India is home to a whopping 17.5% of the total world population. Half of this population is its women. No, correction, less than half, courtesy the disproportionate sex ratio. There are many factors that bring so many different people together but it is shameful that of all these things, it is hypocrisy and generalised misogyny that unite India. Yes, they seem like categorical assertions at first glance and may even seem exaggerated, but the statistics backing this are overwhelming. However, I’m not going to delve deeper into the general plight of womankind in India. Instead, I’ll zoom in on a significantly smaller and more insignificant group within this set — the unmarried young Indian woman, more specifically in urban centres.
I may seem too critical of my own country, but perhaps such a critique is necessary. We are often so blinded by our need to look politically correct to ourselves and to the outside world that we forget to point out what is in fact strange or even deplorable. For instance, I could say most Indian cities are not safe for women and automatically a wave of people are likely to echo Barkha Dutt’s remarks to show their patriotic fervour. But that doesn’t take care of the problem does it? Unless, you believe there isn’t a problem. Well in that case, let me show you the problem.
Coming back to the hypocrisy and the misogyny that I spoke of earlier. The misogyny is clearly visible to anyone with access to a newspaper. It has spread like a disease across state lines. A decade ago, it was only Delhi that held the blame for victim bashing and an overwhelming number of cases of violence against women. But over the years, as accurately pointed out by Rama Chandra Guha in his article in the Hindustan Times early this year, cities like Bangalore and Bombay have also been added to the list. The extent may be debateable but their addition is undisputed. There are frequent reports about women being harassed or raped for being out ‘too late’ or going to specific areas of the city. So the state of the nation is not progressing in spite of its economic leaps. The hypocrisy I spoke of is more stark in comparison, and has perpetuated itself like a parasite feeding on this inherent unspoken misogyny. Victim bashing is one of the many examples. The hypocrisy is apparent from some of the finer details of our everyday lives in fact. The unmarried young woman today has more access to education and oftentimes a disposable income. She is no longer required to marry quickly and be dependent on a man. However, her sexual needs must to this day be invisible. If you ask a man in his twenties if he has had any sexual partners, the answer is a definite, if not a proud yes. But ask a woman, and the answer is predictably no. So who are these men having sex with?
The predictable no stems from a large number of reasons. The first being the shame and guilt associated with sex. This shame and guilt is rooted deeply in a fear of social isolation and concerns about the family name. The Indian obsession with virgins is a thriving one. It hasn’t faded with the recent trend in Bollywood movies. In fact it has been reinstated to some extent. The ideal girl should not be Sunny Leone dancing to Babydoll but instead be more like Diana Penty in Cocktail.
In a video taken of Indian men (below) where men were asked if they would marry Sunny Leone, their responses highlight everything I’ve stated above. They openly admit that they wouldn’t mind having their way with her but they’d prefer a more docile ‘decent’ woman while considering marriage. Their responses had nothing to do with a woman’s personality but everything to do with societal perceptions. They think of sex when they think of her and ergo she must not be good for the long run. In a sense, they believe that a sexually free woman who openly admits to it is not ‘marriage material’.
So a woman who admits to having sex, must by inference be a slut. And you can’t bring a slut home to your family. Here I’d like to add that a slut in this context is different from the Western understanding of the word. In India, admitting to a single partner before marriage sometimes is capable of earning a woman that name. It’s hardly a string of lovers.
I suppose it is time to address the ‘not all men’ argument. Yes of course, to say ‘every Indian man’ would be wrong. There are men who do not accept or adopt this mindset and will have the spine to pick who they think is right irrespective of a woman’s sexual past. I hate to say this out loud but most men in their fancy suits are often closeted cavemen. Most men are outwardly liberal thinking about everything but a closer look will reflect the same ‘values’ as their conservative counterparts. Yes, most of my friends would prefer a woman with some experience. But only a handful would actually consider anything beyond a relationship for a few blank years until it is ‘time’. They would ultimately take the oft beaten track of an arranged marriage that ensures a virgin bride or a woman who is approved by the family.
To be absolutely honest, it’s not just men who are to blame. It is also women to some extent. Very often, the elders in the family keeping these beliefs strong are women themselves. They have no qualms about judging women for choices available to women today which were not previously available . They continue to judge younger women by standards applied 30 or 40 odd years ago. No matter how accomplished a woman may be, the pressure to get married builds once she crosses the age of 25. It’s not just men in the family, but women too who convince young women that pursuing that brilliant job is not as valuable as having a family. And it’s always one or the other. Or, worse yet, there’s the conventional I-won’t-see-her-married-in-my-lifetime sentiment that tops the emotional blackmail list. So young women, who may have been able to wait a good 5 or 6 years or until whenever they preferred, are pressured into marriage. There is an air of ‘you’ve had your fun, and we can’t allow a girl of 26 to run around freely anymore’. Stifling as it sounds, it is undeniably a reality in many households. So the current societal structure promotes such a notion without adapting to the global needs and changes of the times.
This attitude is quite confusing for me because the times have changed and yet antiquated standards continue to be applied to judge a woman’s worth. Pre-existing notions of sex being associated with recklessness are baseless. In fact, fears of getting pregnant held some women back, but not all. In spite of these fears, there are many love stories that didn’t end badly for young women who followed the course of any modern day romance. This was well before oral contraception and IUDs became available. . Women today have access to birth control and education and therefore are capable of balancing it all. Sex should have nothing to do with a person’s worth. In fact, morality should have nothing to do with sex. Morality I admit is relative, but a liberal interpretation allows that as long as something does not harm another it has no moral consequences whatsoever. Yet “morality” is one of the excuses used to ensure women never step out to get what they want or are entitled to.
