What is the ‘Real India’?

Thru’ the Looking Glass

It's not an ideal time for me to be visiting my family in Australia right now. The vexed issue of women's safety in India has once again hit the world stage (although the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is stealing some of the spotlight). Reports chronicling incidents of sexual violence have been flooding the news, propelled by the recent grisly gang rape and murder in Hyderabad. The UK and US have also issued travel advisories for India. It saddens me because it's not reflective of the country I love.

When asked about my life in India, I usually say it's easier than life in Australia in many ways. I have convenient access to services in Mumbai -- online shopping with fast free delivery and returns collected from my doorstep, tradesmen that don't charge a $100 fee just to come to my home, and medical specialists that I can see without an appointment or having to wait weeks. Items (umbrellas, shoes, appliances) can be cheaply and readily repaired. I drink coconut water fresh from coconuts sold below my building (not bottles from the supermarket). And, the grandest statement of all: I feel safe in Mumbai. It's a city where women go out at night, travel alone in auto rickshaws, and aren't threatened. Nowadays, people respond with scepticism rather than surprise, though. I can't blame them.

The news reports paint a disturbing and dangerous picture of India. Worried foreigners tell me they're apprehensive about visiting India. They want to know whether it's really that bad for women. Well, no. A friend's daughter is currently in India as part of her Global Studies degree at university. She's enjoying it so much that she doesn't want to return to Australia (I can relate!). The scariest thing that's happened to me, in 13-odd years living in India, is getting followed on a few occasions in crowded places in broad daylight. Of course, I'm frequently leered at by men. This ever-present eve-teasing causes India to be undeniably uncomfortable but not necessarily unsafe. In reality, the likelihood of a foreign female being raped in India is much less than that of an Indian female who may be familiar with the perpetrator.

No country is immune to sexual assault. However, what takes place in India afterwards is additionally troubling. In Uttar Pradesh, the men accused of a rape brutally attacked and set fire to the victim on the way to court. She died in hospital. A young male filmmaker announced on social media that the government should legalise a "Rape Without Violence Scheme", whereby women carry condoms and accommodate the sexual desires of men to avoid being harmed! To top it off, the police shot and killed, in an encounter, the four suspects of the Hyderabad gang rape and murder.

Where do I even begin trying to explain all that to people? It's guaranteed that at least one male politician will make a nonsensical remark that seeks to make light of the situation as well.

India has a serious problem, but it's not attributable to social status, education or poverty. It's a matter of mentality, of basic human decency and respect. Men need to value women, and understand and appreciate what consent is. My husband, although born in Mumbai, comes from a modest background in Odisha where statistics indicate offences against females are relatively high. Yet, he was brought up to treat women properly. His mother talked to him about how to behave, including physical interaction in a relationship. It all comes down to a person's thought process and what they think is okay, or not, to do. Most of that is learned at home when a person is growing up -- if not by being instructed, then from observing members of the family. The government has doubled the prison term for rapists. What it must do next is make it a crime for men to force their wives to have sex.

(Sharell Cook is trying to make sense of real India, one 'Like That Only' at a time)

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