her car. She is re-educating the Indian male driving public, and she’s not taking any BS from any of them.
Women in India are under siege. There is no other way to put it. If women on the street in the US are still confronting a high degree of sexism and abuse, women in India are confronting it in it’s most primal and unrestrained forms. If an Indian woman is fortunate, she will have a car. But most in this country of one billion are not so fortunate. They must walk or ride public transportation.
I can tell you outright, I would never let my daughter get on an Indian bus. And as a white male, I would likely be privileged to make that choice. But most Indian women are not. On busses they are routinely groped and assaulted. Young school age girls simply have to turn their heads when men pull our their penises and shove them in their faces. We are all aware of the 2012 gang rape on a Delhi bus which garnered national attention but that terrible case is just a drop in the bucket. The number of women and men, girls and boys who are assaulted and raped, forced into prostitution, and left as outcasts to fight a daily battle for survival is beyond count. But women are, by far, the more vulnerable due to a vast range of social stigmas and crushing patriarchal restrictions placed on their lives and bodies.
So if an Indian woman can drive she will do so. Without question.
There are a lot of assumptions about female drivers. The primary one is that they don’t drive well and are timid. Neither is true of my sister-in=law, but she has to prove it to every auto, cart and bicycle driver she passes on the road. As they shift lanes, circumventing any number of obstructions, drivers have to force themselves into narrow gaps and race ahead or risk being cut off and stuck in the congestion. There is a constant game of chicken going on as more aggressive drivers force others to give way.
My sister-in-law (or “Silly” as she calls herself; “Billy” she calls me) says that when male drivers see her, they immediately move to cut her off and take her lane, assuming she will give way. She does not. I have watched the process from the passenger seat. Dozens of times in a twenty minute drive, I’ve seen men glance across at her and then begin to take her lane. I’ve seen her downshift, stomp on the gas and challenge them from cutting her off, all the while the banshee peel of her car horn saying, “Not this girl, Buster!”
A few days ago, a young man attacked a women at a university here in India. He indicated in his suicide note that she had rejected him. Because of this he subjected her to a bloody assault with an ax in front of her classmates. He stabbed her several times as well. The girl remains in intensive care, fighting for her life.
A primary cultural narrative reinforced over and over by Bollywood’s multi-billion dollar movie machine, is the lovesick man who relentlessly pursues the woman of his dreams until she finally sees the power of his love and accepts him. These cheerful Bollywood optimists are literally coaching young Indian men to pursue woman relentlessly, becoming nothing short of stalkers. In the days after the JNU University attack, the papers here were full of stories of women dealing with love stick classmates who’s seemingly casual interest turned to angry obsession when they heard the word “no”. The narrative some men here support is that Indian women lead men on by agreeing to have tea or chatting before class. This small social connection is enough to trigger an assertion by young men that they have been “led on” or that the women are available sexually. It is a chilling assertion heard over and over again, including in the JNU University attacker’s suicide note. And so, as Indian women seek to better themselves, they are continuously dodging their male classmates, acutely aware of the dangers of men. And these dangers can literally be life threatening.
Meanwhile, my Silly is out there demanding her rights as an equal on the roads of Delhi, and although her style on the road is very different than her style in the halls of higher education, her goals are the same. To move forward through the centuries old layers of sexism and gender bias in every facet of Indian life. This woman is internationally known in her field. And while she gently but firmly turns aside the bias of men in her profession, she equally effectively handles dismissive parking attendants, who are given an earful when they try to brush her off. She simply will not be sidelined.
The amount of extra energy and focus this requires of women can not be underestimated, here in India or in the US.
I do not consider myself to be a feminist. I prefer the frames of egalitarianism and equality. I often write about and advocate for men’s issues. But I want to make something clear. I often hear from some very vocal men in the US that women now have social and legal equality so they should stop being so aggressive about women’s issues. They should not be allowed to “control the political dialogues”. They should not be granted what are called “unfair advantages” in our institutional discourses.
For some women in the US and Europe, it may indeed seem like they have achieved equality. (It is still not true for millions of others living right along side them.) But globally, courageous, good humored, lovely women like my sister-in-law are battling on a dozen fronts at once for their right to live lives unfettered by male oppression and violence. And they are taking huge risks, refusing to stand down hundreds of times a day when confronted with the relentless drum beat of male privilege.
I can not, for the life of me, understand how any man could say that the battle for women’s rights is done. Yes, advocacy for men’s issues is a very important part of achieving a society based on equality, but to say that women have all they could hope for is madness. I can only guess that these men are blind to what is happening in the world. That they live in some kind of narcissistic bubble in which their issues and their limited interactions are all that they consider. If we are ever to move the discussion of men’s issues forward, these men need to take a long hard look at the tone and content of their angry discourses. I would start by encouraging them to reflect on the raging justifications of Indian male stalkers. These examples of blind self justification are a thousand times worse, but I would suggest they are born from the same dark narcissistic source.
Yes, civility in our social discourses must grow. This needs to come from both men and women. No one should grant themselves permission to vent hostility and rage at others, regardless of their sex. But honking your horn long and loud? Ask my Silly. It’s the only way to be heard.
Women across the world have every right to keep blowing their horns long and loud. My sister-in-law, my wife and the millions of other courageous remarkable women who are seeking equality deserve our affection and admiration. All men and women have the right to live without fear. Until that day comes, we are in for a lot more horn blowing, so we might as well learn to enjoy it.
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