A closer look at the status of women in India

Cultural Differences Nushi Mazumdar/THE REVIEW
Sowmya Tangirala was born and raised in India. Now, she is a graduate student, balancing her studies with a home life, with a husband and toddler.

BY
Senior Reporter

Women’s rights have expanded significantly in America over the past few decades and continue to progress and change. Similarly, India has undergone a pivotal transformation, providing women with the rights and opportunities they deserve. However, media outlets distort the truth and facts about feminism in India, presenting the increasingly accepting society as detrimental towards women.

For instance, last year, in an article written by CNN, India was named the worst country in the world for women. The media outlet claimed that the increasing number of reports regarding sexual violence, forced labor and child marriage were responsible for India’s position on the list. Similarly, US News ranked India as the fifth worst country in the world, by perception.

However, there are many misconceptions regarding Indian culture and society, which is distinctly different from that of western cultures, considering the history surrounding the nation. For instance, European colonization significantly influenced Indian society, as these imperial nations attempted to explain their control over other societies through supposed good deeds.

Professor Vikramaditya Thakur, an anthropology professor, says that along with colonialism, there were numerous regulations and laws, which ensured the safety of India’s female population, such as sati regulations and a minimum age for marriage.

However, Professor Ramnarayan Rawat, a history professor, thinks that sati, which is a tradition of Indian widows throwing themselves upon their husbands’ funeral pyres, became “a discussion of reform for Hindu culture.”

He further explains that in actuality, there were very few examples of sati in the19th century, and there was little evidence found confirming whether or not sati was prevalent at the time.

“Freedom has a history for women in the west and places like India.” Rawat says. “No one is more or less free, it’s all contingent on political and historical context.”

Of course, there is violence against women in India, which is an issue plaguing the country. However, the increasing number of reports of rape demonstrates the growing discussion of this taboo topic. More women feel comfortable reporting these crimes to the police, allowing their voices to be heard by society.

“The cases of suppression always remain over women all over the world.” Sowmya Tangirala, an international graduate student, born and raised in India, says. “Recently, they started voicing it out because know they have that freedom. Suddenly, there is a focused light on women, so now they have found platforms where they can share this.”

During her mother’s time, Indian society was much more conservative, so there were more societal pressures and rules on how women should behave. Tangirala says that the views have shifted to push women to become more independent and separate themselves from previous generations.

According to Thakur, originally, women were kept away from the workforce due to perceptions of women being unable to handle physical labor and, particularly among the upper caste, the disgraceful nature of hard labor in society at the time. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that there was economic liberalization in India, creating new jobs in the economy for women. These new opportunities were furthered by the influx of technology and the growing prominence of nongovernmental organizations.

Opportunities for work have been growing for women as well as discouragement of prevalent issues still plaguing the nation, such as abortions of female children. In the last few years, the government has attempted to bridge the gap of equality between men and women by creating incentives for employers to hire women, as well as for parents to birth female babies.

Elizabeth Zacharia, a junior majoring in neuroscience, who was born and raised in India, says that in America, there are more opportunities and acceptance for women, but that the circumstances have certainly improved. She further explains that education is important to her family, and she has never been prevented from pursuing her dreams.

“So, when [my father] raised me, he wasn’t like ‘oh, you’re a girl, so you can’t do this,’” Zacharia says. “He was more like ‘you’re a girl, so you can do anything.’”

The significant increase in literacy for women demonstrates the general acceptance of education for women in many modern parts of India. Specifically, in 1951, the average literacy rate for Indian women was only 8.86%, but now 65.46% of women are literate. However, this increase was primarily in rural areas of India, where the literacy rate is very low compared to urban areas.

Although feminism has been evolving in India, many of the rural parts of India still remain behind due largely to minimal access to new opportunities, a situation that contributes to many of the misconceptions surrounding the treatment of Indian women.

Much of India relies on agriculture, especially in rural areas, so the shame of hard labor in India prevents women from working even today. Jobs outside of agriculture are difficult to obtain as education is not always accessible.

Rawat says that in rural India, there is often an absence of schools and much of the time, the schools do not even have teachers. Instead, many families believe it is better for children to work and earn an income at a young age than attend school.

However, according to Professor Neepa Acharya, a political science and international relations professor, South India is especially modern and is the most successful in providing women with the opportunities and education they deserve. For example, South India boasts the highest literacy rate in India for men and women due to its contemporary perspective towards women’s rights.

According to Rawat, in India, the women able to receive an education actually outperform their male counterparts, demonstrating the growing need for more educational opportunities for Indian women.

Changes in India have also been reflected on the big screen, with women gaining prominent roles in movies and television. Just several decades ago, women were rarely the main focus of films, primarily designated as the stereotypical damsel-in-distress or love interest. On the other hand, Hollywood often featured women in leading roles long before then. Nowadays, Bollywood movies are promoting women as the protagonists of films, portraying independent and capable women.

Similarly, television has also begun to showcase all-female casts on Indian shows, Acharya says, such as “Four Shots More Please,” which focuses on the complicated lives of women in India.

“In more movies, women are becoming protagonists,” Zacharia says. “You don’t need a man for the movie to sell.”

Today, India has evolved to accept women into society more with various feminist movements and platforms furthering women’s rights, promising a hopeful future for the women of India.

“Women have realized they deserve better,” Tangirala says. “They are capable of more. I think that is a more important mindset that can bring a drastic change.”

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