Is India really the most dangerous country in the world for women? – Dunkin Jalki

Krishna at Radha's feet

Dr Dunkin JalkiThe difference between Reuters’ “experts” and erstwhile Muslim and Christian writers is simply this. The latter were candid enough to talk about false religion, and the former resort to secularised language. Both of them deal in stereotypes, and rehashed theological claims, which they then present as self-evident truths. – Dr Dunkin Jalki

Recently, Thomson Reuters Foundation was in the news with its poll that ranked India the most dangerous place in the world for women, ahead of even war-torn Syria and Afghanistan. While one section of the media (mostly Indian) was abuzz with counter-attacks, largely accusing them of faulty methodology, another section (largely Western, but also Indian) had accepted that India has not done enough for its women and that “it has lost the battle of perception“. These views about India that Reuters perpetuates, by now, have grown so deep and weighty that no one cares to prove them with any data or research. True enough. Reuters too didn’t think it is necessary to do any research or collect facts to make any comments about India. A “perception poll” was enough. In fact, their website is full of articles that do not care to substantiate any of their sweeping comments on India.

Here is an example: “Women and girls in India face the biggest threat from traffickers because they are still widely considered to be sexual objects and second-class citizens, campaigners said. About two-thirds of the 15,000 trafficking cases registered by India in 2016 involved female victims – nearly half were under 18 – with most sold into sex work or domestic servitude.” This seemingly straightforward claim, in fact, hides more than it reveals. Take the claims about the trafficking cases first. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) crime report for 2016 mentions 8,132 cases of human trafficking registered in India, while “Victims Trafficked” are 15,379. Out of the latter, those below 18 years are 9,034 (4,911 girls and 4,123 boys). Contrast this now with the figures from the United States of America (US), for the same period: 8,042 cases of human trafficking were registered there, out of which female victims were 7,128. If you haven’t got the enormity of the contrast yet, let me tell you that the population of the US is over four times lower than that of India (32.21 crore vs 132.68 crore, in 2016).

If the numbers do not hold, why does Reuters think that women and girls face the biggest threat from traffickers in India? Because, as it says further, they are still widely considered to be sexual objects and second-class citizens here. Like an “expert” quoted in the article clarifies, “Trafficking is a global issue, but of all the victims … those from southeast Asia, mainly India, [are] the most vulnerable. … Girls continue to be seen as a burden on parents, inferior to boys.” Therefore, the only interpretation possible here of what Reuters is saying is this: criminals engaged in human trafficking, say, in the US and Europe treat women better than Indian criminals, and better than even lay Indians. Why would Reuters not consider India the most dangerous country in the world for women, then!

Twisting data to suit agenda

Consider the following claim from another article on Reuters’ website: “Nearly 40,000 rapes were reported in 2016 despite a greater focus on women’s safety after the fatal gang rape of a student in New Delhi in 2012 that sparked nationwide protests and led to tougher laws against sexual abuse. But campaigners say the figures are just the tip of the iceberg.” These numbers are indeed taken from NCRB data for 2016. However, since Reuters forgot to compare it with data from any other country, let us do it ourselves. Here are rape figures from three ‘developed countries’: 84,041 rapes in 2014 in the US (as per FBI data); 35,700 rapes in England and Wales, and 12,900 in France, in 2015 (as per Eurostat data). As always, the numbers will look absurd if we take into account the population of these countries.

And now a claim that was central to Reuters’ 2011 Poll, where India was ranked the fourth dangerous country in the world for women: “Female foeticide, child marriage and high levels of trafficking and domestic servitude make the world’s largest democracy the fourth most dangerous place for women, the poll showed … 44.5 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18.” It is not clear how to understand the claim about “44.5 per cent” or where it comes from. For, according to the India Human Development Survey II, women in India married before the age of 18 (in 20–24 years age group) was 36.2 per cent in 2011-12. However, the 2011 Census of India reports the “percentage of females who got effectively married before reaching 18 years of age is 3.7 at the national level.” The differences between the data reported by different reporting agencies are huge, from 47 per cent to 3.7 per cent (see this). Is Reuters, then, choosing some random numbers that suit its narrative? Anyway, the problem is not merely related to the arbitrary selection of numbers or their inflation.

