It is the best of times and the worst of times for females in India, given how the nation treats them, says Gita V. Pai, adding that India has a long way to go in battling its social and political structures of inequity
Six days after the 2016 Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony, a half-page advertisement in Indian newspapers featured Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the country’s only Olympic winners, both women: silver-medalist shuttler P.K. Sindhu lifts India’s flag and bronze-medalist wrestler Sakshi Malik, wearing the flag’s colours, raises her medal. The national tiranga (tricolor) of saffron, white and green swirls down the horizontal layout.
Living temporarily in my parents’ birthplace, I, too, applauded the first Indian badminton player to clinch a silver medal and the first-ever Indian wrestler. Dipa Karmakar, India’s first gymnast to qualify in the finals, also garnered admiration although she narrowly missed the bronze medal for the vault.
More than an expression of national pride, the advertisement with India’s top politician and medal-winning athletes was a push for Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana (girl child prosperity scheme) that Modi introduced last year. The Indian government-backed savings plan coaxes parents to open bank accounts for their daughters’ education and marriage expenses.
Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana falls under the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Campaign (save girls, educate girls) launched two years ago to “prevent gender-biased sex selective elimination, ensure survival and protection of thegirl child, and ensure education of the girl child”. Since BBBP began in Haryana where she was born, Malik became its ambassador after her Olympic success.
One of BBBP’s objectives is to persuade Indiansto “take pride in daughters and oppose the mentality of bojh [burden] and paraya dhan [someone else’s wealth]”. Modi’s appearance in the ad supports these aims as does his statements within it: “India will progress only when the girl child progresses” and “India’s daughters are India’s future”.
Post-Olympics, India’s prime minister commended “India’s daughters” to reinforce the importance of females. His 28th August (2016) radio address reminded the nation: “We won Rio Olympics medals. Our daughters proved themselves once again, that they are not less than anyone.” His 30th August speech at a pipeline’s inauguration reiterated: “Our daughters saved India’s face in the Rio Olympics and brought honour to us. That is the true power of our daughters.” Modi then discussed social issues plaguing India — including gender-based discrimination — and the importance of BBBP and beti khilao (let girls play), a new initiative that urges parents to support their daughters’ sports interest.
While the sportswomen’s Olympic performances became the platform for Modi to encourage Indians to think differently about women (and sports), the moniker ‘India’s daughter’ has not always evoked national pride. A promising medical student in Delhi exemplifies the nation’s nadir. Her 2012 brutal gang rape and subsequent murder on a moving bus is the subject of India’s Daughter, a 2015 British Broadcasting Company documentary I screen in my undergraduate course on South Asian women in the Midwestern University where I teach.
TV channels worldwide planned to air India’s Daughter on March 8th, 2015 to coincide with International Women’s Day. However, the Government of India banned its showing on Indian television since the convicted rapist’s unrepentant remarks are an “affront to the dignity of women” and its release would “incite violence against women” and “defame India”. British filmmaker Leslee Udwin tried unsuccessfully to get the prime minister to lift the ban.
Women’s rights activist Kavita Krishnan, who appeared in the film, criticised the film’s title and the resultant Daughters of India campaign: “Why refer to India’s girls and women as ‘daughters’?” “In India,” she explained, “we are continuously told, ‘You are the nation’s women. You are the nation’s daughters. You are the nation’s mothers.
And therefore, behave yourself because Indian women behave themselves.’ So to see this reflected unthinkingly in the [film’s title] is problematic to me.” When the star-backed global campaign to confront gender inequality and violence adopted the film’s name, she wondered: “Since India’s leaders hail Indian women as ‘India’s daughters’, why should the campaign do likewise?”
Although it was the Indian media who first connected Singh to the epithet ‘India’s daughter’ to protect her identity, Krishnan’s concern is noteworthy. When a foreign filmmaker, global feminism activist, and Indian politician label female citizens as the country’s daughters, they respect them not as people, but by their relationship with a nation-state that is itself patriarchal. Such a characterisation suggests that women are children rather than adults; it also imposes a burden on them, whether they are winning athletes or stellar students.
As Sindhu, Malik and Karmakar’s athleticism bring fame to India, the horrific death of the medical student underscores the nation’s shame, something a British director relayed in her film and India’s prime minister addressed in his speech. “Our heads hang in shame when we hear about rapes. Why can’t we prevent this?” Modi said in 2014. “When a daughter steps out, parents demand to know where she’s going. But when a son returns home, does anyone dare ask where he is coming from? Why don’t parents apply the same yardstick of good behaviour for their sons as for their daughters?”
In the month that the nation extolled its female Olympians, the Delhi High Court refused to interfere with the Indian Government’s decision to block the broadcast of India’s Daughter. India has a long way to go in battling its social and political structures of inequity. When news about an infant girl abandoned in Delhi surfaced late last year, a police official vented: “Recently when a young woman won an Olympic medal, Indians celebrated. And now we find a baby girl being dumped on the pavement to die. We are people with such double standards.”
(The writer is assistant professor of South Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, USA. This academic year, she is a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow at the French Institute of Pondicherry, India.)
January – March 2017