India’s Women: The Mixed Truth

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Magnum Photos
Women shielding themselves from a dust storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983; photograph by Steve McCurry from his book Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs, which includes fourteen of his photo stories from India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other countries, along with essays about his work and ephemera from his personal archive. It has just been published by Phaidon.

“I am not a boy, I am a girl,” wrote a twenty-one-year-old woman in Delhi, called Jyoti, who was studying at a medical college to be a physiotherapist. This was in a text message sent in December 2010 to a twenty-six-year-old man who worked in information technology and who had initially taken Jyoti to be a man. They met, and what began as a casual communication became a close friendship.

Two years later, on December 16, 2012, after they had seen a film, The Life of Pi, Jyoti was gang-raped with extreme brutality, and the man was severely beaten as he tried to protect her. They had been tricked into boarding a bus that seemed to be going their way and that had offered them a ride. It was a closed bus with darkened windows in which five determined rapists were waiting for their prey, with their impatience heightened, it is alleged, by the drugs they had taken. The battered bodies of the abused pair were dropped off on a lonely street, and by the time Jyoti received medical attention, she was on her way to death from the injuries, despite specialized medical care in Delhi, and later in Singapore.

The gang rape, including the violence accompanying it, not only got headlines in every serious Indian newspaper, it received continuous coverage around the clock on radio, television, and cable channels. It also led to large-scale public protests and demonstrations that continued for many days in Delhi as well as in other Indian cities, with agitated crowds—men and women—much larger than any seen before in protests of this kind. The insecurity of women, including their vulnerability to rape and abuse, became overnight a national issue in a way it had never been.

Public anger at gender inequality in India must be seen as an important—and long-overdue—social development, and it can certainly help in remedying the persistent inequalities from which Indian women suffer. It is, however, very important to understand the nature of female disadvantage in India, which can take many different forms. If the lack of safety of women is one aspect of it, the old phenomenon of “boy preference” in family decisions is surely another. Boy preference relates closely to the deep-rooted problem of what has been called “missing women,” which refers to the shortfall of the actual number of women from the number we would expect to see, given the size of the male population, and the female–male ratios that could be expected if there were symmetry in the treatment…


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