Women in India


The reason that I’m writing about women in India is twofold: first, because I was shocked at their position in society and how the majority of them live; and second, because Indians make up about 16% of the world’s population, and thus the living conditions of Indian women represent the living conditions of a large percentage of the world’s women.

Women have been called by Barber Conable, the one-time president of the World Bank, “the poorest of the world’s poor. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work. They produce 60 to 80 percent of Africa’s and Asia’s food, 40 percent of Latin America’s. Yet they earn only one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.” We saw and felt this overwhelming discrimination in India, and I was thus moved to write about it.

My conclusions about women in India come from three sources: firstly, my own experiences gathered from the almost six months that we spent in the country (in the cities, in rural villages, among the rich, and among the poor); secondly, from reading books, newspapers, and Internet sites that focused specifically on Indian women; and thirdly, from talking to other travelers about the things that they had seen. An especially well-written and revealing book is one entitled, “May You Be the Mother of A Hundred Sons” by Elisabeth Bumiller, an American journalist who spent several years in India, living with and interviewing both the village poor and the upper-crust elite such as Bollywood’s actresses and India’s Prime Minister.

I do not consider myself a feminist, and it was only after we started traveling to different regions of the world that I started to become more and more aware of the condition in which many of the world’s women live and the manner in which they are treated or discriminated against. Our media usually focuses on the inequalities and oppression that many women in the Middle East face, talking about the chador or the burka or other laws that keep women subjugated. But it seems to me that the majority of Indian women have it even harder. If I used to consider myself just a person, I’ve started more and more to think of myself as a woman and to be aware of the overwhelming hardships that many fellow women must face on a daily basis.


Approximately 1/6 of the world’s population lives in India, and 75% of those people live in one of India’s 560,000 villages, typically made up of 5000 people or less. Therefore, describing Indian village life and the life of a typical Indian woman is to describe the ways of a large portion of humanity. Elisabeth Bumiller describes the life of an Indian woman:

“The typical Indian woman, representing about 75 percent of the <550 million> women and female children in India, lives in a village. She comes from a small peasant family that owns less than an acre of land, or from a landless family that depends on the whims of big farmers for sporadic work and wages. She can neither read nor write, although she would like to, and has rarely traveled more than twenty miles from her place of birth. She does not own land in her own name, or even jointly with her husband. She believes that she catches colds and fevers from evil spirits that lurk in trees. Her occupation is field work, chiefly harvesting, planting and weeding, for which she often receives less than 50 cents a day – in many cases, half the wage that a man receives for the same amount of work. She has to juggle this labor with her other full-time job, the care of the house and the children. Her husband does not help her; indeed, he does not even consider what she does at home as work.”

A village woman starts her life from scratch every day. Even a single chapatti, the Indian flat bread, has behind it a chain of drudgery that has not changed in thousands of years. To make a chapatti, a woman needs water, which is often several miles away by foot. She also needs wheat, which she must harvest by scythe, under a blazing sun, in a back-breaking bent-forward motion, and then grind by hand. To cook the bread she needs fuel, either firewood, which she collects herself, or cow-dung cakes, which she makes herself. To get the dung she must feed the cow, and to feed the cow she must walk several miles to collect suitable grasses. (This assumes that the family is lucky enough to even have a cow; many do not.) The bread is at last prepared over a small mud stove built into the dirt floor of her hut. While she cooks, she breast-feeds one child and watches three others. If she fails in any of these tasks, or performs them too slowly, her husband often feels it is his prerogative to beat her. And yet invariably she considers her husband a god and says that she loves him. I used to ask village women exactly why they loved their husbands, a question that always confused them. “I love him because he gives me food and clothes” was the usual answer. in a leap of logic explained that she loved her husband ‘because if I don’t, he will beat me.’”

A woman at the time of her menstrual period is considered impure, and in some isolated areas, the women are made to sleep outside of their family homes until the bleeding was finished. Superstition convinced them that if they returned to their homes, they “would go blind or eventually be punished – perhaps her husband or son would fall sick, or the harvest would fail.