The problems they raise about “child marriage” seem more ideological than scientific, for instance. As UNICEF notes, “Child marriage is a violation of child rights, and has a negative impact on physical growth, health, mental and emotional development, and education opportunities”. Most of these “negative impacts” are connected to the observation that an early marriage leads to early motherhood, which brings along several responsibilities and workload at a tender age. For, “marriage” in itself cannot result in health issues or decrease in educational opportunities. Why not then talk about “early pregnancy”, instead of “child marriage”? However, if we consider the World Bank data about child births per 1,000 women, aged 15 to 19, for 2010-11, some rather surprising numbers come to the fore: India 33 per 1,000 births, United Kingdom 19, and United States 30. Are these 3 per cent (30 per 1,000) American adolescent mothers also victims of child rights violation and emotional development disorders? Is there a reason why we seldom talk in terms of “violation of child rights” in the context of teenage pregnancy, but only in the case of ‘child marriage’?

If these numbers seem to tell a tale that is so drastically different from the seemingly “common sense” truths about India, which even Reuters is unable to see, the question is this. Why do the claims of Reuters or its poll not look downright dubious to us? Even when they look odd, we can at best think about some vague things like “shaky methodology” or faulty grammar. Mostly, anyway, if we are not accusing India openly, we at least begin on a blind path of defending Reuters or indulge in self-flagellation.

India’s Core Image: Corrupt Hinduism and oppressive social system

The 2018 poll by Reuters ranked India the most dangerous country for women, on the grounds of “the risk of sexual violence and harassment against women, the danger women face from cultural, tribal and traditional practices, and the country where women are most in danger of human trafficking including forced labour, sex slavery and domestic servitude.” There are two kinds of violence mentioned here. There are crimes, like sexual violence or human trafficking, which can be quantified and documented. However, the available data for these crimes does not portray India as the most dangerous country of the world. This perception, then, must be linked to the other kind of crimes that are not easy to document: “the danger women face from cultural, tribal and traditional practices”. How did Reuters measure this violence? They asked a question concerning this issue to its 548 ‘experts’ and activists across the world: “In your view, what is the most dangerous country in the world for women in terms of cultural, tribal and religious traditions or customary practices? This includes acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage; forced marriage, stoning, physical abuse or mutilation as a form of punishment/retribution and female infanticide.”

India, rather unsurprisingly, fared worse than every other country on the globe in answers to this question. There is something very interesting to note here. The crimes like “acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriage, stoning, physical abuse or mutilation as a form of punishment/retribution and female infanticide” are here linked to a country’s “cultural, tribal and religious traditions or customary practices”. That is, note carefully, it is not the data related to these crimes that is in question here. If it is just the data related to, say, acid attacks, there is some proof to show that India is doing much better than the UK here. Note also that the cases of female genital mutilation recorded in India, belong to one community: namely, Muslim Bohras. However, what Reuters is concerned about is how a culture and tradition promotes crimes against women.

Here lies the answer to the question raised earlierWhy do the claims of Reuters or its poll not look downright dubious to us? Because, for well over a millennium, we Indians have been fed on such claims that link our culture directly to crimes and wickedness. Unfortunately, at a dear price of our heart and soul, we have made these claims our own.

Some examples from the past

Firuz Shah Tughlaq (ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, 1351-1388), known as a benevolent and pious king who lowered the taxes, speaks about “irreligion and sins opposed to the Law [that] prevailed in Hindustan, and [how] men’s habits and dispositions … were averse to the restraints of religion.” As a sultan, he says, he strove to “repress [such] irreligion and wickedness …. [and] the vanities of the world, and things repugnant to religion.” And thus, “the true was distinguished from the false.” His autobiographical note goes on to give several instances of how he suppressed heretic Indians and their acts of worship (p. 375). Note the way the words are paired here: “irreligion and sins”, “irreligion and wickedness”, true and false. As Semitic religions teach, false religion has always walked hand in hand with wickedness. And what does wickedness or sin anyway mean here? Firuz Shah is clear: “the vanities of the world, and things repugnant to religion”.

