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Letter from India

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October 2007
Letter from India

Freedom. I allowed myself such luxury for an entire day. With my children in the care of my mother and husband I visited two college friends in New Delhi. It was a journey back in time when diapers and domestic chores were unimaginable. Late at night my friends and I decided to get adventurous – we went in search of ice-cream (our definition of adventure is now acutely limited).

Unfortunately, a drunken man waylaid our mocha-chocolate-chip-trip. Enroute to our once favorite haunt – Nirula's, Defense Colony – a visibly intoxicated man pulled up alongside our car. Leering devilishly he pursued us in spite my friend's swift maneuvers – including a fast and furious 360-degree turn on an empty road. We knew we couldn't pull up to a police station; we would have been questioned for being out at night (the absence of a male escort would show us in a red light).

The psyche of the north Indian male warrants inspection. As an ex-Delhiite currently living in Mumbai, I have not encountered lewd behavior from men in Mumbai very often. I've used public transport late into the night without as much as a glance thrown in my direction.

North India, though, seems different in that aspect. Men continue to oppress women in Bihar, Haryana and Punjab. In New Delhi walking around upscale areas like Greater Kailash and Cannaught Place I have been subject to mild physical and verbal assault in broad daylight. I will never ever board a local bus in Delhi – the unfortunate experiences of my student life have left me squeamish.

So what are the cultural contrasts that may be responsible for the mistreatment of the fairer sex in the North? The usual suspects often pointed towards are: lack of education, poor economic conditions, weaker position of women in society and other sundry explanations. There is some truth to these postulations. In a matrilineal state like Kerala (with the highest literacy rate for women) where property is traditionally passed through the mother, women are subject to a lesser degree of degradation.

The bottom line however is that even though we have elected women to positions of power, from Indira Gandhi to Pratibha Patil, there is little respect for women across the country. In the West women wrestle with domestic violence and sexual harassment but that usually does not stem from a lack of respect; it has more to do with sexual dysfunction and inability to contain aggression. In India, it goes beyond that.

Back in college my classmates were goaded into marrying strangers in the name of tradition. A girl not wedded off by the age of twenty-five opens doors for social scrutiny and ridicule for her family. Living alone in a big city is taboo. Liberal minded parents like mine who offered equal opportunity to their daughters endured subtle disapproval from neighbors and extended family. Not surprisingly, they received fewer proposals for arranged marriage!

Has much has changed over the last few decades? Dowry deaths, female feticide, forced prostitution continue to be a part of the nation's fabric. Our fundamental rights are woven in fundamental flaws. We have one of the lowest female literacy rate in the world. Moneyed or impoverished, a woman who does not produce a male offspring often suffers physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws. A recent survey of metropolitans placed New Delhi as the capital for crime against women. What good has 60 years of freedom done if we can't walk the streets of our capital city without being harassed?

As mothers, cognizant of the direct correlation of our well being to that of our children, we abandoned our quest for ice-cream. We were afraid.

By Reetika Khanna Nijhawan


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