Is India worst place for women? My answer is no
Shreya Sen-Handley - WNN Opinion
(WNN/GDN) London, England, UNITED KINGDOM: The events in Guwahati, north-east India, where a few weeks ago a young woman leaving a bar was set upon and mauled by a large group of men on a busy street (and nobody thought to call the police till nearly an hour later, though they did remember to film it for a local news channel), are shocking, not just to westerners.
Even more appalling is the fact that this isn’t the worst of many such assaults on women in India in recent months. When you string them all together, as Helen Pidd did in her feature in this paper, it makes for a gut-wrenching read. As an Indian woman, it leaves me aghast and ashamed in equal measure.
But does it really mean that India is the worst place for women in the world? My answer is no. I lived in India for 20 years, working as a journalist for nearly half of that. I was out at all hours in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and even the north-east of India. I wore western clothes. I worked shoulder-to -shoulder with male colleagues and, as I made my way up the career ladder, male subordinates.
I also worked alongside a whole host of female colleagues who were strong and not afraid to speak their mind. Despite being out and about in the wee hours, sometimes at those very bars and nightclubs I’m told Indian women dare not venture into, we never came to any harm. How did we escape rape, lynching and death?
It could be because when it comes to sexism in India, the picture is more complicated. In the India I know, my work necessitated interacting with hundreds of men on a regular basis, and the vast majority of them behaved with complete propriety. You could say that’s just my experience, but I personally know, or know of, so many Indian women who have had very similar life experiences.
You might try to convince me this is about class, that because I’m middle class my experiences don’t count. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. I was a journalist. My reports took me to all sorts of places. I got to know all kinds of people.
There are some stories, most of them under-reported in the western media, that allow a glimpse of another, more progressive India. There was the woman who gave birth prematurely on the subway in Delhi. Passengers and staff, both men and women, rallied around to get her and her baby through the ordeal. They accompanied her to the hospital to help her settle in. They even decided to pay her hospital expenses, though they were under no obligation to do so.
There was the news that the state of Goa had decided to help its female constituents with their wedding expenses. They hope to help 20,000 brides with gifts of a lakh (around £1,300) each to ease the financial pressure on the girls’ families. Interestingly, Goa has a literacy rate of 87%, and a female-male gender ratio of 968:1,000, slightly above the national average of 940:1,000.
A new talkshow anchored by a famous actor is also making waves. A recent episode on India’s ongoing dowry problem (which is against the law) has inspired a north Indian clan to impose a community-wide ban: they say their resolve is strong and they mean to spread the message far beyond their ken.
A recent study conducted by the American technology giant Dell concluded that India was the best country in the world for women starting a business. According to the study, women entrepreneurs in India are optimistic their businesses will grow up to 90% over the next five years – compared with the 24% and 50% in the UK and US.
Recently, nine prominent women-led companies in India were found to have outperformed the 30 leading listed firms on the Bombay stock exchange. The profits of these organisations with women at the helm rose to 64% in the last three years, compared to the more measly 27% and 23% growth for the traditionally male-managed big businesses on the BSE.
How is it possible that India supports and celebrates the successes of so many of its women achievers, even as it tramples over thousands of others? The fact is that, in an enormous country like India, there are bound to be very divergent views on the role of women. For every community with a traditional take on a woman’s place, there are also millions who don’t believe there is any such thing.
There is a theory gaining ground in India that progressive India and traditional India are on a collision course, brought about by the pace of growth in the country: ugly incidents, such as the one in Guwahati, are its fallout.
Living and working in Britain for the last 12 years, I have discovered that sexism, far from being the preserve of the Indian man, is alive and well on this island. The career glass ceiling here is more unyielding, and the worst mistreatment, emotional and physical, that I have ever endured, has been at the hands of an Englishman.
And I am not alone: a number of my friends here have had similar experiences with British men. Still, does that make all British men “bad”? On the contrary, the finest man I know is English. I married him a few years ago and we now have two toddlers .
So, aren’t there always two sides to every story?
Shreya Sen-Handley is a PR and Communications manager for Royal Mail UK and former TV Producer and East India Bureau Chief at Channel 5 India, as well as a former TV Journalist for CNBC India.
2012 WNN – Women News Network
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