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Patriarchal violence against India's modern woman

Posted on 17 May 2013

As the trial continues of those accused of gang-raping a student in Delhi, who died of her injuries in December, academics discuss the causes of gender violence in India.

“I think it’s a very convincing argument that these episodes [of violence] are a way the patriarchal society is defending itself from women’s empowerment,” says Elena Borghi, a researcher at the EUI. “While India’s economic situation is changing very quickly, the social one is not. Cultural structure are centuries old.”

Padma Anagol, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, agrees that violence against women can be attributed to rise of the new woman in India: “She goes out, she earns money, she has professional satisfaction – I think that is being interpreted as a frightening phenomenon.”

Anagol argues that the Delhi rape on 16 December, which sparked protest across India and led to legal reform, was an attack on the figure of the new woman. The crime happened “because a girl who got on to the bus was in western clothes, she was with her boyfriend, it was nine o’clock at night; [there are] three transgressions here.

“The rise of the new woman is a frightening figure for the unreconstructed Indian male,” she says.

This is also playing a part in gender violence within Indian communities in Europe, says Meenakshi Thapan from the University of Delhi, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) in Florence. “Here it’s more an outcome of masculine anxieties about their own sexualities and identities, because they are so dominating in India and they see their women possibly becoming westernised,” she says of the situation in Italy.

Thapan describes the case of 27-year-old Kaur Balwinder, who was killed in Italy in May 2012 by her Indian husband, and says that the murder was committed as a punishment for Balwinder wearing western clothes.

Thapan argues that the level of violence against women is linked to Indian migrants’ aspirations: “Many migrants think they will be successful, they have this utopian dream about what Europe’s going to give them. They come here and it’s very different; they struggle and many of the men are alcohol so then domestic violence is greater.”

In addition to the changing role of women and economic factors, Kathryn Dominique Lum, a research assistant at the MPC, says India’s strict caste system has also played a role in gender violence. “An interviewee from an ex-untouchable community said the Jats – the socially and economically dominant caste in the Punjab [state in India] – ‘take our women in their hands like lollipops’,” she says.

“The power relationship is often manifested through gender; a feeling that they have a right to sexual access to low caste women and implicitly viewing lower caste men as not as masculine,” Lum explains. In migrant groups the Indian caste system plays out in terms of social stigma, she says, rather than violence.

While gender violence can be attributed to numerous causes, Anagol says the rights of individual women have been lost in the debate. “Women, nation and family – it’s a triangular relationship in which the woman is the site upon which certain debates are being conducted.

“She’s never an individual; that she deserves rights and dignity is completely forgotten about,” she says.

(Text by Rosie Scammell)

The interviewees were at the EUI for a workshop on ‘Nation and gender in modern India’, organised by the Department of History and Civilization.