There is a connection made here between sins that are a necessary property of Hinduism and perceived problems in Indian society, like the “ill-treatment” of women. The writings of European Christian travellers and missionaries, subsequently, make this link rather conspicuous. Here are three examples from their writings. Writing from the middle of the US in 1799, Joseph Priestley noted that “nothing can be more humiliating than the light in which women [are] always represented in” Hindu scriptures like the Vedas (p. 148). He then dedicated an entire chapter to discuss how the Hindu laws, i.e., their Dharma Shastras, say something very gross about women (p. 148ff).

Abbé Dubois, in his well-known Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs of the People of India; and of Their Institutions, Religious and Civil (1817), which was used as a handbook for the training of East India Company officials for many years, wrote at length about how women are treated in India. Hindu women are “always treated as if they were created for the mere enjoyment of the men, or for their service. They are supposed to be incapable of acquiring any degree of the mental capacity” (p. 217). Talking about the issue of “the manner of thinking adopted by the Hindus” that would explain why they treat their women the way they do, he finally points fingers at the Hindu scriptures. Some of the things that “scriptures” prescribe about women, he wrote, are very “absurd, or at least useless, and some others injurious to the welfare of society; and the greatest number seem intended to reduce the women to a state of the most abject slavery” (p. 229).

William Ward, a popular figure of the nineteenth century, wrote in 1817 that Hinduism is “essentially vicious which dooms the great mass of society to ignorance and treats rational beings as though they possessed no powers, except those of the animal” (p. XXXIV). A boy brought up within this religion receives “no favourable moral impressions either from his parents, his education, or from the state of manners around him.” Hence, this “Hindoo enters upon the business of life with all his natural cupidity completely unrestrained”. He further wonders, “how should virtue exist amongst a people whose sacred writings encourage falsehood, revenge and impurity—whose gods were monsters of vice—to whose sages are attributed the most brutal indulgence in cruelty, revenge, lust and … whose very institutions are the hotbeds of impurity?” India, he laments, is in “a state of universal corruption”, where “the temple itself [is] being turned into a brothel, and the deity worshipped [is] the very personification of sin”. How, “should virtue find a single asylum” here? “If the religious institutions of a country be the prime sources of corruption, how should the people be virtuous? … Impurity and cruelty have been, in all ages, the prominent features of every form of pagan superstition. But nowhere have these features presented a more disgusting and horrible appearance than among the Hindoos” (p. xxxvi-xxxvii).

To sum up

The idea that Hinduism is a false and corrupt religion is written into the heart of Semitic religions. It is a false religion simply because there is just one true god, the Biblical god, and just one true religion, which he has prescribed. It is a different issue altogether that Semitic religions fight amongst themselves as to which one is the true religion. However, they all agree that Hinduism is a false religion. As this theological idea gradually got secularised after the Protestant Reformation, explicit references to the god and ‘true religion’ were slowly replaced with ‘civilisation’, ‘culture’ and so on. But the arguments about religion didn’t completely disappear from the discussion either. Consequently, today, if Hinduism is not explicitly considered a reason for the problems of Indian women, its culture is held responsible.

The difference between Reuters’ “experts” and these erstwhile Muslim and Christian writers is simply this. The latter were candid enough to talk about false religion, and the former resort to secularised language. Both of them deal in stereotypes, and rehashed theological claims, which they then present as self-evident truths. One of the biggest roles played by colonialism, which was mainly a pedagogic project, is to turn the theological claims about Hinduism into “social scientific” truths about India. Why should Indians be surprised, then, to see why they fall behind not only the Western countries, but also countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in perception polls? Isn’t there something that India lacks, which these other countries have? There is—a “true religion”. This is the story that the West has been telling us for well over a millennium now. The Reuters of this world have picked up the mantle now. May we all hail the new Queen! Swarajya, 4 August 2018

» Dunkin Jalki is an assistant professor at the SDM Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, Ujire (Karnataka). He works on caste, Lingayata tradition, colonialism, and related issues. 

Women in the Bible & Koran

See also


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