There’s another aspect that is quite frightening. An alarming number of women are killed in the name of honour when they go against these family values. Premarital sex or a relationship with someone disapproved of by the girl’s family may actually cost her her life. There is an unknown number of murders of women and young girls which are often falsely labelled as “suicides” or “accidents”. So the fear of being found out is sometimes life threatening. Its assumed that urban centres are free from this but that is not the case. In cities it’s quieter but it happens. Sometimes the woman gets physically hurt and abused by her own family even if she isn’t killed. All of this for something any liberal society would consider common-place.
Bollywood has an undeniable role in shaping how a majority of Indians think even today. In the 90s there was a long list of movies concentrating on the importance of family values and traditions. The Millennium saw a distinct change and brought in themes like live-in relationships. But the 90s still linger on in TV soaps and even advertisements. A film that had probably the most impact on any generation was Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or DDLJ. Shah Rukh Khan plays the persistent, in fact annoying boy who continues to flirt with Kajol sometimes against her will. Today, we’d term it harassment. Bollywood called it classic romance. But what was the result? It left generations of young men who believed harassment was appropriate behaviour. In fact, a Defence lawyer in Australia argued on behalf of his Indian client in a case of stalking that his client believed it was appropriate behaviour after citing a list of Bollywood films!
So men on the streets justify stalking and leering, even mustering up the courage to approach a woman who shows no interest, believing that its normal to do so. Men go even further and pass comments and leer when they see couples walking together. This has happened to me when I was walking with my boyfriend in Delhi. I am dating someone who isn’t Indian and is strikingly older than I am. So the stares were more severe and they followed me everywhere. Hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and even the Delhi metro! To make matters worse, a man had the audacity to come up to me in Khan Market and spurt “[get an] Indian boyfriend”. My boyfriend was infuriated and quite shocked. No one expects this kind of behaviour. But it kept happening and it was exhausting and embarrassing to say the least.
There’s another perception about sex that I came across in those two weeks in Delhi. Most people assume that a Western man is obviously having sex, and a lot of it. Well, good for the Western man I say! But the reaction was quite appalling. The receptionist at our hotel, a 5-star one, acted very strangely. He gave me the dirtiest look and in his attempt to finish off with us as quickly as possible, he didn’t bother giving us any information about the WiFi or breakfast. His look told me that he thought I was a whore for living with a Western man and that I should be ashamed of it. Apparently the hospitality industry also isn’t exempt from the realm of prejudice. Just when I thought Delhi was bad, Calcutta managed to provide some solid competition. At the hotel in Calcutta, the room was checked in for the two of us and yet the receptionists would not allow me upstairs when I came back separately. I was told that it was against hotel policy. My boyfriend made a call to confirm that I was with him and it was still a problem. After a bit of fuss they accepted it. But it’s quite strange. If I were a man, sharing a room with a Western woman, they wouldn’t have dared to throw hotel policy in my face. It’s quite appalling that when we’re using nanotechnology and other technological marvels, women are still judged for having lovers.
Well, if you are a woman, even health professionals are going to judge you for having lovers. I went to a gynaecologist for advice about contraception and its side effects and the first question I was asked is if I was married or considering marriage. Marriage according to my doctor was somehow the only license to have sex. I managed to steer away from her intrusive questions and decided never to go back there. I decided I wasn’t quite ready to pay a woman to judge me for my life.
The reality is that she isn’t the only one. Most of my friends avoid health care professionals as much as they possibly can. Relying almost solely on the Internet and the experience of a friend or her friend or someone they hardly know, these young women neglect their own health. Popping emergency contraception like candy, buying over-the-counter drugs that they are not quite sure of, and dealing with side effects like they’ll get used to it, these women continue to toy with their health to an alarming degree. It’s not just those close to me, but women’s health by and large is one of the most neglected things in the country. Women are too ashamed to go get help. In fact, most of their reluctance is due to this kind of judgment. There is no comprehensive data that can to a reasonable amount of accuracy estimate the exact extent of this neglect. So we’re down to observing people around us. But you don’t need a survey for this because its quite obvious why women don’t come forward.
Sexual health is such a taboo that even pharmacies are ill-stocked. If a woman needed to buy lube, she would have to buy it online in order to get it. Most pharmacies don’t have it. Women who use substitutes cause themselves greater harm because oil causes harmful side effects. A friend and I went to buy a lube as part of a social experiment of sorts in a metropolitan city and we realised that even pharmacies associated with hospitals did not have it, and the personnel had never heard of it. The only place we did see it was in an obscure corner in a departmental store. Therefore, thousands of women had no access to it without the Internet. In comparison to other countries where you could pick one up just about anywhere and while you buy your groceries, Indian cities have no stocks or information about a product that deals with mainly women’s sexual health and wellness. This is just another example of the ignorance that surrounds sexual needs of women, married or otherwise.
Women’s health and safety are issues that have been discussed of late in the media, particularly on social media. I just want to add that without an acceptance of who women are, inclusive of their sexual needs, these terms will forever remain lofty concepts people throw around at parties. Women will continue to be pushed around and shamed because that is the norm.
So sex, in an Indian city for a young unmarried woman is quite like smuggling in contraband. It is immoral to the point of being socially unacceptable or even illegal, though not declared so by law yet. You never admit to it even though you enjoy it. And if you do, you will have people smear your good name and that of those you care about because you are heading in the wrong direction on society’s moral compass.
Author Bio: The author is a passionate debater and an ardent equal rights advocate. And in spite of all the criticism, she believes in Love in a 14-year-old kind of way. She would like to remain anonymous.