A woman like this may begin producing babies as early as the age of fourteen. She delivers them on the floor of her hut, usually with the help of her mother-in-law or a dai, an untrained village midwife. There is a good chance the child will grow up malnourished, with iron and vitamin A deficiencies, and without basic inoculations to protect against polio, typhoid, diphtheria and tetanus. One in ten children in India will not live to be a year old. If the child is a girl, there is an even smaller chance that she will survive, even though girls are biologically stronger at birth than boys. This is because the girl will often be given less food and care than her brother. Assuming she lives, she may go, erratically, to a one-room village school but will be pulled out whenever her mother needs help with the other children and the chores in the house. Her education is over when she is married off as a teenager to a young man she has never met; from then on, she will begin a new life with her husband’s family as a virtual beast of burden. ‘I am like an animal,’ Phula, the forty-year-old wife of a farmer, told me in a village in India’s northern plains. ”


I’ll look at the cases of village women who belong to three different socio-economic levels. The first woman, as a member of one of the village’s highest casts, is round from prosperity and has not had to worry about being able to feed her children. However, even she, as a member of a higher caste, never pauses in her unending cycle of cooking and cleaning. She leaves her house only about one time per month, covering her face with her sari until she is beyond the limits of her village, where she is freed by her anonymity. Showing her face in the village would have hurt the reputation of her family. Aside from this monthly excursion, she was confined to the several small rooms of her house. Her “purdah,” or seclusion, was a sign of respect for her husband, showing that he could afford to provide for her and that he had a possession that had to be kept safe. As one husband clearly explained, “I am a man. She is a woman. So she cannot go anywhere. This is my rule.”

The second case was of a woman from one of the lowest castes. She worked in the fields when one of the large landowners would hire her and on the other days received a few cents for pulling water out of the rich families’ well. She never made more than 50 cents per day and was lucky to find work 15 days per month. She was often forced to beg at the large landowners’ houses. She often didn’t have enough food, and would drink water if she felt hungry.

The third woman is the wife of a prosperous middle-caste farming family, who enjoyed neither the status of the upper castes nor experienced the misery of the lower castes. But she experienced the hardships of both worlds. She was forced into seclusion (it was often the striving middle-class families who secluded their women the most rigidly). She left the house only two or three times per year, to see her mother. The rest of the time, since her marriage as a teenager, she lived as a virtual servant in her in-laws’ house, cooking and cleaning for her husband’s parents and family, and eating only after everyone else in the family had finished.

India is an enormous country and has many different regions and customs. One thing that perplexed us was the way in which women in different regions were expected to cover themselves. I say “perplexed” because it often seemed to change, even within the same village. For example, as we were biking in the countryside in Rajasthan, we often passed groups of women walking along the road, carrying heavy loads on their heads or pails of water or great bundles of branches. In our example, let’s say that there are three women walking together. The first woman did not wear a veil on her head. The second wore her sari around her head to cover her hair. The third did likewise, but would cover her mouth with the veil when we passed.

We couldn’t figure out the reasons for these differences among women who were walking and working together. But we noticed in looking at photos in some Indians’ homes (especially in Rajasthan) that the women even covered their faces (even if they did not have to be covered at home, they were expected to do so in public). This was more typical of the north than of the south (some say that the large Muslim influence and long invasion in the north influenced how the northern women dressed).

We spoke with tourists who stayed with an Indian family in Rajasthan. The young wife had to completely cover her face at all times – even inside the house – and in front of all family members except for her husband and his sisters. This included even her mother-in-law. The daughter-in-law had always to cover herself as a sign of respect. For example, the two women would work together in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, and the young girl would not only have to perform her work efficiently, but also have to be sure that her mother-in-law didn’t see her face by accident. The two women even kept separate cooking fires.


Only 48% of women in India are literate. It is improving, but slowly. Boys are sent to school much more often than girls because it is the boys who, when married, remain at their parents’ houses and support their parents in their old age. Therefore, it was practical economics. Daughters left the house when they were married, and were thus seen as a wasted investment. Many girls were not sent to school at all, or if so, very irregularly.


It is believed that the status of women deteriorated only within the last 2000 years or so. Before this, some historians have theorized, there was an ancient ‘golden age,’ around 1000 B.C., in which women held a higher status. It is believed that a deterioration in the status of women came with the invasion of the Aryans, who were determined to keep themselves separate from India’s indigenous tribes – which scholars believe eventually led to the Hindu caste system. Elaborate rules determined who could marry whom. “To avoid pollution, you must control birth. But you lose control over birth if you lose control over women.”

