Ambassador Jutta Stefan-Bastl has seen incremental improvements in the situation of women in India but there is still dramatic disparity between legislation and practice. For centuries, deeply ingrained religious and cultural beliefs have disempowered Indian women, confronting them with a number of political and social inequalities.
„Women are not considered equal even if the constitution stipulates otherwise,” Stefan-Bastl told an audience at the Diplomatic Academy. The DA alumna served as the former Austrian Ambassador to India between 2002 and 2007.
Although the country is far from homogenous in terms of religion, Stefan-Bastl sees Hindu values as the basis for the way women are regarded across India. In the Hindu holy texts, women are portrayed as two polarities: dangerous, passionate and sexual like the goddess Kali versus benign and subordinate like Lakshmi. An incarnation as a woman is considered a bad incarnation: a punishment for misdeeds in a past life. Only men can transcend into Nirvana, the highest state of oneness with the deity. These prevailing views of women as a lesser state of being, lead to the so-called lot of “the girl child.”
After marriage, girls leave their families to live with their husbands’ families, and if they work, their income will go to their new in-laws. A bride’s family may also be expected to pay an exorbitant dowry to the husband’s family. This practice has been illegal since 1961 but is still widespread throughout India.
Illegal dowries still exist because many families want to wed daughters quickly. In rural areas, many believe that a daughter should be wed before puberty, to avoid any scandals that might bring shame to the family. Although “love marriages” are becoming more common, many families still do not approve of them. Once married, a wife’s foremost duty is to give birth to a son. “A daughter is a source of misery; a son is the savior of the family,” Stefan-Bastl said. Mother-in-law is the ultimate position a woman can attain. She and her son may dictate all aspects of her daughter-in-law’s life, including how many children she will have and when.
“A daughter is a source of misery; a son is the savior of the family,” Stefan-Bastl said. Mother-in-law is the ultimate position a woman can attain. She and her son may dictate all aspects of her daughter-in-law’s life, including how many children she will have and when.
The outcome of this belief often has extreme manifestations. An estimated 300,000 to 600,000 female fetuses are aborted every year in India, according to a study by Professor Prabhat Jha at the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada. Professor Jha adds that this research also implies that the trend of aborting female fetuses prevails in wealthy, educated families, as they can afford ultrasound procedures. Thus, in general, there is disturbing lack of distinction in the view of women held by rich and poor, educated and uneducated.
There is, however, an educated – typically higher caste – segment of the population whose outlook is slightly different. Women from these segments of society have the opportunity to receive advanced levels of education, have successful careers and hold government offices. India even had a female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
So does this mean India’s long-held patriarchal views are changing and emancipation of women is on the rise? Stefan-Bastl says only to a small extent. She notes that even for these emancipated women, “marriage is still the priority” and that safety is a significant concern for all women. “Society as a whole does not allow women to walk around by themselves at night.”
A 2011 expert poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the world’s fourth most dangerous country for a woman, ranking behind Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan. Women who have been abused or raped often find themselves unable to seek legal recourse.
Despite the bleak figures, many within society – from private citizens to government officials – are fighting back. The Modi administration has taken on the cause, cracking down harder on dowries, passing stricter laws against child brides and promoting education for girls, among other strategies. Women’s advocacy groups, with male supporters as well, are also a relatively new phenomenon.
Still, most of the government initiatives to improve the status of women are poorly implemented, if at all. Until India can overthrow patriarchal interpretations of the country’s religious beliefs and successfully execute tangible policy changes, women will continued to be considered an investment with no returns.