A round of applause spreads through the audience seated in a lecture hall at Jain (Deemed to Be) University, Bangalore. After watching a short documentary about the World Courts of Women, one student stands up to take the microphone and share a personal story. She recounts how when her aunt gave birth to a baby girl, she found herself under intense pressure to give up or get rid of the child. It took a lot of strength for her aunt to keep her daughter.
The anecdote forms part of several thorough and articulate discussions amongst the audience of more than a hundred attending the film festival. Films screened are on the topics of gender, masculinity, sexuality and relationships, and promote questions and opinions that are refreshingly open.
These conversations however are rarely present in the majority of Indian society, and often issues of gender inequality such as discrimination and violence against women are not spoken of and largely ignored, as they are considered taboo.
“Many people [don’t] question about it that’s the main issue.”
“I think in normal days we don’t have this kind of conversation.”
“In very few cases is gender violence actively spoken about.”
The Context of Gender Issues in India
India’s gender inequality is no secret to the rest of the world. Deeply ingrained gender stereotypes tie into religious beliefs, family and tradition. Women are conventionally seen in Indian society as inferior to men, with their role being to stay inside and look after the house and children. Family lineage is passed on through male family members, as is still retained in Western culture, and therefore female children in India are seen as less desirable and a burden to their families who have to find them a husband.
Although dowry – a payment given by a bride’s family to the groom’s – has been illegal for more than 50 years, the practice is still widespread in India and is particularly prevalent among rural communities. Disputes over dowry can lead to abuse and even murder or suicide of the bride. According to the most recent statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2016 there were 7,621 reported cases of dowry deaths across the country: equivalent to nearly 21 women a day losing their lives. The pressure of paying dowry further reinforces the negative view of women in the family.
Walking around the streets of Mumbai, signs of the patriarchal culture are subtle, but still noticeable. Men loiter in the streets and socialise over cups of chai, whereas the women always seem to have a purpose to be out. Every now and then you pass a restaurant or hole-in-the-wall bar that has a kind of look about it that you can’t place. Until you realise that it’s for men only. India in general has an abundance of men, with a skewed sex ratio due to the undesirability of a female child, and consequently 20 reported cases of infanticide or foeticide a month. In Mumbai city there are 898 women for every 1000 men.
India’s view of women goes further than just preference. The NCRB ‘Crime in India 2016 Statistics’ state a total of 338,954 reported cases of crimes against women, including 38,947 cases of rape. That’s one incident every 13 minutes. Further statistics indicate that an average of six women are gang raped every day, and there are many more numbers that illustrate the breadth of sexual violence in the country. For the majority of women however, violence is normal.
Dr Aardra Surendran is the Assistant Professor in the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She says violent acts are so prevalent, they are almost acceptable. “For a lot of women it is a matter of everyday life to go in to work, for instance if you go to work in a field on somebody’s land, to expect to get raped or to expect to be sexually harassed or violated in any form.”
“The horrifying part about that is it’s not even an out-of-the-ordinary thing, you’re just supposed to deal with it as part of your location in life,” she says. Perhaps the structural nature of such violence has resulted in the lack of discussion?
Suma Shastry, an educator from the Cheshire Disability Trust, says she believes broaching the subject of gendered violence is challenging. “You go tell somebody ‘okay you want to sensitise all the auto drivers, all the cab drivers, all the bus drivers.’ You call them and say ‘hey don’t do this,’” she says, then laughs. “I think they’ll just… walk out of the session.”
“It is totally a male-dominated society in India. Even if it is an auto driver, he will go, nicely drunk, he will go home and he’ll beat up his wife, because he feels he’s a man and he has that overpowering physical power and he can do anything to the woman … so I think it is a very difficult thing to bring in India.”
The Work of MAVA
In September 1991 a callout appeared in the Indian Express from a journalist asking for ‘Men who believe that wives are not for battering.’ There were 205 responses from men who wanted to take action against domestic violence and general violence against women. A core group formed and began having meetings, coming together into an official organisation in 1993 later known as ‘Men Against Violence and Abuse.’
Co-founder and Chief Functionary Harish Sadani says the group is about “sensitive and concerned men, trying to break the traditional dominant image of masculinity and help build an equal society where men and women are seen as equal partners.” He recognised that men and boys were seemingly obvious stakeholders that were being missed when addressing the problem of gender-based violence. Through a number of programs MAVA aims to involve these groups, sparking discussions and demonstrating healthy models of what it means to be a man.
Suma Shastry was an attendee of one of MAVA’s gender sensitisation workshops held in Bangalore. The sessions spanned three days and incorporated activities, discussions and short videos about gender roles and stereotypes and how these manifest in our day-to-day.