Girls were married off at a younger age, were barred from religious rituals, and widows were not permitted to remarry. Between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., the upper-caste law codifier Manu produced the first compilation of Hindu law, which assigned to women the status of chattel. “Woman is as foul as falsehood itself,” he wrote. “From the cradle to the grave a woman is dependent on a male: in childhood on her father, in youth on her husband, in old age on her son.”


Most Indian women are married as teenagers to men they have never met. They leave their parents’ homes to live with their new husband in his family’s home. They are usually treated as a servant or a slave. Indian husbands often feel it is their prerogative to beat their wives, and in a study, it was found that more than half the men were closer to their mothers than to their wives.

Social historians conclude that duty and procreation were traditionally more important in Indian marriage than sexual satisfaction. Husband and wife have never been regarded as equals. Manu, the Hindu law codifier, wrote that a husband, “though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities,” must be “constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.” Some say that most of the violence in India comes from repressed sexuality. “Most Indian men, whether rich, poor or middle-class, use their wives as sleeping pills,” conclude sex therapists.

Violence against women is an undisputed fact, and wife-beating and domestic violence are often a daily occurrence.


When tourists talk about life in India, it is not uncommon for the subject of bride burnings to come up. We read a lot about bride burnings, including the information from the following site:

Fire represents many things in India and, for Hindus, accompanies all religious rituals and rites of passage. But by far the most horrific events that take place around a fire are the practices of “bride burning” and sati.

Though not as common as they had been at one time, bride burnings are still common enough in India to make international headlines and to be a real social evil. In the late 1980’s (I didn’t obtain more recent figures), more than 600 bride burnings were carried out per year in the capital of New Delhi alone. Most of the women died.

In essence, bride burnings are attempted murder – most often carried out by the husband and his mother – in order to get a higher dowry. The mother-in-law is often a dominate figure in the violence and harassment. The burnings usually occur during the first year of marriage, after a history of continual beatings, harassment, and violence. In fact, if the first wife is dispensed with, the husband is then free to look for another bride, who will hopefully bring a higher dowry to the family. Bride burnings transcend caste and religion. Even after the continued violence, it is rare for the woman or her parents to report it to the police or to take legal action against the demand for dowry (which is illegal). Oftentimes, the girl is persuaded or coerced by her own parents to bear everything quietly and to return to the violent home. They are often told that once married they should bear all pain and humiliation and should leave the in-law’s house only after death.

There is not much recourse for the few women that do survive. Often, the husband and his family will say that it was an attempted suicide or that it was an accident at the kitchen stove. If she survives, the burned bride will usually go back to the husband (because her own family will not accept her back, being another mouth to feed that earns only half of what the men in the family make). For fear of a repeat incident, the burned bride will often say herself that it was an accident in the kitchen. Even if she does decide to prosecute, most of the judges are male and are not likely to be sympathetic to the woman. Plus, police investigations are often indifferent and the law impotent. Even routine court proceedings in India turn into such prolonged episodes that it is not unusual for litigation to survive the litigants themselves!

Though described as the most common marital pastime in India, wife-beating is certainly not confined to India alone. But the dowry related violence and bride-burnings are, however, two criminal phenomenon peculiar to India. This violence against women remains an undisputed fact.


Another violence involving women and fire is the practice of “sati,” in which widows are burned alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. At one time, it had been a common practice in India, especially among the feudal warlords of Rajasthan. Its origins are not clear, however, as references to sati first appear in the Hindu epics about 2000 years ago. Around the first century A.D., sati gained support by the Hindu law codifiers, who described it as a great honor. It was chiefly practiced by the upper class and reflected the belief that a man’s possessions – and his wife was his chief possession – could come with him into the next world if they were burned along with him. In addition, it was considered “a better alternative for a widow than facing a miserable life of abuse from her in-laws, who frequently blamed her for her husband’s death, made her sleep on the floor and kept her isolated from the rest of the family and all social functions. Many widows were beaten, denied food and forced to beg in the streets.”

The romantic accounts of sati told in the Rajput legends differ greatly from the accounts of European travelers who wrote of widows who were drugged, tied down to stakes, or pushed back on the funeral pyre with poles. The British were horrified by sati and outlawed it in 1829, and it was believed that the practice had all but died out, until a well-publicized case shocked the nation in the 1980’s. An 18-year-old girl committed sati on her husband’s pyre in Rajasthan, and in the several days that followed, half a million people came to worship at the spot, cheering, applauding, and frenzied.

