Saturday, January 12, 2013


One friend said she was looking forward to hearing what I thought about India. I didn’t write too much about it last time, but I had to visit a second time in November, and I’m going a third time this weekend. I thought I would write just a bit more about what I have observed.

Culture – If you read the opening story you saw a small picture of the culture: one southern U.S. man using the addressing others with “sir” for an entirely different reason that a student addresses someone with “sir.” In India, a teacher is respected. Of course, a professor is respected more; education appears to be big business. Really big. With over a billion people, it’s highly competitive to get into the right schools. I read articles and saw news reports about the university/college entrance exams that students put their heart and soul into. The reason that education appears to be so big is that it is directly linked to job opportunities. Again, with such a large population (and not necessarily a large number of jobs) there is so much competition, not just at the educational level, but even at the professional level. Newspapers are filled with job “classified” sections. People often feel that how you fare or perform in secondary school and on the entrance exams can determine your life. Lately, though, there have been many for-profit universities and institutions springing up because of the demand for education. You can go to a 4-year university, a vocational school, a technical college, a training centre, etc. The list goes on. If I were prime minister, one of the biggest initiatives I would work on in order to alleviate poverty would be opening up educational access for all and job access for all.

One important job I’ve seen in India is that of a matchmaker. Just as in the paper there is the classified section advertising job opportunities, there is a separate section in the Indian newspapers for love matches. In the U.S. and on many matchmaking websites in the UK and North America, the person looking for a match, husband, or wife advertises himself or herself in the paper or online. In India, family members or a matchmaking agent usually represents young single people. In my family, we often joke about taking resumes of potential wives and conducting interviews or the difference between a potential wife on paper (her resume) and in person (same for men). Well, they still actually do it here in India. There are even matchmaking meetings, almost like speed dating but instead of the potential dates, it’s their agents. People come with photos and resumes and they get down to business. Big business. Finding a partner and wedding, in India, is like getting a job or getting a car. Again, it’s hard to paint India with one brush because there are definitely young people or celebrities in India who are pushing the envelope and widening the spectrum. But on the whole, marriage is just something you do, as it is in many countries. And finding the right partner can mean the difference between favour and acceptance of your families and good social status versus rejection by your family, family rifts, or even mediocre status. One of my good friends does not talk to her father much because she married the wrong caste. He tries, he really tries to talk to her, but it grieves him so much that he must apologise for not speaking to her. The problem with the huge drive towards weddings and marriages is the disparity between the male population and the female population.

The Underside – To explain the importance of the disparity of the male and female populations, remember that India is this dual-personality country in terms of “development.” It all depends on the context and perspective. For instance, in Africa, India is seen as another “developed” nation coming in to invest in Africa in order to reap a return; others have included the UK, the US, France, and now especially China. The G20 considers India to be at least emerging. To the Department for International Development (DfID) here, India has reached a point where the UK feels comfortable ending aid to India. This means there will no longer be any new grants to do development in India from DfID, and ongoing projects will end by 2015. But then if you look at the numbers or visit India, you’ll see that a majority of the world’s poor live in China and India. You’ll see that India has the largest class of poor people in the world. To Prime Minister Singh, his number objective is poverty alleviation; that’s a “developing” country prioritization. So it’s a mixed bag, and the society in India is highly diverse and stratified.

So when people talk about the emerging Indian giant, don’t be completely fooled. Remember that as India’s GDP grows, it does not mean inequality is decreasing. On the contrary, it is increasing. India is still a majority rural country with a roughly 60-55% rural population and a 40-45% urban population. If a majority of the “growth” isn’t happening in rural places, then there naturally is a disparity. Because of the inequality, it often reminds me of places like Brasil or South Africa who deal with relatively frequent crimes such as murders, rapes, car-jackings, muggings, etc. In India there is a sexual harassment, sexual molestation, and rape problem. Some people will disagree and say it’s concentrated in the north of India and not in the south. Some say it happens everywhere. I don’t have numbers on the relative frequency of different regions of India, but it definitely happens as the recent story of the gang-raped university student in Delhi shows us. The story is recent news, but the news is an old story in India.

One of the reasons blamed for this situation leads back to the differences in male and female population. There is a sex-selective abortion problem here, as in China. Due to the one-child rule to help curb population growth in China, not only are a group of words in the Chinese language slowly moving closer to being obsolete (uncle, aunt, brother, sister), but people will selectively abort female fetuses when they find out the gender of the child through tools like ultrasound (this also means the practice is concentrated towards populations that can afford it). The one-child rule did not create a gender preference for boys in China, but it has exacerbated that historical preference. The same is true in India, and studies have shown that the ratio of boys to girls is rising (you can think of this as gendercide). In some places like Punjab, I’ve seen it reported as high as 120-126 boys to every 100 girls.

Now the gender imbalance is not an excuse for sexual harassment. I’m just telling you some people use it as an excuse, as if the fact there aren’t enough women for every man to wive means that men can act out frustration by harassing women or raping women. Others blame clothing (which is ridiculous); some blame a woman’s lifestyles. The misogyny and specifically harassment, molestation, and rape of women in India are not specific to India. But the acceptance and apathy of the state and the shame forced on victims makes the problem very difficult in India. Of course the problem manifests on many levels of society. First, there is a type of misogyny present in society (we have it most societies); there are men that are not respecting women. Secondly, many girls and women don’t report rape because it means you have lost honour. Plus, even if you are raped you are “used,” in a sense, from the perspective of someone looking for a virgin to marry. Thirdly, many male policemen are rude, uncaring, and harassing. Some do not bother to file the report when a woman has the courage to report it. Even doctors can be unhelpful. Fourthly, even when a report is filed, it is often mishandled in court, the accused gets off, or it takes too long to even come before a judge (check out the 1972 Mathura case, the 1992 Bhanwari Devi case, the 1996 Suryanelli case, the 1991 Kunan Poshpora case, the mass rape of women from the 2002 Gujarat riots, etc.). Lastly, even if a woman has the courage to report it, a police officer sensitively and patiently investigates and files a report, and a court quickly takes the matter to trial convicting the perpetrator, the punishment is often too weak. Sexual harassment is not considered rape and so if a rapist is given a sexual harassment conviction or even if the perpetrator committed sexual harassment without raping the victim, the perpetrator’s sentence is low and will be out in a few months to torment the victim again, taking revenge. It would be really great if each of these problems could be addressed possibly through 1) better education of the value of women both in schools, at home, and in entertainment; 2) educating women about the importance of reporting rape in order to stop it and that it is not the end of your life, increasing post-rape support services (including marriage-finding support possibly); 3) including lady police officers in every location, letting women officers handle rape reports, training all officers on how to handle rape incidents and reports; 4) including women judges in city courts, and creating a separate fast track for rape, molestation, and harassment cases; 5) widening the definition of rape or increasing the punishment for molestation and harassment. I’ll be visiting India again so I’ll write more about it later. Though I focused on some of the work that has to be done, there are many things I love about the culture including Indian movies. J

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