“Incredible Inequality”: India is one of the worst places to be a woman, and it shows

By Tao Tao Holmes: 

“Incredible India” has been in the news of late for a few noteworthy issues. The first, of course, is monkey thieves, and the second is the scorching heat and tardy monsoon season (for several years running, by now). Personally, I have barely encountered the sly tactics of simian snatchers on the prowl in Delhi, and I admittedly have denoted the weather a newsworthy matter only because my residence inside a furnace is ever on my mind. In fact, the truly noteworthy discussion about India is of a completely different nature. Is India, in fact, “Incredible”? The “incredible” economic development in India may be quite an exaggeration. But more attention should be paid to the incredibly unequal treatment of women.

Where are all the women? The lack of equality in India is striking, even to a new observer of the streets of Delhi. (Holmes/TYG)

“Incredible India” is the trite yet oddly catchy tourist tagline gracing airport welcome signs, glossy brochures, and media advertisements. It has insinuated itself into my quotidian thoughts; when some scene or scent or sari puts me in awe, I think to myself, “ah… Incredible India.” Yet a recent Economist article lamented “Farewell to Incredible India,” remarking upon the country’s declining economic performance and feeble (if proudly democratic) government. The cold fact of the matter is that India does not deserve to be lumped together with China in dinner table discussions about rapid economic development––rather, India remains leagues and leagues behind. The Economist posits that Indian politicians supposedly believe voters “care only about state handouts, the next meal, cricket and religion.”

I have been in India for only two weeks now. I am an utter novice, newbie, bright-eyed Bambi in its multi-layered capital city, Delhi. I can offer only my immediate reactions, and these are dependent merely on observation. Of these, there is one that dominates.

While I have noticed the multitude of things that Indians of different religions, regions, and castes care about, perhaps what stands out most are the things that the country does not seem to care about. And most salient in this category: women.

In an article printed on June 13 in the International Herald Tribune, India was ranked the worst place to be a woman among the world’s biggest economies. Smack dab last, after Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, out of a total of 17 nations (Canada, surprise surprise, came first).

The conductors of the survey found that “a combination of infanticide, child marriage and slavery left India at the bottom of the ranking, lagging behind even Saudi Arabia, where women are still not allowed to drive and only gained the vote in 2011.”

Mistreatment of women pervades on-the-ground Indian life. Prostitution is light fodder for conversation: the capital’s red light district, G.B. Road, is a household name, while mainstream movies like “Jab We Met” reflect a climate where a couple can joke about rape and a woman alone is regarded an “open treasure box” and, only naturally, an immediate victim.

Typical street scenes in Delhi find women absent from the picture. (Holmes/TYG)

Perhaps one of the starkest symbols of this skewed mentality is Delhi’s sleek new metro system. Every line has an entire compartment reserved exclusively for female passengers. It’s wonderful––more seats, more standing space, and less body heat to drown out the cool puffs of AC. And while all this is quite pleasant, the women’s only area exposes something fundamentally, unsettlingly wrong.

Having this privilege suggests that women need a separate space apart from men. This is not a universal requisite, as no other metro I’ve traveled has any sort of equivalent; rather, it is a location-specific installation. As I eye the men spilling over from the overcrowded adjacent compartment (and find them not infrequently leering in our direction), the protocol’s existence suggests to me that women need protection and separation from men, who perhaps (or, it seems to be understood, invariably) pose a menace.

I don’t know how to teach the idea of treating women as individuals rather than objects, but it is a mentality that the Canucks, Strudels and Brits (ranked first, second, and third) seemed to have grasped. Until other nations follow suit, infanticide, child marriage and slavery are going nowhere, and neither, I’d conjecture with some confidence, are these nations’ economies. “Incredible India” has a long way to go before it truly earns that alliteration.

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 is in Branford College. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.