It is said that the girl fell off the pyre with her feet scorched and had to be helped back on. By this time, nearly every Rajput household in the village had brought pails of clarified butter to throw onto the wood until it burst into flames. It is unclear whether the girl committed sati of her own free will or whether she was coerced or perhaps drugged.

However, it is certain that girls are continually told that there is no higher achievement for a woman. “It is glamorized, it is eulogized,” said one Rajput woman. “It is drilled into us, whether we are educated or not, that the husband is a god figure. It is the ultimate achievement for a girl. We were always told that no matter what your husband was like, you should never, ever think of leaving him.”

It is believed that committing sati guaranteed that a woman, her husband, and seven future generations of the family would have a direct passport to heaven and would be released from the painful cycle of birth and rebirth.

Although it is rare, sati is still committed in India, and the frenzied crowd that was cheering the young woman’s death says a lot about the status of women in India. It is not clear whether the sati was performed willingly, but as the same Rajput woman points out, “If a woman does not have the right to decide whether she wants to marry, and when, and whom, how far she wants to study, whether she wants to take a particular job or not, how is it that she suddenly gets the right to take such a major decision as whether she wants to die?”


Sex-selective abortions, and especially female infanticide, are two of the results of discrimination against girls and women in India. A lot of it comes down to economics. Boys are valued more highly because they earn twice as much money as girls for the same work, and because they will stay in their parents’ homes when they marry and support them in their old age. Also, families are sometimes forced to pay astronomical dowry prices for girls. Even for wealthy families who could afford to have girls, it is an embarrassment for most to have no boys. As one woman said, “Our society makes you feel so bad if you don’t have a son.” A well-known Hindu blessing given to women at the time of their marriage is, “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” The birth of a boy is always celebrated, whereas the birth of a daughter is often viewed as a calamity.

It is not only for Hindus that this holds true. Muslims hope for boys, as well. I remember the look on one young man’s face when we spoke about children. He saw that Stephane and I were married and then wished that I would have several sons. I said that I would like to have daughters as well, and he looked absolutely shocked. “Why?” he asked me, as if having a daughter was the worst thing that could happen to one in life.

Some poor families kill their infant daughters in order to spare the costs of astronomical dowries that would ruin them when they marry the girl off. At best, many families saw a daughter as an investment with little return: she would never earn as much as a boy in the fields and her small contribution from labor would end when she was married. Some families felt that “putting a child to sleep” was their only choice. Elisabeth Bumiller interviewed several families who had done just that. One of the mothers said, “I don’t feel sorry that I have done this. Actually, I think that I have done the right thing. Why should a child suffer like me?”

Female infanticide has existed in India for at least several centuries. The British first documented it in the late 18th century, principally among upper castes in the north. In some areas, officials discovered entire villages without even one single female child! In her book entitled “British Social Policy and Female Infanticide in India,” Lalita Panigrahi recounts the experience of an official who, “in conversation with a group of landowners in eastern Uttar Pradesh in 1835 happened to refer to one of them as the son-in-law of another. ‘This mistake raised a sarcastic laugh among them and a bystander briefly explained that he could not be a son-in-law since there were no daughters in the village. Thomason was told that the birth of a daughter was considered a most seriously calamity and she was seldom allowed to live. No violent means were resorted to, but she was left to die from neglect and want of food.’” Apparently, the chief reason was the high price of dowries among the upper castes and the problem of finding good husbands from a limited supply of suitable grooms. Not marrying a daughter was unthinkable because it brought disgrace on a family.

Though the British outlawed the practice in 1870, it still exists today. Barely two decades ago, “India Today” published an article entitled “Born to Die”, which estimated that 6000 baby girls had been poisoned to death in a district in Tamil Nadu. An agricultural worker reported that “There is hardly a poor Kallar family in which a female baby has not been murdered sometime or the other during the last ten years.”

Abortion is expensive and the mother has to rest at home, so instead of spending money and losing income, the parents prefer to deliver the child and kill it. Even when girls are not poisoned or murdered outright, they are often left to die. Parents deny baby girls the same food and medical care that boy babies receive. They suffer more from severe malnutrition and die more often than boy babies, even though girls are biologically stronger as newborns than boys. This neglect is quite common, and 10% of baby girls in India will die before the age of five.

