March 8 will mark one of the saddest Women's Days in India. A day which comes on the heels of shocking revelations of deep-seated and widespread misogyny in our society. I used to be proud of our 5000-year-old civilisation but anyone who has seen the banned BBC documentary, India's Daughter, will be disturbed to learn how essentially regressive and latently hostile our society remains towards women.
While much has been written about the abhorrent views of the rapist and his lawyers, a deeper look reveals how those views get their 'legitimacy' even today from an ancient tradition which effectively holds women responsible for a man's sexual desire. This, in fact, is the justification given by one of the rapists and the defence team - "if you put sweets out on the streets at night the dogs will come."
According to Manu, the Hindu lawgiver and sage: "A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust and is devoid of any good qualities." More, "a woman should not do anything independently, even in her own house, " says Manu.
"In childhood she should be under her father's control, in youth under her husband's and when her husband is dead, under her sons'." As Wendy Doniger writes in her book On Hinduism, also banned, "He regards women as a sexual crime about to happen,"- unless a family man guards their honour 24X7.
"No one who heard those lawyers defend the rapists could believe education leads to enlightened attitudes towards women."
Sad to say, this attitude towards women continues to buttress layers of sophistication, even in educated circles. One has only to listen to the shocking statements by the defence lawyers in the documentary to understand education has failed to change pervasive cultural attitudes. We all know highly educated, cosmopolitan men who feel superior by birth but are willing to acknowledge that women can be smart, can earn a living and be life partners - but only because they are enlightened enough to allow it. Not because we have a right to equality guaranteed by our constitution. In any case, the constitution is only six decades old whereas the 'Laws of Manu' have governed Indian society for millennia.
It's not surprising then that the Global Gender Gap Report, 2014, by the World Economic Forum, which tracks women's access to health, education, economic and political participation places India near the bottom of its global rankings - at 114 out of 142 countries - behind Liberia, Kuwait and Nepal. In fact, it notes India is one country where female participation in the workforce is actually shrinking.
We are all aware of the missing women (female foeticide), illiterate and uneducated women who continue to die in significant numbers during pregnancy and childbirth. But are we aware that we privileged women, who live in cities with good jobs, remain primarily sex objects to the average man in the street? When a Nobel Laureate is accused of sexual harassment in our workplace, when law makers in our parliament are accused of rape and molestation, when men in positions of power consider women perks of the job... it's time to ask some hard questions.
"A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust and is devoid of any good qualities."
What does it take to change entrenched negative attitudes towards women? Development? We are the world's third largest economy with the third largest number of billionaires but it hasn't trickled down into earning and opportunity parity in the workplace. Education? No one who heard those lawyers defend the rapists could believe education leads to enlightened attitudes towards women. No, it has to begin with you and me and all our friends -- how we raise boys and what they see growing up in their homes. Why blame men when we are also at fault for failing to blunt the worst of patriarchy in raising the next generation?
This Women's Day let us heal our wounds through action: agree to talk to all the women in our lives about teaching our men and boys the fundamental right to respect to women. This much at least we can start doing.