‘Boys will be boys’: an update on women’s rights in India

In his 15 August Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged how the recent spate of appalling rapes occurring on Indian soil has made the country hang its head in shame, urging the nation’s parents to teach their sons right from wrong. But will this public plea be enough to spark the cultural change long hoped for by campaigners? Henna Bakhshi assesses the simultaneous progress and retreat of gender quality in India today.


© Shivonne du Barry/Creative Commons licence

Women’s safety has become a buzzword. But this is again the concept of strong men, who think they have to protect women. What we actually demand is not security, but equal rights for us women. – Khadijah Faruqui, Helpline 181 Director (May 2014)

In December 2012, the rape of a young student on a bus in Delhi sparked protests across India and caused international outrage. In a country where rape is prevalent and sexual harassment is a part of everyday life, this vicious assault started a new tide of feminism that demanded the safety of Indian women. It led to the Anti-Rape Bill in March 2013, which introduced stronger sentencing for attacks against women including rape, acid attacks, voyeurism and stalking. It also led to Helpine 181, a 24/7 emergency service based in New Delhi to support women who have suffered any kind of sexual harassment.

However, the new laws appear to have done little yet to change women’s lives. Helpline 181 receives around 2000 calls a day. In Bangalore, there was public outrage after a 6-year-old girl was raped at school. In Uttar Pradesh (UP) there have been numerous recent attacks, including two teenagers found hanging from a mango tree after being gang-raped, and most recently, a 25-year-old woman who suffered horrific injuries in a terrifying echo of the Delhi attack.

Most frightening of all is the response of India’s politicians. The Chief of UP’s ruling party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, disagreed with the death penalty sentence for the Delhi rapists, saying ‘boys will be boys, they make mistakes’. India’s new ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no exception. Shortly after the hanging of the two teenagers mentioned above, party member Babulal Gaur told reporters that rape ‘is sometimes right and sometimes wrong’. These comments are indicative of the underlying gender inequalities in Indian society. Rape has hit the headlines recently but there are long-standing campaigns to raise awareness of eve-teasing, which many of India’s women claim impacts on them on a daily basis. If those leading the country have such misogynistic attitudes, how can India’s men be expected to treat women as equals?

In the run up to the recent national elections, all political parties spoke of women’s safety but failed to explain how this would translate into their policies, despite numerous polls finding women’s rights and safety to be high on the public’s agenda. Women from all walks of life led the call for the government to take action with their Womanifesto campaign. Lawyers, professors, researchers, writers, activitists, all came together to devise Womanifesto’s 6-point plan to improve education, safety and equality for women. However, so far only one of the three main parties, the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party, has incorporated Womanifesto into its political agenda.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP have not only refused to sign up to Womanifesto, but – until his Independence Day speech – have not taken any particular political stance on women’s rights. Certain commentators suspect that this is unlikely to change, arguing that the PM’s appeals to parents were intended to cover up his lack of government policy. Modi is a divisive figure in India. With a reported record voter turnout, 49% of who were women, his overwhelming victory appears to show huge support across the country. However, in the past the socially conservative BJP has exerted pressure on women to dress and behave in a certain way. It has also been accused of state-ordered violence, most notably in 2002, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Over 2000 people – mostly Muslims – died in these clashes. This includes over 800 women and girls who were first raped. Although Modi has been officially cleared of any wrongdoing by India’s Supreme Court, many still believe he was complicit in the killings (or at the very least, failed to prevent them). If these attacks happened under Modi’s rule, what could it mean for India’s women under his new government?

The leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi, demonstrates in Uttar Pradesh, India. © lecercle/Creative Commons licence

There is no doubt there are deep-rooted misogynistic attitudes in India and legislation can achieve nothing if attitudes towards women do not change. Seven of Modi’s 24 cabinet ministers are women – more than previous governments – but that is still largely men making decisions about women rights.

There is still hope and the women of India are riding the turning tide following the Delhi attack. As well as the passionate women behind Womanifesto, all Helpline 181’s employees and volunteers have experienced some form of sexual harassment, which has made them want to help others. There is the Gulabi Gang, soon to be the subject of a Bollywood film. If you think the Spice Girls embody girl power, you need to hear about Sampat Pal Devi. Fed up with levels of violence against women, Devi started the Gulabi Gang, a fuchsia sari-wearing, bamboo stick-wielding women’s group that challenges the levels of violence against local women. There are now over 400,000 members.

One thing is for sure: India’s women want change and they need more than lip service and tokenism from their government.

To stand with the women of India, ask Modi to commit to Womanifesto by signing this petition.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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