This discrimination continues throughout a woman’s life, making India one of the few nations in the world where men outnumber women, and where the ratio of women to men has declined over the last century.

In fact, contrary to what might be expected, it is the most prosperous states that have the worst sex ratio. The wealthy are able to afford tests that determine the sex of a fetus. The test was widely promoted in the 80’s with such slogans as “Better 500 rupees now than 500,000 later” (playing on dowry fears). Since then, it has been made illegal to have such a test, though it still occurs. I saw a sign in the Jaslok Hospital in Bombay that reminded one of the ban on sex determination: “All Angels come from Heaven, but some never make it down to Earth.”

One of the first articles that I read in an Indian newspaper talked about this sex ratio problem. Written by Anna Dani in October or November 2004, it was entitled “Death in the Womb: Sex Selection Law Fails to Check Foeticide” and was published in a Delhi paper. I’ve included excerpts below:

”The desire for a male child at all costs in India has now resulted in an alarming scenario. The child sex ratio for the country stands at 927 in 2001, down from 945 in 1991. The more prosperous states show ratios which have declined to less than 900 girls for 1000 boys…with Sangli the lowest at 850. Panhala taluka in Kolhapur district has the dubious distinction of recording a sex ratio of 796, similar to many districts in Punjab.

The discovery of the ultrasound technique has proved to be the nemesis of the female fetus in India. The medical fraternity was quick to see entrepreneurial opportunities in catering to insatiable demands for a male child. The portable ultrasound machine allowed doctors to go from house to house in towns and villages… The PNDT Act was a result of determined action by NGOs against grossly unethical medical terminations of healthy pregnancies.

Unfortunately, scientific inventions to detect genetic abnormalities, going far beyond the ultrasound technique, are playing a dubious role. PGD is made available in Thailand for sex selection of Indians who are aware of the law against such tests in the country.

All these techniques can be used to detect the sex of the fetus within four to six weeks of pregnancy, making abortions a less serious business than the usual methods that come into play only 14 weeks after pregnancy.

The law, however, permits ultrasound clinics, clinics for medical termination of pregnancies and assisted reproductive facilities as a routine matter and as a legitimate business…the law also permits abortions for failure of contraception.

…The preferred methods will obviously remain the cheaper and more dangerous ones such as ultrasound and amniocentesis in the second trimester of pregnancy. Beyond that, the culture of deliberate neglect also contributes to ultimate deaths of older girl children.”

One female gynecologist, Jayshree Patel, summed up the thoughts of many when she said that she favored sex selective abortion. “It is the lesser of two evils. The worse of the two evils is the state that a woman is going to face until the day she dies.”


Concerned about India’s population explosion, the federal government has for decades been promoting, with different programs, sterilization programs and family planning. One monetary coin even has the slogan, “Small Family Happy Family.” Unfortunately, many of these programs have not been successful, largely because the workers that are supposed to convince women to undergo sterilization operations are spread too thinly and do not have time to build up relationships and trust with the women – coming to see them only when they ask them to have the surgery. In addition, the aid workers often work under quotas, in which their pay will be docked if they don’t convince enough women to have the operations. In many cases, therefore, the figures are overstated, or the workers convince only older women who already have many children to undergo the operation. Women would be more likely to undergo the operation if health conditions were improved so that they would be more confident that their living children would survive and not die prematurely from illness. Also, many women who have no boys (or who have only one) still hope to have more boys.

For thousands of years, “dais,” or midwives (the untrained village women of the lowest castes), have delivered all of the babies in India. They still deliver most of the babies in rural areas, using age-old techniques, such as pushing on the mother’s stomach the moment she goes into labor (which risks rupture of the uterus). As Bumiller notes, “Dais often cut the baby’s umbilical cord with the nearest sharp implement, usually a dirty stone, knife or a sickle, and afterward smoothed the wound with cow dung, which they believed to be an antiseptic. Dais frequently told mothers not to give their babies milk until two or three days after birth, and also not to drink milk themselves during their pregnancies, since milk was believed to cause the baby to stick to the uterus during delivery. Dais further advised expectant mothers not to eat too much, saying that the baby would grow too big and not come out. Some dais told mothers that eating green vegetables caused miscarriages.” Not surprisingly, many women die in childbirth.

