The 'Indian culture' of all-pervasive misogyny and sexism

Sitting in India, it has been peculiar to see the Harvey Weinstein stories, followed by numerous other #metoo declarations by women in many places. Major figures in the media, in the news, in comedy and in politics in the US have tumbled. There was also a list of academics from Indian institutions, gathered together by a student living abroad.

But, I have been waiting in vain for the conversation to widen, for the discussion to move from the in-your-face sexual attacks to outright sexism, the normalised discrimination, patriarchy and the misogyny in which both women and men are active participants in India and elsewhere. Women, too, while not generally thinking, planning and colluding with men on bigotry, end up being part of the larger social fabric of sexual discrimination. India has sadly become infamous for all expressions of sexism from its mild to its most rotten forms.

I lived in Bombay until I was 22 and then went abroad for higher education, training and work. The experience of living in a deeply patriarchal society when I was a child, teenager, and a young adult was different from what I now experience as a mature woman. But, the return experience after roughly half my life overseas has filled me with a disappointment that I did not anticipate.

Decades ago, the kind of sexism I faced even as a relatively privileged lower middle-class girl included outright statements about women's roles, how one needed to fulfil expectations, how I should appear, what to wear or not, how to position my legs when I sat or stood, what hair should be removed to fulfil (the sometimes Western) notion of beauty, what hair should be grown, how I should acknowledge and demonstrate an acceptance of authority of men, how late I could stay out, and so on.

This is all probably not noteworthy, except that men do not face any of these limitations on their movement, appearance, behaviour, and so on. To be sure, they have the responsibility of defining a career, and perhaps studying subjects they are not interested in, but they are perceived as the rightful heirs to parental affection, respect, and wealth - in short, the family's silver spoon. Data on India from numerous reports already show that on education, health, infant and child health and mortality, and quality of life, girl children are denied systematically in contrast with males in the same families.

This is not to make light of the escalating numbers of rapes, attacks on women, child marriages and women thrown into prostitution. But it is important to keep on drawing attention to the roles that everyone plays in the broader "Indian culture" of patriarchy - sadly there is nothing that knits our extraordinarily diverse society and defines us better than our misogyny.

My return to India a decade ago has made me realise that the discrimination I learned to ignore in family networks has remained unchanged and has now expanded to also encompass the workplace and elsewhere in daily life. Colleagues, bosses, friends at work and casual acquaintances all have different ways of bullying, ignoring or undermining women.

Let me count the ways

The political Right, Left and Centre are all equally guilty with regard to gender discrimination, as are women and men in supporting the system. After all, mothers and other female members within families also sustain the system. In different parts of the world, the expression of patriarchy may vary depending on the place and context. The Swedish actress Paulina Porizkova, writing in The New York Times earlier this year, explained how shocking her US experience was compared with life in Sweden and how it made her a feminist. Growing up in India, I think I may have been a feminist ever since I opened my eyes.

In the US, sexism, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are all perhaps more obvious in the workplace than elsewhere; in India, it is everywhere. Outright condescension and bullying take place in the home and on the road, in shops and buses, in restaurants and at work.

The experience of it transcends everything and is universal, placing a weight over you, much like the way racism operates in many parts of Europe and the Americas. In its most gentle form, women are simply ignored. One common expression occurs as a higher bar that is set for women than men. Women are expected, subtly perhaps, to be even better than a man in the same place or role.

For example, a woman would be viewed as arrogant or rude - the man as confident and getting the job done - in the same circumstance. Those on the left may worry about the poor, outcastes and colour prejudice, but trample over women just as easily. It is this unconscious or conscious higher bar set for women even among enlightened social settings that punches you in the stomach and shows how far the country and our society have to go. These are deep prejudices and there are many for whom the chauvinism or bigotry lasts a long time, especially when it gets "hooked" through an emotional anchor of a loved family member or a friend at work.

Some of the recent discussion, especially in the US and Europe, has ventured into the larger social context of misogyny and discrimination, but this has not happened in India. Here in India, the conversation on #metoo itself feels like a Hollywood movie, something happening far away. Hardly any of it has seeped into the everyday sexual attacks occurring here and perpetuated by politicians, business leaders and others.

Having more women in senior positions in organisations, on boards, committees, decision-making bodies and so on is a good start, but none of these will make a difference in a country where women are not heard. We need the right policies to educate girl children, to support them in higher education, improve their health and the overall quality of their lives. It is equally important to recognise and reflect on our own prejudices and how they drive our actions.

Therefore, mindful and deliberate processes involving conversations around everyday sexism and misogyny will be necessary in order to fully address this in our society. It is not enough to respond with "oh, sexism is everywhere".

(The writer is a scientist who works on science, technology and policy)

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