Feminism in India: Part 1

The last time I visited India was in December 2012 during my college winter break. My parents and I were passing through Delhi about two days after the Nirbhaya gang rape. The incident was horrifying to hear about and the city was drowning in sorrow for Nirbhaya. The streets were overwhelmed with protesters and the media had convened at India Gate where the majority of protests were taking place. I was around the same age as Nirbhaya and had a stunning realization of the similarities I shared with the victim as I read the headlines. We were both biology students, had male friends, and relied on the bus or walking to get home in the evening. Just that semester back at Ohio State, I’d been roaming around Columbus at the end of finals week, spending late nights out with friends, being a young person taking a break as Nirbhaya had been.

2012 Nirbhaya Protest at Delhi Gate. (Photo Credits: Subha)

There were a lot of conversation in my family and friends about the crime that month, older generations questioned why she had been out that late. “What was she wearing? What time was she out? Who would take the bus at that time?” They were simplistic questions which seemed grossly out of place compared to the details of the crime. The younger female members expressed anger that despite all the measures they take to avoid or discourage the “male gaze,” these crimes are still happening. The younger men seemed to have no words, besides condemning the inexplicable crime while also pointing how this crime bad this is making every Indian man look. Their reactions were a microcosm representing the flurry of emotions the crime had evoked across India. Amidst these varying opinions and dialogues, I struggled to understand how the crime affect the country as an Indian whom grown up abroad with little sense of the challenges of women living in India.  I wonder if at all it was possible for me to understand what life was like for Delhi and Indian women.

Growing up, it was imparted to me that a woman’s actions was tied to the honor of the family. Everything was a mirror, a reflection of the values important to my family. I love my family, so even without this perspective, I probably would have tried hard to be someone they could be proud of. However, looking back, I may have given up more independence than I should have, such as how I dressed, my choice of study, whom I interacted with, and which parts of my religion I chose to observe. India is a very communal society, with the belief that your choices should make things easier to do for the family and broader community that you belong to. It doesn’t leave you much time to think about what you want nor easy to pursue something doesn’t necessarily directly mirror your community’s expectation. It also makes it easy to buy into unhealthy long ingrained stereotypes such as menstrual taboo.

This introspection about my upbringing helped me understand some of the marginalization or gender specific treatment that women in India encountered. However, living in India and experiencing blatant gender discrimination, such as the mild examples of being ignored by the all-male staff at the post office while three men cut me in line, reconciled the remaining gaps in understanding what it is like to be a woman in India. I felt more self-conscious about what I wore, whom I looked in the eye, and when and how I traveled more than I ever had before.

But India is trying, it is trying very hard in fact, to make itself safer and more equal for women. India, at least to the outsider, however doesn’t always appear have the best reputation when it comes to understanding women’s rights. It took me living here to really understand the length to which India is going to create opportunities and appreciate what is happening here from an insider’s perspective. Had I not been in India at that time of the Nirbhaya incident, perhaps I would not have felt that as equally as many Indian women felt harassed, there was a powerful movement against such violent sexism. That these crimes were occurring in spite of India’s resistance, not because of its leniency. A lot has changed in the six years since I visited. Sameera Khan of the Hindu writes, “India’s rape law expanded the definition of rape beyond peno-vaginal intercourse. Voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks are now punishable crimes. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 makes it easier for survivors to seek medical help and justice.” (1) Furthermore, the media calls out sexism and “slut-shaming,” a credit perhaps due to the proliferation of social media and alternative news sources.

While I witnessed an urgency in the equality for women in India, my American female friends reported an equally powerful women’s right movement going on in America. It was interesting to see how the movements paralleled each other. Everything from the media, to family dynamics, to academic and governmental institutions were feeling the wave of women questioning traditional norms and behaviors regarding gender.  There was much discussion in India of the US-based #MeToo movements and how it was encouraging women in India to speak out. Actresses in the Indian film industry spoke out against casting couches and sexual harassment on the set. (2) In academia, female college students protested unwanted advances from male faculty members. (3)

Although the women’s rights movement seems to have been revitalized as of late, these protests asking for women’s equality are stemming from India’s long surviving roots in feminism.


  1. Khan, Sameera. “Five years after Nirbhaya what has changed for women in public places.” The Hindu, 19 Dec 2017. Web. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/society/five-years-after-nirbhaya/article21933310.ece [Accessed 13 Jul. 2018].
  2. PTI. “Bollywood actors voice concern about sexual harassment in Indian film industry.” The Hindu, 24 Apr 2018. Web. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/bollywood-actors-speak-out-on-metoo/article23661913.ece [Accessed 13 Jul. 2018].
  3. Cassin, Elizabeth, and Ritu Prasad. “Student’s ‘sexual predator’ list names professors.” BBC News, 6 Nov 2017. Web.  Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-41862615 [Accessed 13 Jul. 2018].

A recent Emory University graduate interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation, Subha would like to eventually work for an NGO. By serving with Shaishav as an AIF Clinton Fellow, she hopes learn more about their world class philosophy for children's empowerment. Prior to joining AIF, Subha interned at the American Association for People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., and the Global Village Project in Atlanta, Georgia, as a development and policy intern.

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