Several internet sites talk about the problems of the sterilization program. Some talk specifically about the program in Uttar Pradesh (the largest state in India), where the program is the worst in the country. One article, written in June 2004 by Abhijit Das, can be found by logging on to http://www.indiatogether.org/2004/jun/hlt-poplctrl.htm. Its findings are worrisome. As the author writes,

“The family planning programme, even without a sharp population control focus, is causing untold misery to millions of women in the state. Some examples and evidence is given below.

Women are coaxed, cajoled or coerced into agreeing for sterilization operations because they are easy ‘targets’. However once they have signed on the dotted line and the operation is over they are forgotten. But for women the operation is often the beginning of a new ordeal. For many the operation table becomes the death bed. There are hardly any recorded deaths from sterilization, but community level observations are showing that these are not uncommon.

Failures are a common feature of sterilization operations. Besides failures and repeat pregnancies, infection of the stitches or the operation wound site is also common. These women hardly get any care for dressing of their wounds or receive other medicines. It is hardly surprising that women suffer from various complications after sterilization operations. The condition of sterilization camps is abysmal in the state. There has been more than one report in recent years of bicycle pumps being used for putting air into the abdomen before laparoscopic operations. A recent study conducted by the group Healthwatch Uttar Pradesh showed that all the norms of standard practice are thrown by the wayside in the hurry to notch up one more case towards meeting the ‘target’. Government norms indicate that there should not be more than 20 cases in one camp and not more than 6 cases in one hour by one operating team. Evidence indicates that more than hundred cases are being done in camp situations and cases are completed in less than 3 minutes.

In addition to the hurry, and the concomitant risk of mistakes, there is hardly any attention paid to prevention and control of infection. However such camps are found to take place in schools where classrooms become makeshift operation theatres. Surgeons don’t remove their gloves after completing an operation (this can also add to the risk of HIV transmission) and instruments like the laparoscope are inadequately sterilized.

The family planning programme in the country is now respectfully referring to its ‘targets’, the women who undergo these operations, as clients. However this respect was hardly found in evidence during the conduct of the eleven camps surveyed by the group. Women were made to sign or add their thumb impression to consent forms without explaining what they were consenting to. They were not provided with any clean clothes, and the local anaesthesia was given to them outside the operation theatre a long time before the actual operation. During the operation the women were made to lie with their heads tilted down on a makeshift operative table with their petticoat covering their heads. They were heard moaning and screaming while the doctors were busy asking them to keep quiet. In one place the operations took place without any anaesthesia.

The case of Uttar Pradesh also highlights how ‘targeted’ population control programmes not only affect women who seek sterilization but any woman who needs government health care support. The whole health machinery in Uttar Pradesh is geared to implement the family planning program. The impact of this single minded devotion has been described earlier. But what also needs to be highlighted is the fact that there are no other services available for women. Uttar Pradesh has the highest maternal mortality figures in the country. Every year nearly 40,000 women lose their lives to pregnancy or maternity. According to the last round of the National Family Health Survey only 4% of pregnant women received all the required check ups, immunization and tests. Nearly 80% of the five million births that take place in the state are unsupervised and the government nurse reaches a measly 7% of these women after her delivery within 2 months.

This is the state of health services that is available to women in Uttar Pradesh even without a ‘targeted’ population control programme being implemented in the state. Surely, there must be some way to convince the United Progressive Alliance government that what women in these 150 districts need is a functioning health system and not another population control program.”


India has the highest rape rate in the world. In addition to being raped by strangers, women are often forced by their husbands to have sex against their will. In a study of middle-class men, over half admitted to forcing their wives to having sex against their will (this is not considered rape in terms of statistics).

Although we traveled around India by bicycle, most tourists travel by train and bus. We used a local bus only once, but from those tourists who frequently used local buses came stories of violence against women. To explain, apparently it is common for men and women to sit separately on buses (especially in certain states or regions). This is not from a legal standpoint, but for the protection of women. A male member of the family would often accompany a woman to a bus and wait for the bus with her to be sure that she got on without problem. If there were no seats available (i.e. no seat that was not next to a man), the woman would wait for the next bus before boarding.

