An edited version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the South China Morning Post of 14 February 2011.
On 7 February a young girl in India had her nose, arm and ear chopped off. Her crime: resisting rape. Seventeen-year-old Sarika had gone out with her friend when three men pounced upon her. When she raised an alarm the men tied her up, mutilated her and left after threatening her not to inform anybody about the incident. The girl has since undergone several rounds of surgery to correct the effects of the brutal attack.
It happened in Fatehpur, located on the sacred Ganges river in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The fertile Gangetic plain is considered the cradle of Hinduism and Fatehpur itself finds mention in ancient Hindu texts called the Puranas. The juxtaposition of heinous violence with religious places is not unusual – precisely why this case is noteworthy for both its terrible brutality and its ubiquity.
India is a patriarchal society. The good Indian girl needs a man at each stage in her life – in the form of father, husband, and son. She does not question her father’s authority, participates in an arranged marriage, and when she reaches her in-law’s house with sufficient dowry to ensure that she is not burnt, proceeds to beget male progeny. In the event that she conceives a girl child, there is always recourse to female foeticide or infanticide. Which accounts for the skewed gender ratio in India: 933 girls:1000 boys according to the 2001 Census.
In the event that she is harassed the good Indian girl is taught to ignore, look the other way, do anything but avoid calling further attention to herself. The National Crimes Record Bureau (2007) shows that total crime against women has increased by 12.5%. Yet she is instructed to weigh the cost of a few gropes, molestation, rape versus the shame of a public case. Those who don’t listen deserve a lesson – as did Sarika. That she did not allow herself to be gangraped incensed the men enough to mutilate her.
Cutting off a woman’s nose is a common treatment meted out to difficult women. It has its roots in the Ramayana where Rama’s brother slashed the nose of a seductress. When I worked in Etah, another impoverished district of Uttar Pradesh, on a rural development project, one village woman who assisted us was perennially sheathed in a voluminous shawl that revealed only her eyes. It was only later that I learnt the reason why. Apparently, her irate in-laws had hacked off her nose since they suspected her of speaking to a strange man. Clearly, being a poor woman in rural India is hazardous.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s second-largest state economy. It has been growing at 6.29% since 2004, an economic feat that is credited to Mayawati, its Chief Minister. Mayawati, like Sarika, is a Dalit woman. However, that is where the similarities end. Dubbed the Dalit Queen, Mayawati belongs to that other subset of women in the subcontinent – dynastic successors, benefiting from either their fathers or mentors.
This provides a skewed picture of female leadership in the subcontinent – after all Benazir Bhutto was the first woman Prime Minister of an Islamic state, Indira Gandhi was the longest-serving Prime Minister of India, and Bangladesh has been ruled by two women, one the daughter of its founding father, the other the widow of an assassinated President. The truth is that their gender is incidental.
Mayawati, who has similarly profited as a political protege, has used public money on commissioning statues of herself, her mentor and elephants, her party symbol. She has done little to check the high crime rate in Uttar Pradesh which tops the list of lawless states in India.
Currently a Hindi film, No one Killed Jessica, is showing in India. It depicts the true story of a barmaid in Delhi who refused to serve a drink to a drunk bully. Slighted, he shot her dead. Despite the presence of multiple witnesses the accused were acquitted. Subsequently, the story was picked up by media and after intense pressure the case was reopened. Eventually, it took a public movement and seven years to get justice for one woman.
India ranks 114th out of 134 countries covered by the Global Gender Gap Index. It is last among the BRIC countries on the index, and second to last in South Asia, ahead only of Pakistan. The Indian economy has been growing at an average of 8% for several years, yet its rank has remained unchanged since 2006. In India’s much-touted growth story, its women are sadly missing.
Stringent deterrents and effectual legislation are needed to ensure that girls like Sarika get prompt justice. No nation can prosper if half its human capital, its women, are ignored, or worse, discriminated against.