What is the future of women’s rights in India?

Cultures change when a critical mass of people is found to have altered its perspectives, values and behaviors. We may be witnessing an important cultural shift in India based on the massive public reaction to the rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in December of 2012.

This cataclysmic event, replete with visual images of the brutality, as well as the outpour of anger and grief from Indian women and others around the world, seems to be serving as a catalyst in which the status of women in India is being scrutinized and will likely change.

While we marvel at India as a developing global powerhouse, according to The Economist, “A UN index in 2011 amalgamated details on female education and employment, women in politics, sexual and maternal health and more. It ranked India 134th out of 187 countries, worse than Saudi Arabia, Iraq or China.” And, according to a survey by TrustLaw, India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, ranked alongside Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and Somalia.

So, why is there reason to think this might provoke a cultural change? Why could this attack alter the landscape of women’s rights? Many reasons, of course, but the horror of the attack — with its accompanying outcry for change — was magnified exponentially because this was a situation that many Indian women could have faced. India’s aspiring middle class of women, who desire the upward mobility now available because of better access to education and greater freedoms, make this horrifying act something that a vast number of people can identify with.

An interview on NPR with feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia asserts that traditional Indian beliefs are indeed being challenged. Rapid globalization, competition for jobs, blurring of class and caste distinctions could be some of the culprits behind such acts of violence, but its worldwide notoriety and the collective abhorrence of hundreds of millions of people may be enough to induce change.

Says Butalia to NPR’s Marco Werman, “A lot of the time we say changing mindsets is really difficult, but the speed with which globalization has changed mindsets makes me feel that it’s possible and that it can be done. If Coke and Vodafone can reach every village in India, why can’t state policies, why can’t governance, why can’t the sort of changes the society really needs?”

What do you think? Watch this TEDx talk Butalia gave for more insights into feminism and publishing in India.



RW3 CultureWizard is a leading provider of cross cultural training and information, primarily through the CultureWizard and CulturalTraining.com intercultural learning platforms.

Comments (8 Comments)
  1. Jharna Gupta

    this is indeed a very disturbing and thought provoking topic. Thanks for bringing it up. I was raised in N. Delhi and where the rape happened is close to my school where i went for 12 years. Having left India 18 years ago for a nomadic travelling life, i am contemplating going back and was in Delhi this december during this whole episode. Thoroughly disappointed with the government’s take and the way the police dealt with the case.
    However, to say this for the whole of India will be unreasonable. Delhi has its own “culture” and women can be seen as “sexual objects” when wearing certain clothes etc.
    However it is important to keep perspective on the fact that as a city it constitutes for more than 50% of rape cases and all the other metropolitans- Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta together do not match this scale of women feeling unsafe esp in public transportations, int he night and wearing any kind of clothes. The percentage of old people feeling scared for their safety from thefts also seemed maximum in the capital unfortunately after having spoken to all my relatives who are luckily spread around India. I conclude there are many sub-cultures and having personally travelled in the south of India, i found the ambience very positive, healthy and am planning to move to Bangalore or Hyderabad next year. As a growing nation, the market is also growing more in the south and i see a big potential there.

  2. Charlene

    Thank you for your comment. You’re correct, of course, that what happens in one city which has the population of New Delhi doesn’t mean that the same thing happens throughout the entire country. India is a vibrant, exciting, positive country, and in so many respects is a model for others.

    However, the confluence of events and attitude and behavioral change are what I think particularly important for us to watch. I feel very optimistic.

    What is your assessment about it?

  3. Margarita

    Hello Jharna,

    I am not from India, but I went there for a long holiday during which I was travelling a lot around the country and reading the papers every day as I was very interested of what was going on. I read about rape cases almost every day, and not all of them happened in big cities like Delhi. I think saying that wearing certain clothes contributes to women be seen as sexual object is not quite right, as far as I could see most women were dressed in a very traditional way. Also I read about case when a 70 year old woman was raped on the train and I very much doubt she was wearing clothes that could have provoked that. In any case how could a terrible thing like rape or murder be blamed on wearing certain clothes? Why things like this do not happen in other societies where women are dressed much more liberally?

  4. Liya

    India is NOT a dangerous countries in the world for women. I lived in India for 26 years and i havn’t seen or faced anything dangerous. Anywhere in the world as a male or female, we have the responsibilty to keep us safe and not involve or be in dangerous situation. I am extremly sorry for the Delhi incidence, but you have to think it happened after 10 PM and in a bus which is not registered as public transit. Also the reason for the journey was not an urgent or emerergency. We sshould be give importance to our values and culture and should viod such situations. In fact this can happen anywhere in the world. please stop blaming India and it is country of great values and respect. there are few people who do not keep that values and this is such an incident. This is a humble request to all women livivng in anywhere in the world, please be protective yourself and leave rest to God

  5. Bharvi Stalhamer

    I think this incident occuring at a time when technology allows the spread of media in a matter of minutes will help to bring some changes needed to India for women’s rights. The social aspect of women as “secondary” to men needs to change as education is allowing women to be of equal status and level in the work force. Also, having such a crime be so open will allow others to speak up where I assume many in the past may even be afraid to disclose their incident.
    Improving the safety of the public is well needed in Delhi especially, where some curruption maybe the root cause. These changes maybe small, but I’ll take the small step changes.
    I do agree that not all cities in India are so terrifying for women, but being the capital and one of the high tourist cities of India, it sure does not do a lot for it’s image globally.

  6. Anuranjan Roy

    As has been pointed out already, Delhi has a terrible reputation in terms of women’s security but then India is not Delhi alone, not at all. That said, Delhi is in India, the capital no less, so there is no denying the global shame that these types of incidents have earned India. But the crippling inefficiency of the authorities in policing and prosecuting is at the heart of such crime, not so much a cultural directive for Indian men to misbehave with women.

  7. Anuranjan Roy

    Addendum: Having grown up in various parts of India in an extended family where women have led educated, working lives for the past 3 generations, I have seen first hand the taboos and social judgements that come with a deep rooted patriachial culture.

    But all the same, co-educational schools are the norm and women & men are allowed full & equal rights as per secular law. Powerful independent women figures are to be found in folklore, history, religion, politics, business and the arts. Respect for women is integral to Indian society and many joint family units are headed by stern, staunch matriachs. This generation of working men & women is leading the change not necessarily through the protests but through their daily lives. Awareness has grown multi-fold and as a developing nation, gender discrimination is one of the many major challenges for us to overcome.

    Yes, there is a lot of work to be done but to rank it alongside or below countries where women cannot legally drive or (according to an NYT article) in some cases, are killed because they read poetry (on radio…) makes me wave my patriot card. This is not a “We are at least better than them” rant, more of a “We are not as bad as the report would have you believe” plea.

  8. Anupama

    I agree with Anuranjan here. There are a lot of society prejudices and deep rooted patriarchal mindsets associated with women in India. But India is such a vast multicultural society that nothing applies to it totally, everywhere. I was brought up in a family where I was taught that I can do anything I want, and that I am no different from a son. But the same is not true everywhere.
    I believe what has happened in India is that women are being empowered more and more, but a lot of men who are brought up in chauvinistic environments are not taught to deal with this change. Gender balance education is the need of the hour and I believe that in a country that has managed to change so much over the years, this is very much possible. Women need to lead the change themselves. When the women in a society change, the culture changes.

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