Women’s rights under threat in parts of India

India is in the throes of a violent spasm of moral angst about the rights of women and ‘decadent’ western culture.

What began with a group of youths attacking young women drinking in a bar in Mangalore in the south has escalated into a full blown national convulsion with Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan, decrying pubs and bars and “the shopping mall culture where couples walk around hand in hand”.

Gehlot also said his government would have a strict liquor policy limiting the opening of bars and pubs, especially those near temples and parks.

But he sparked off a heated debate. The outcry from liberals and women’s groups forced Gehlot to backtrack.

“I can perform operations, fly a plane, go into space, and run multi-nationals but I can’t have a drink with a friend. This is about basic women’s rights, my right to decide how to live my life,” said New Delhi history student Pushpa Tiwari.

Television and newspapers are debating the definition of “pub culture”. Does it denote dancing, taking drugs, and promiscuity? Or does it simply mean relaxing with friends over a drink?

The current debate on “moral policing” symbolises a country in flux, struggling to hold on to tradition while embracing modernity and coping with lifestyles and social conduct that were unthinkable a generation ago.

Young Indian women embody the contradictions thrown up by this social churning. A television news channel spoke to several Mumbai women who vigorously defended their right to visit bars, wear jeans and skirts, and mix freely with men.

But they refused to speak on camera lest their parents see them. The clash between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ India was starkly highlighted in the reactions to a gang rape of a young woman last month.

The attack happened as the woman sat in a parked car with her boyfriend in Noida, just outside Delhi.

While ‘new’ India was horrified at the rape, the nearby village, on the outskirts of Noida, where the alleged rapists lived, defended their ‘boys’.

Any woman found sitting in a car with a man who was unrelated to her was asking for trouble, they told reporters.

Yet, on occasion, the ambiguities of this rapid social change also creates grey areas where the opposing camps meet. For example, Gehlot has shut down 800 liquor shops saying women need to be protected against violent drunken men.

This enjoys the support of some women’s groups. “We see the family misery caused by poor men squandering their income on alcohol while their wives and children go hungry,” said Karima Singh, a women’s activist in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

“Liquor shops are opening next to villages so that men can buy a bottle on their way home.”

Popular with foreign tourists, Rajasthan has acted in the past against ‘PDA’ (Public Displays of Affection) to avoid conflict between foreigners and local people.

Prompted by a Finnish woman swimming naked in a sacred lake at Pushkar, the state government issued a list of do’s and don’ts for foreigners.



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