India’s Gender Issue: The Change is Needed from Within

Let me preface this post by saying that I am no saint here, so this post is not meant to suggest that I am above all this. Neither is this post meant to suggest that all Indian males are like this; rather it is intended as a call for self-reflection and purposeful action for all of us (men and women) who care about the present and the future of Indian society.

As a young, male Indian, it really troubles me that India is struggling so much with the gender issue, and I want to really begin to understand what we, as Indian males and females, can do about it.

What is the gender issue? To me, very simply, it is the fact that Indian society sees so many instances of rapes, sexual assaults and harassment, inappropriate advances, eve-teasing, sex-selective abortion, discrimination, and just mistreatment and abuse that Indian women suffer on a daily basis. What is going on? Really?

A New York Times article in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape case talks about why that “particular rape inspired so much outrage, people ask, when sexual violence is, sadly, so pervasive and commonplace” in India.

To me, that is not the right question to be asking and the increased reporting is no source for solace. The right question, the most pressing question for our society, is why is this so “pervasive and commonplace”?

The Delhi rape is very obviously not an isolated incident. Let’s also be very clear: India’s gender issue transcends all boundaries: rural vs urban, educated vs non-educated, elite vs non-elite, married vs non-married, strangers vs friends & family.

Just in the last week, two very close female friends of mine have told me about two separate cases. Both these women are very well-educated, professionally trained, ambitious women in their late 20s. One works in a male dominated industry and has faced extreme forms of discrimination at the workplace. The other – one of the best intellectuals and researchers I know in my generation – was the victim of an unexpected inappropriate advance from a political figure.

While one has decided that the public sector is way too corrupt for her to keep navigating, the other has decided that she will not work in the public sector given the kind of people she has encountered in her efforts to affect policy change. 

This saddens me to the core. What is India doing?? What are we as Indian males doing?

In any case, we are keeping honest, driven people from doing productive work (in the public or private sectors) due to so much corruption. Now to add on top of that, we are keeping smart, ambitious, driven women from contributing to our economy and society through all sorts of discrimination and assault. How do we expect to evolve as a society this way? Not to mention the fact that this kind of behaviour is just shameful and makes me ashamed of how we as a society have treated women for ages.

Why can’t we stop for a second, before we make an inappropriate advance towards a female, and think about what impact that simple split second action will have on her and her ability to function as a normal human being in our society? And how it reflects on us?

The gang rape was supposed to have initiated in India some much needed “soul-searching about its shameful mistreatment of women” but I don’t see that happening. Sure, there have been procedural changes: “In March, India’s Parliament passed a law requiring tougher punishment of sex crimes and expanding the definition of both rape and sexual harassment. The University Grants Commission, India’s higher-education regulatory body, asked universities to evaluate the safeguards in place for female students, like outdoor lighting on campuses.”

These changes are, as Prof. Ron Heifetz of Harvard University would argue, akin to a car mechanic continuing to examine the ignition key when the car doesn’t start, ignoring the problem in the battery, starter, some electrical connection, or the alternator.

So where should we be looking then? We need to be looking at how Indian males are brought up in society as young children, and then how they are educated in our schools and universities. To my mind, this is a deep struggle that India is undergoing (much like other developed countries have been undergoing for several years or even decades): how will the Indian male, used to be the dominant figure in society, re-negotiate power and authority with Indian females as they become more educated and start to assume more key positions in the economy and our society?

This is a true “adaptive challenge”, as Prof. Heifetz would term it: one that “requires changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.”

Our priorities as a society have to change: we have to prioritize the safety of women, in our homes and private spaces, outside our homes in public spaces, and in professional settings as well.

Our beliefs that women are inferior or weaker have to change. Our belief that we are allowed, by virtue of how previous generations of Indian men may have acted, to mis-treat women has to change.

Our habits – of mistreating women, abusing them (implicitly or explicitly), discriminating against them at the workplace by discounting what they have to offer, lechery on streets, sexual assault and rape – have to change – nah, stop.

Our loyalties cannot be to the male-dominated society that we Indian males have grown up in; they have to be re-oriented towards the females in our society also. Our society continues to be the same way because partly the men (despite them actively participating in public protests in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape) still remain loyal, often unknowingly, to the male-dominated system that we have grown up in. We Indian males prefer that things don’t change too much; this mindset needs to change.

Is this going to be easy? Of course not. This is going to be hard, really hard, for Indian men. But is this absolutely necessary? Yes, of course! I do not want to hear my female friends tell me what we Indian males are really like when they encounter us at the workplace or in the intimate settings of a home or a hotel or a bar. and I can imagine, neither do you!

My female friends, despite being eager to work and contribute to India’s development, often resign themselves to the fact that the system is like this, and it can’t be changed. To me the question is not about whether the system can be changed or not. It surely has to change. We can’t keep living like this. India desperately needs “a broader cultural shift that revalues the lives of girls and women” in our society. In addition to the cultural shift, it also needs a broader power shift that acknowledges the role women play (and the even bigger role they can potentially play) in the economic, political, moral and social advancement of our society.

We, Indian males, have to understand that we will need help – from each other and from the women we respect, love and value in our lives. With their help, we will have to first embark on a journey of self-discovery to understand how we act and what impact it has on them and society. And as we begin to understand this, we then need to start to shed our entrenched ways, tolerate losses (of power, authority, convenience) and generate new capacities to thrive anew in a society that does not put women down in the way we traditionally have.

We, Indian males, admittedly need power and control, affirmation and importance, intimacy and delight (just like males and females everywhere), but we cannot continue to believe that it is acceptable to seek these things with women who do not want to share them with us. This is a hard lesson for us to learn, but learn and obey we must.

What can we do about it? We need not deny that we need these things, but we very certainly do need to manage these hungers better. We need to know our vulnerabilities and take action to compensate for them. Most importantly, we need anchors in our lives. As Prof. Heifetz argues, “we are not designed to conduct the emotional currents produced by living in the midst of huge social networks. We were all designed to live in small bands under fairly stable conditions. It is entirely natural therefore to feel overwhelmed or hunkered down. Indeed, no matter how perfect your upbringing and the “software” your parents, culture, and community have given you, you need ongoing practices to compensate for your vulnerabilities. You need anchors.”

And we, Indian males, need confidants. Let’s talk to each other (sons to dads, brothers to brothers, uncles to nephews, neighbour to neighbour, classmate to classmate) and to the women we respect, love and value in our lives about why we act this way and what impact this has on women and our society. Let’s start having those conversations with women we care about, right away. Let’s begin to understand what drives us to do what we do, and then let’s start to discuss how we can solve that issue. This has to begin from within us. And no, its not going to be easy.

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