If the woman had no male relative to accompany her, she might be in trouble. European friends told us of the time that they saw an unaccompanied woman board a bus with her 4-year old son. She sat alone, next to the window. A man then sat down beside her and proceeded to put his hand under her sari. She couldn’t defend herself and started crying, and then her young son (who also tried unsuccessfully to defend his mother) started crying. The man continued, and no one on the bus reacted. Our friend wondered why the woman started to cry suddenly and went up to talk to her, at which point he realized what was going on. Getting angry, he picked the man up by the shirt collar and yelled at him. The man got off the bus at the next stop. But the point is that no one saw a reason to react in favor of the woman. Other tourists had similar stories.

I personally had only one incident with an Indian man, which didn’t turn into anything too bad, but I’m sure it’s mostly because I started yelling at the top of my lungs. We were in a large and suffocating crowd and so I wasn’t sure exactly who it was that was trying to molest me, but I yelled at everyone around me until another older man finally pulled me to safety, remarking that the men shouldn’t treat tourists that way. Of course, the Indian women probably would have been expected to just put up with it quietly.

Other than that, it was just the men who worked at the guesthouses who tried to enter our room every time that Stephane left. It generally wasn’t a problem in the larger tourist towns or the hotels where the men were used to tourists. But in the small guesthouses along the road where we often stayed, it was a continual problem. Of course, after passing through the Middle East, I learned to lock the door the second that Stephane stepped out (even if he left for only one minute). But always, I would hear someone trying to come in. Only once did someone succeed, because I was a bit too slow and had allowed about 15 seconds to pass before getting out of bed to lock up. I yelled my head off at him, too (which startled the heck out of him – I’m sure he didn’t expect a woman to scream at him), and took the problem to the reception, turning the entire hotel upside down. Some Bombay businessmen heard me screaming and came to talk to the manager with me. They tried to explain the problem away by saying that the man was uneducated and that he thought that we had checked out (at midnight, without our bags or bikes and without paying!). It was not a convincing argument, but they had to think of something to say, rather than just admitting that the man was wrong. The manager refused to even look at me and didn’t utter a single apology for his employee. Like in Bombay, the businessmen commented to the guilty party and the hotel manager that they couldn’t behave indecently with tourists – a comment which made me wonder how they are permitted to behave with Indian women.


Even with all the discrimination against women that is so visible in India, it is true that some women have attained high posts in society. Women have become doctors, scientists, pilots, business executives, police officers, lawyers, and politicians. Legally, the Indian Constitution guarantees women complete equality with men. Many have held posts in Parliament (and at certain points, more women have held congressional posts than their female counterparts in the United States.). Indira Gandhi became one of the world’s first – and most famous – women Prime Ministers (elected four times and ruling for almost two decades).

However, government investigations reveal that large masses of women remained unaffected by the laws passed since Independence and were in many cases worse off than before Independence. There are some women’s movements that are working towards reform, however, and have had some measure of limited success. But it has been difficult to form a cohesive, united women’s movement in a country the size of India that has so many different cultures and languages.

Mahatma Gandhi did a lot for women’s rights. In fact, no man before or since has done so much for women’s rights in India. He saw them as autonomous and as an important social base for the Independence movement against the British. Largely inspired by Gandhi, they showed themselves competent in this movement.

One professional woman who now lives in the United States says that “My friends and I grew up in households where women were expected to sit in corners for four days during menstruation and keep a fast on Vatasavitri day in order to get the same husband for the next seven incarnations. Yet, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, our mothers had encouraged us to go to school and to excel in studies.” In fact, she felt more at liberty to pursue higher education than her American counterpart because she didn’t have to worry about finding a husband like American women did. The fact that she was going to have an arranged marriage freed her from dating and gave her more time to study and work.

Most of these women who did pursue higher education and engage in a professional career were women of the upper classes. They often studied either in the United States or in England and had considerable more liberty and equality with men than did their counterparts who lived in India’s villages. After their education was completed, some of them stayed abroad to live and work, while others came back to India. As in everything else, India was proving itself once again to be a land of incredible contrast.


The majority of Indian women are still held back by the overpowering forces of history, poverty, tradition, religion, and caste. Men still control the power structure, and the march of modern technology and “progress” has been a mixed blessing. Women have been displaced from traditional labor without being trained in new skills, and thus have often been forced to perform the most menial and degrading jobs. While medical advances have helped some, they have also ensured that discrimination against girls can now begin before birth. Yet, in the six decades since India’s independence, there has been a marked improvement in some women’s lives.