As well as workshops, MAVA runs numerous other programs with the end goal of encouraging more conversation on little-discussed topics around gender and sexuality. Each year at the time of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, it publishes a magazine called ‘Purushspandana’ (meaning ‘men’s expressions’) which features short stories, poems and other works by men.
“The magazine is [the] first of its kind in India,” Sadani says, “because it gives a space which is non-threatening. Where men can write about their experiences, their insights, as growing up men, and also examine some of the issues which are normally tabooed and not talked about — so issues related to sexuality, issues related to masculine power. So a lot of first-hand experiences, first-person accounts, are published in this magazine which is in regional language.”
For the last two years Sadani has been exploring the power of film with a two-day travelling film festival visiting more than 20 cities across the country. ‘Samabhav’ features short films on gender roles, sexuality and relationships, followed by a discussion amongst audience members.
Swapnil Adate is a young college student who has been volunteering with MAVA for more than two years, and for the last nine months has taken on the role of a mentor to other boys. In one of the team’s main programs, groups of teenage boys are recruited to take part in a series of gender sensitisation workshops and camps, using role play, art and theatre to explore topics including gender roles, masculinity and sexuality. “All these technical terms were given to us and the doubts that we had, or the taboos that we had, were cleared out,” says Adate.
“Last camp we had a person who was very rude to girls particularly. So after that five days of camp which we had for a theatre play … he himself stood up on that last day in front of everyone and confessed that ‘I used to think girls are inferior and the only gender superior is the male gender and we are born to dominate on everyone. But after these workshops I can say proudly I have my mindset completely changed and now I question myself also, and I have started respecting each and every girl to who she is or based on her work.’”
Sadani says MAVA has trained more than 700 mentors and they in turn have reached out to and connected with around 3 lakh (300,000) adolescent boys across India.
As part of his own work, Adate conducted a research project gauging the view of young people towards homosexuality. This was in light of the alteration of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018, which previously criminalised consensual homosexual sex. One thing he observed was the social conditioning, whether it be through family, schooling or peers, that leads many young people to form negative views without question or explanation. “If you go and just simply ask them ‘Why do you feel so negatively about this community?’ most of the people tend to get completely blank. ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I’ve heard this from someone who has got this knowledge from someone else.’ So there is a lack of actual knowledge which should be needed to verify something.”
Despite a lack of proper discussion, Adate says things are changing and young people are beginning to question things more. “I would say the students of our age, they’re trying to angle it out in each and every way. Whatever knowledge we are getting or whatever knowledge we can acquire, ‘Is that right or is it authentic?’ ‘If it is, how do I know that it is authentic?’ So they’re trying to question their answers also. So there is change happening from the youth itself… I will say it is slow but it is taking its pace very steady.”
The Indian Community in Australia
Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Dr Surendran says migrant communities have a tendency to hold on strongly to their traditional beliefs and values, even moreso than their fellow Indians living in India. She says this helps them maintain their sense of identity. As of last year’s statistics, there were 592,000 Indian-born people living in Australia, making them the third largest group of migrants.
Papori Barua is the Assistant Secretary of the Indian Society of WA and President of the Assam Association (Assam being a state in north-west India). She says there is a very strong bond within the Indian community in Australia, with many holding on closely to their traditions. “Most of us are citizens here but there is always how you grew up and your cultural beliefs, and all these things always is what you are. You always carry them with you.”
As part of her voluntary work with ISWA, Barua has begun leading a program on domestic violence awareness, after discovering how high the statistics were in her community and the wider Australian society. She says creating this awareness has helped people speak out when they otherwise wouldn’t. “It’s a social stigma as well. You got married in India, you came here, and if you go back how it’s going to … the social stigma is there as well, how people are going to look at that,” she says. “It’s been now quite, I believe, after one year of working, I believe people are getting aware of it and they are coming out.”
Entrepreneur Samar Kohli, who lives in Sydney, realised a need for more conversation in the South Asian community around social issues and gender equality. As the manager of Bollywood Empire club in Parramatta, he recently founded a new magazine Womanity – aimed at South Asian women living in Australia.
As well as Bollywood fashion tips, health and community news, the magazine will broach little-discussed topics such as domestic violence and dowry abuse – an issue found by a Senate committee in February 2019 to be continually significant in Australia. Kohli, together with the magazine’s editor-in-chief Ambika Subramanian, launched the concept in early June, with hard copies expected in the following months.
Barua says although there are less taboos among migrant Indians in Australia, social stigma still remains, particularly amongst their own community. “Definitely there is a need and I think it’s better to have more and more open discussions about it,” she says.
The 2019 India Study Tour was funded under the Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.